Guest Post: Jodie Renner “20 Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller”

If you want your thriller or other suspense fiction to be a compelling page-turner that sells, make sure you’ve included most or all of these elements:

A protagonist that readers can identify with and root for. Make your hero charismatic, sympathetic, clever, resourceful, fit, and determined to fight injustice, despite inner conflict, flaws, and baggage. He might not start out brave or even super likeable, but the challenges he faces bring out courage, resources and inner strength and honor/values he didn’t know he had.

A worthy adversary for the protagonist. Your antagonist/villain should be as clever, strong, resourceful and determined as your protagonist, but also nasty, immoral and frightening.

An interesting setting. Readers like to find out about places they haven’t seen, whether it’s the seedy side of Chicago, glitzy Hollywood, rural Kentucky, the mountains of Colorado, or the bayous of Louisiana — or more distant, exotic locations. And make use of the unique qualities and challenges of your chosen setting, as Lee Child does, whether it’s endless, lonely prairie or the subway systems of New York.

A compelling opening. Don’t rev your engines with a lengthy description of the setting or a lot of background on the character’s life. Jump right in with your protagonist in a tension-filled scene with someone important in his world.

An inciting incident. What happens to the main character to set the story events in action? Make it tense and compelling, and something she can’t ignore.

A great plot, with ongoing conflict and tension. You need a big story question/problem that matters, and every scene should contain tension and conflict of some kind. If it doesn’t, revise it or delete it.

Lots of suspense and intrigue. Keep the readers on the edge of their seats, turning the pages to find out what’s going to happen next. Give little hints of dangers to come or dark secrets that could explode and threaten the lives of many.

Multiple viewpoints. Narrating the story from a few different points of view, including that of the villain, will add interest, complexity and suspense to your novel. But don’t head-hop within a scene! Wait for a new scene or chapter to change viewpoints. Deep point of view (close third) is the most intimate and compelling. See my 3-part series on DP Lyle’s blog: POV 101, POV 102, and POV 103.

A tight, generally fast-paced writing style. Streamline your writing to improve flow and pacing. Go through and take out all unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs, and any repetitive phrases, events or ideas. Thrillers are not the genre to wax eloquent or show off your erudition. Make every word count.

Internal struggling of the protagonist, and psychological growth. Give her a moral dilemma; show his inner conflict. Make them complex and fascinating; never perfect, complacent, or overly confident. Give them a character arc — by the end, adversity has made him or her stronger, braver, wiser, a better person.

Plenty of emotional and sensory reactions. Bring your characters to life by showing their fear, panic, pain, worry, anger, determination, courage, hopes, satisfaction, relief, joy, excitement, elation, and other emotions. Also, put the reader right there in the scene by evoking all five senses wherever possible. Show what the character is hearing, smelling, feeling, touching, and even tasting, not only what they’re seeing.

Increasing danger. Keep raising the stakes and putting your hero in deeper and deeper trouble, to stretch his courage, determination, physical abilities, and inner resources to the maximum — and increase the reader’s admiration and emotional investment in him!

A ticking clock. Your hero is racing against time to defeat the villain before innocents are killed. Adding ever-increasing time constraints increases the tension and suspense.

Troubles that hit home. Endanger the protagonist or someone close to her, to add a personal dimension and more stress to the threats and conflicts.

Critical turning points. Present your hero with life-or-death decisions and show his anxiety, tension, and indecision. This increases the tension and nail-biting factor for readers.

Obstacles in the way. Your heroine runs out of gas on a lonely road; your hero’s weapon falls into the river far below; he is wounded and can’t run; her cell phone battery is dead; whatever can go wrong does, and more.

Twists and surprises. Write in a few unexpected plot twists, but make sure that, in retrospect, they make sense to the readers.

Enough clues. Be fair. Use foreshadowing, and layer in clues and info as you go along, to slowly reveal the plot points and character backstory and motivation to the reader.

A compelling climax.Put the protagonist at a disadvantage in the final conflict with the antagonist, to heighten the stakes. Pile on the adversity the hero has to overcome at the end.

A satisfying ending. Leave the unhappy or unresolved endings for literary fiction. Provide reader satisfaction and a sense of defeating evil and righting wrongs by letting the good guy overcome the bad guy  — by a hair — and save innocent lives.

Thriller writers and readers — do you have any other elements or techniques to add that would enhance a thriller or other suspense fiction?

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.


One Comment

  1. Jodie Renner wrote:

    It’s a pleasure to join you all here at Killer Thrillers today!

    Thanks, Karen, for posting my tips on writing a bestselling thriller!

    - Jodie Renner, editor & author