Written by Luana Ehrlich
When I wrote my first thriller, One Night in Tehran, I did so for the sheer enjoyment of writing a good story, of creating something out of nothing. I had a question, and I wrote a story to answer that question. After hearing about the persecutions of Christians in Iran, I wondered what would happen if a CIA intelligence officer encountered some of these believers. What would happen if he became a believer himself? How would his faith affect his career in the CIA or his relationships with fellow operatives? How would it affect the way he dealt with an assassin or a terrorist?
I never imagined when I opened up my laptop and wrote the first sentence of that thriller that I was embarking on a writing career, nor did I realize all the lessons I’d learn along the way.
I’m in the beginning stages of writing the fourth book in this particular series of five novels—all beginning with numbers and ending in a city—and since writing the first one, I’ve learned a lot about the process of writing, the discipline of writing, and the method of writing.
However, my most useful lesson has come from what not to write when writing a thriller.
Here are my five favorite don’ts for writing a thriller:
- Don’t forget to have a little fun with your characters. Sure, your thriller is probably about a very serious topic—the world is about to be destroyed, the President has been kidnapped, there’s been an EMP strike—but even in disasters, characters tend to joke around and humorous situations pop up. Create at least one character for a little comic relief, write in a scene where people are enjoying themselves or have one of your characters tell a joke. Your reader will appreciate the break from all that tension.
- Don’t make your protagonist perfect. While authors want their readers to fall in love with their main character, creating a perfect hero isn’t the best way to go about doing that. All human beings are flawed in some way, and your readers know that. Your protagonist’s failures and foibles will make for a more appealing character, someone they can identify with.
- Don’t load up your book with all your research. A good thriller usually has elements in it that aren’t familiar to the reader. After all, very few people know how sarin gas is produced or how terrorists cells communicate with each other. But, at the same time, the average reader doesn’t want more than a paragraph or two explaining either of those things. As a writer, you should do all the research necessary to sound like an expert on any topic in your novel, but very few readers care about all those facts you learned, no matter how interesting you thought they were.
- Don’t get bogged down in too many subplots. The best thrillers are those whose main focus is one central task—saving Manhattan from a suitcase bomb, preventing an assassination, discovering the CIA mole. At the same time, readers enjoy red herrings, relationship problems, family difficulties, career angst or a dozen other subplots. Make sure that isn’t the number of subplots you include, though. One or two should be sufficient. More than that, and the reader may start plotting against you.
- Don’t use the last chapter to tie up all the loose ends in your plot. Readers want closure. They want to know what happened to the gun, to the vial, to the knife, but finding out in the last sentence of the book gives the reader the impression he’s being rushed out the door without being offered the chance to say goodbye. Thrillers have a definite arc to the storyline—heading up to a peak and then the descent—but descending too quickly could leave your reader feeling dizzy.