Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Tip O'Day #440 - What Makes a Thriller?

Guest blogger Gary Williams on “Pacing.”

We’ve all heard the real estate adage when buying property. The three most important things are location, location, location. Well, when you embark on writing a thriller, there’s a similarity. The three most important traits of a successful thriller are pacing, pacing, pacing.

Aside from an interesting story, good writing and meticulously editing, a successful thriller must launch the reader on a path. It’s a slow progression in three acts. Act one sets the story up by building the character, settings and mysteries. Act two is where the protagonist and antagonist begin to feel each other out, and small battles are won and lost. Act three ratchets up the tension. The stakes have been clearly defined. The protagonists are usually in dire situations and the antagonists appear to have the upper hand. It all builds to a staggeringly swift pace as the two sides clash in a pulse-pounding finale that usually involves life and death.

So you think I’ve over simplified it? Maybe, but think of any great thriller you’ve ever read. Either the story started slow and turned on the jets, or kicked off with a bang and never let up. Either way, when you got to those last 100 pages, you couldn’t stop reading. You were so entrenched in the characters and learning their fates that you couldn’t put the book down. Laundry, yard work, school homework, walking the dog, and everything else became secondary until the final resolution was revealed. And it’s all because the pace of the story sucked you in, refusing to let up.

As a writer, what are things you can do to ensure your thriller is paced properly?

Limit scenery descriptions

I’ve read thrillers that were exceptionally well-written, the prose glistening off the page. Yet the story was marred, bogged down in scenery details or a character’s rambling thoughts to such an extent that it not only interrupted story-flow, it brought it to a grinding, teeth-rattling halt. A thriller is not the time to get flowery with your descriptions. Describe what’s important to the story, and move on. Extensive scenery descriptions should only be done if it’s vital to the storyline, if something about the scene will come into play later, or if you plan to have an action scene occur there later in the story.

Let me expound on this last point. Action sequences, especially late in the story when the pace should be amped up, are not the times to elaborate on scenery details. It bogs down the frenetic pace. You can get around this is by describing the location earlier in the story, if possible. Then, when the action heats up at the end, the setting has already been presented to the reader. All that’s necessary is brief setting reminders. Of course, sometimes this isn’t possible. The crescendo chapter might be the first time a location is visited in the story. In this case, describe it briefly. Remember, action (and pacing) is paramount. Don’t lose the reader because you were more interested in writing about the specific art work that adorns the walls at the Elizabethan home, instead of focusing on the antagonist tied up in the chair in the parlor with a ticking time bomb.

Limit Character thoughts

As writers we always want readers to relate to characters. This is accomplished primarily by displaying character actions and allowing readers to hear their inner thoughts. Caution must be taken as to the extent a writer allows the reader inside a character’s mind. Again, early on in the story is a good time to expose his/her thoughts and provide insight into their personal history. But once you reach the last third of the novel, keep the character’s musings in check. (Unless, of course it’s a delusional character and his thoughts are germane to the storyline!)


Thrillers sometimes have a heavy element of sex. If it’s necessary to the story, that’s fine. Yet gratuitous sex can be overkill. If the theme of the story is sexual in nature, then by all means, describe it how you see fit. But the same rules apply as mentioned with scenery details. Unless it’s critical to something in the story or shows a character trait, readers don’t need graphic details.

Self edit until it hurts

Writers write. It’s what we do. Yet we have to recognize when text is superfluous. Some of my best descriptive work never made it into print because it simply wasn’t necessary and caused the story to drag. It’s very important to ensure all scenes are core to the story. Although not a book, as an example, I own the Director’s Cut version of the 80’s action movie Lethal Weapon. It contains deleted scenes that never made it to the theatrical release. One such scene early in the movie shows Mel Gibson’s character, Riggs, dealing with a crazed gunman who is holding a classroom full of school children hostage. The intent was to display Riggs' suicidal nature. The scene itself takes several minutes and, ultimately, was cut because Riggs’ suicidal obsession was best presented while he was in the presence of his new partner Murtaugh, and not in a stand-alone scene that had no bearing on the rest of the story. In this same fashion, writers must truly evaluate scenes that can be edited from the story to help the pacing. Remember, thrillers are typically shorter in length that other genres. It’s not about word count. It’s about gripping the reader and keeping them craving more.

A thriller combines stellar writing with whirlwind pacing. This pacing should grow rabid by the time the reader reaches the last third of the book. That is not the time to gum up the works with unnecessary descriptions.

Gary Williams writes with Vicky Knerly. They have co-written four thrillers, including Indisputable Proof, named as one of the top fiction books of 2012 by Rosa St. Claire of the Miami Examiner. Their latest thriller, Manipulation, was released just last month.

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