TEN ELEMENTS OF A CRACKING THRILLER

This post first appeared at the That Book You Like blog. Having just finished Avenger, it spoke to me in more ways than one, so I thought to share it here.


The act of writing stories can be less than glamorous – it’s more endless cups of tea and crumbs piling up on the keyboard in a darkened room (aka my writing mancave) than back-to-back launches and book signings with pen poised and a glass of red by my side. 

Those days when I am holed up in the mancave, churning out chapters of the latest Alex Morgan espionage adventure as fast as my clumsy two-finger typing skills can manage, I’m not consciously thinking about what makes a cracking thriller. It’s creating my own mix of preferred reading and viewing tastes, past experiences, a reasonable dash of instinct, and an intense need to extract the story from my head and get it onto the page. Then, of course everything is honed during the editing process with my publisher.

Once the books are put out into the world, there does seem – on reflection – to be some shared elements I recognise between my work and those of the other thriller writers I have grown up enjoying.

So, here’s ten elements of a cracking thriller that are important to me when crafting or getting into a new action & adventure yarn. I wonder if you enjoy these or different tactics when you’re getting into a story?

1. A plot that keeps you guessing
The plot has to keep you going at a micro and macro level. I like to write and read stories that keep the narrative moving ahead quickly. Before you know it, you’re well and truly committed to the story because the author has you hooked from the outset.

2. Action that compels you to keep reading
You’ve got to need to keep the pages turning. When I hear that someone has missed their train stop or their bus because too busy reading what Alex Morgan is up to, then my job is done. I love to read books that can achieve that for me, too! The idea is to keep the forward movement of the action as relentless as possible. The reader should be almost out of breath at the end of a major action sequence.

3. Characters that you care about
This is something that I am exploring as I immerse myself into the Alex Morgan series. I’d like to let my readers know more about Morgan and other principle characters. There are many writers who are great at this in the action/adventure arena – including my favourites – Fleming, Conan Doyle, Maclean, Higgins, Cussler. Of course, including a little beguiling love interest in each story doesn’t harm the reading experience either.

4. Enough realism to make you wonder, enough escapism to help you forget  
I like stories that make you think, ‘maybe this has really happened’.  For instance, when I created the fictional agency Intrepid, I wanted to give it a sense of real world gravitas but setting it within Interpol, while adding the connection to other major international agencies such as the UN Security Council. In truth the two are not connected but it’s not a stretch to believe that they are, and it also adds a sense of scale to the grand narrative I’m constructing across the series.

5. Enjoyable the second time around
The proof is in the pudding when it comes to great books. You know, the ones that are your favourites because you keep going back to re-read them time and again? I have my favourite stories that I return to and in years to come, I hope to provide that experience for my own readers. Ideally, the aim is to have people enjoy it enough to put a copy on their bookshelf – which is an achievement in an age of eReaders.

6. Classic but contemporary
In my view, the more that an action writer can make something that’s been made a thousand times over seem new and fresh, then the closer you are to achieving that balance between classic and contemporary. Provide the reader with a familiar setting but give them completely new characters and stories to enjoy.

7. Not so much about mass carnage
One thing I’m learning – and it’s a significant lesson – is that readers need more from their characters than their plots. Movies can easily deal with carnage and death on a mass scale, but finding innovative ways for both protagonist and antagonist to outwit each other on the page – in the classic good vs evil struggle – is a complex process. Readers need to be stimulated to be engaged, otherwise they’ll just skipping over the pages until they find a bit that draws them back in. And, if that takes too long, you’ll lose them.

8. An ass-kicking pace
You’ve probably guessed by now, I love action stories. I grew up on them, I’ve read hundreds of them and now I write them. To me, the ultimate adventure is fast paced and furious from beginning to end, but that doesn’t have to just be about the action. The narrative overall must be the literary equivalent pushing a large boulder over the crest of a steep hill. Nothing is going to stop it as it gathers speed and momentum every inch of the way until it comes crashing to a stop at the base of the hill, leaving nothing but anticipation of more to come.

9. The power to take you places
As a boy my favourite writers transported me from Rossmoyne, our sleepy little corner of Perth, and with the flick of a page landed me on foreign shores in the midst of incredible adventures. I’ve always loved that about books because our imagination drives our experience of the story. It’s up to the author to provide you with the prompts and triggers to enhance that experience.

10. Flawed characters
We can’t all be perfect, and especially not our heroes. There needs to be some level of mystery and uncertainty about our protagonist. We expect the villains to be flawed but writers can focus too much on the baddies while keeping the hero on a pedestal.  I’ve become conscious of this as a writer. Heroes must be at their core, human beings and their lives, attitudes and actions need depth and context. If I can be as objective as possible, sometimes Alex Morgan is so firmly established in my mind’s eye, I have a tendency to allow the baddies live more on the page.