I just finished up the first draft of my fourth full length Max Strong thriller. A first draft is a long way from done. I’ll spend the next month, at least, editing and refining but a first draft is a good time to see if the bones of the story are working. Will it meet reader’s expectations for the genre? If those aren’t in place now, it’s hard to add them later. So what are the most important elements or characteristics of a modern commercial thriller?
These are the 8 plot elements that I make sure are in each of my novels. These are what I would expect as a reader (there are of course exceptions to every rule) when I cracked the spine on a thriller. If they are missing…the reader will notice. They might not know why but they will feel disappointed or let down by the book. Writer, omit these at your own peril!
The essential plot elements of a thriller are:
The element of suspense: Writing suspense is a matter of controlling information—how much you reveal, and when and how you reveal it. While every thriller novel will have a central, overarching story line that seeks to answer a sole dramatic question, that question is built on smaller moments that carry the reader through and sustain their interest along the way.
A heroic protagonist
First off, this is the main character the reader is rooting for. This is the person willing to sacrifice themselves for others. Despite the term “hero,” they don’t have to be a perfect. It’s often better if they are more human and their strengths and traits emerge through the action from the obstacles they encounter.
Not required but often helps as a foil to the hero. This secondary character can help the reader understand and better frame the hero’s strengths and motivations. They often provide an alternative skill set to the hero. They are also good for comic relief or adding another viewpoint.
The defining force that pushes the hero/protagonist into action. The villain’s motivations should eventually make it personal for the hero. They should provide a realistic but almost overwhelming threat to the hero. They’re usually introduced through an inciting incident that clearly demonstrates that they’re malicious/crazy/evil etc but they should still retain some level of humanity. They shouldn’t be a cartoon. They need their own motivations and morality guiding their actions.
Play fair with the reader, but you do want to keep them on their toes with clues and red herrings. Unexpected plot twists can help re-energize the narrative momentum in the story.
There must be clues or MacGuffins in the story for the protagonist to pursue and investigate. They might not all end up being useful in his fight with the antagonist, some can be used to misdirect or reveal other traits of the characters.
Stop the action during a climactic event and leave the reader guessing (and turning the pages!)
An inevitable but exciting climax
The hero must eventually take on the villain. Those are the rules. This is the scene where everything collides. No more secrets, nothing else standing in the way of the two primary actors. The climax also includes two smaller scenes that exist in most thrillers: the hero at the mercy of the villain and the villain’s speech.
A false ending
Ok, so maybe there was one or two more secrets. The villain is never dead the first time. Or, there is another shoe to drop. The hero has vanquished the main villain but there is something else that arises just when you think the story is done.
There are of course other parts and pieces that can be used, such as a ticking clock and action set pieces, but if you miss any of these 8 characteristics your thriller may feel incomplete or unsatisfying to the reader.