Plotting a Thriller


I’ve had the idea for a psychological thriller for almost a year now. The minute I finished my latest novel (on my editor’s desk as I type this) I started planning the new one. I quickly realized there would be a LOT more research than usual. I had a new genre, a new setting, a new profession, which has since turned into several new professions. I almost said “maybe not.”

But my critique group meets next week, and a month ago I’d promised them a first chapter of the new book. I’d already done quite a bit of research on the setting and I knew the character since I’d written about her in two previous novels. Also, I had read How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey when I wrote Sweet Melissa, so I knew some stuff. Enough for a first chapter.


I had also done “research” of a sort when I attended Sleuthfest in Miami last month. I picked up a few books, read a couple of them, skimmed the reference text I knew I’d wear out before the WIP is finished. I’d attended workshops and even had an enlightening talk with an editor who gave me some names of agents who might be interested in the type of story I was planning to write.

Sometimes writing gets interrupted by social media. Occupational hazard. I “somehow” saw a post by Tim Baker yesterday, a writer I follow on Twitter.

Tim’s guest post had the word “research” in the heading. Because I finished my first chapter and realized I had a lot more research to do, I clicked the link. And learned a lot. Inspired, I got out James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Thriller and started taking notes. It turns out that a thriller does not have to be a mystery! It ONLY has to be “nonstop action, plot twists that surprise and excite, settings both exotic and vibrant, and an intense pace that never lets up until the adrenaline-packed climax.”

I sort of knew I wanted to write an action packed page turner. I wanted to challenge myself to write at that intense pace. I have the exotic and vibrant setting (just hope I can bring it to life). I didn’t know I’d need a high concept that can be contained in one sentence, not more than thirteen words. So I thought about all that and got some ideas. I actually wrote my high concept sentence! And then outlined a few of the twists coming up.

I found out that some high concepts are cliches. Like 9/11 terrorist stories. Oh. That was one of my first ideas…because of my setting. But I had another idea, so I went with it. James N. Frey says the goal of a mystery is to catch a killer, but the goal of a thriller is to stop evil. Makes sense; the page-turning thing would be easier to execute if the stakes are higher than just “catch a killer.”

So thanks for giving me some timely reminders to do my research, Tim, as it is already paying off. And thanks to Sonya for hosting Tim on her blog. It takes a village (of authors) to write a book.

Mystery in the Middle

Am learning a LOT about plotting a mystery from Frey, which is good since Act Two is all about the mystery. Here’s a real simple thing that I would not have thought of myself until it was too late: write out the story of the murder. Not in scenes that will go in the book (not yet) but as a synopsis. This will be the same path of clues the detective follows. I could not have known what my detective would do next until I knew in minute detail what the murderer had done, why and how and when. Once I got that all written out, I saw exactly how my detective had to act to uncover the crime, step by step.

So simple, but it didn’t occur to me. There’s a ton more; this book was really worth the money. For example, there are tried and true heroic traits for the detective (mine is a cop on vacation). The good guy needs courage, needs to have a special talent, be good at their job, clever and resourceful, wounded, an outlaw, and self-sacrificing.

A fun fact Frey throws in is that the guy can be messed up in other areas as long as he (or she) has these heroic traits. He points out that Sherlock Holmes was a junkie and Columbo was a slob. Sam Spade sent the woman he loved to jail. (She was a murderer…but still!) He also points out that most of these guys are loners, without lovers or friends or successful relationships.

A final nugget, one Frey picked up from Elizabeth George: about halfway through the book, George sits down and writes out every single conclusion the reader has probably come to so far in the story. What the reader expects to happen next. And then she makes sure to subvert at least two out of three of these expectations. As a reader (and a former reviewer of mysteries) I know how important it is to have the element of surprise in a mystery. Who wants to read a whodunit already knowing all the answers?

My Mentor Has Arrived

Already started the book, and I know it will be good, already got three pages of ideas, but no time to finish it today, mainly because I spent all day yesterday reading a book for review. Just finished drafting the review and now I have to get to my talk for the library tonight. Will post more about Frey’s advice tomorrow, but one thing I’ve noticed, and I only read the first chapter, is that he’s funny, as in “You might call the no-plan approach the let’s-make-several-drafts method.”