Five thriller-writing tips from Linwood Barclay

Posted on 10th September 2015 by Linwood Barclay
Acclaimed thriller writer Linwood Barclay, author of the newly-published Broken Promise, on how to write your own suspense-filled masterpiece

So you’ve read the latest Reacher novel, watched your Blu-ray set of the Bourne movies for the fifteenth time, and you’ve decided you want to write a thriller of your own.

Here are my five tips, beyond getting a computer, a comfy chair, a cup of coffee or a pot of tea, a notepad and a pen.


1. You need a really great hook

This may be the only rule that truly matters. If you don’t have a great premise for your thriller, a terrific way to grab the reader’s attention in the first couple of pages, then you’ve got a problem. The so-called “elevator pitch” has become something of a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid test of your story. You are on an elevator with a publisher. She’s getting off at the fourth floor. No one is getting off at one, two, or three. That’s how much time you have to get her hooked on your story. “Shark terrorizes beach,” you tell her. Okay, it’s been done, but you get the idea.

If you haven’t got tip number one nailed, you can stop right here.


2. Let your hero do the heavy lifting, and drive the story

Two things that drive me crazy in crime fiction are a) the detective knows a guy who’s a computer expert and can get all the information he needs and b) big things that happen off-screen – or off-page – that are simply related to the hero. I want the protagonist there. I want him to do a lot of the legwork, and I want him to be there when the big things happen.


3. Don’t do what’s already been done

You liked Gone Girl, and have thought of a thriller very similar to it. Or you’ve got a novel idea that’s just like The Girl on the Train. It’s not very novel, then, is it? No wait, you’ve thought of a terrific new zombie story, or Fifty Shades of Purple. Well, maybe. But the fact is, whatever’s hot right now probably won’t be by the time your story is written, sold, edited, and shipped to bookstores. Try to get ahead of the curve, not chase after it.


4. Figure your story out

I admit, every author is different in this regard. Some just start writing and see where the story takes them. Others have every chapter planned out before they begin. My approach falls somewhere in the middle. I want to know the big picture, where I’m going to end up. I may make changes on the way and discover opportunities in the novel I didn’t know were there before I began. But I have an endpoint in mind. Contractors don’t start a house without blueprints. Engineers don’t build a bridge without knowing first whether it will keep the train from falling into the river.


5. Put your ass in the chair

Books don’t get written by talking about them. They get written by sitting in front of the computer for five to eight hours a day for six to twelve months of the year. 


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