TTo celebrate the imminent release of Neil Lancaster’s debut crime thriller, Going Dark, we thought we’d share our top 7 tips on how to write a great crime thriller.
The crime thriller genre is complex and we’re clearly not going to do full justice to it in one single blog post. There are some great books out there that provide even more detail on story and structure (which apply to all genres, not just crime thrillers)—we’ll give you the details of some of these at the end of this article.
We love crime thrillers and the way the protagonist battles through conflict after conflict to reach their goal. But it’s worth pointing out that, whilst all books in this genre include external conflict for the hero, the ones that absolutely rise above the rest are those where conflict also comes from something internal. Think of the truly great protagonists in this genre: Reacher, Rebus, Laidlaw and others. What they all possess is inner conflict, which is every bit as compelling as their external struggles.
Our advice: pay as much attention to the psychological backdrop as the physical one…
But enough of this chin-stroking… here are Burning Chair’s top tips for writing a knock-out crime thriller:
1.Pick an archetypal hero
The vast majority of heroes in the crime thriller genre are either victims of mistaken identity thrust into a world they don’t understand; or (as in Going Dark) a current (or ex-) military / police / government agent who has faced a series of hardships and has unresolved past issues. The plot forces them to leave the relative safety of a life that they do not find satisfying. Readers will expect these tropes, so if you do go for something different then be aware that you’ll need to bring your readers with you on this departure from the norm.
2. Make sure your villain fits the genre
Readers expect crime thriller villains to typically be one of the following: Billionaire Businessman; High-Ranking Government Official (including Police and Military); Femme Fatale; Double Agent; or, interestingly, a mix of many of these.
A key part of your villain’s character is that they cannot be reasoned with: they must be intent on annihilation, devastation, or power at the expense of others. This is a major trope for this genre and readers will be disappointed if the antagonist doesn’t seem determined to pursue their evil agenda.
3. Consider including a conspiracy plot
Crime thriller readers love a good conspiracy. Consider opening your narrative with either a minor meaningless crime or a high-profile murder, then rapidly shift into something much bigger than the protagonist originally thought, with multiple layers involving possibly everyone they’ve ever known. There’s a simple reason for this plot device – it prevents your hero from rapidly resolving the threat by contacting the police, press or some other simple (i.e. unsatisfying) solution. The conspiracy can be intellectual, political, economical, religious, ethnic or even alien.
4. Give your hero brains as well as brawn
Make sure your plot prevents the protagonist from relying solely on physical strength or gadgets alone, allowing them to demonstrate their intellect. This is a genre where readers like their heroes to be at least as smart as they are.
Plot points where the hero’s strategy is only revealed to the reader at the last moment are extremely popular. There are also some great examples of the protagonist underplaying his intellect to fool the villain into thinking he is less capable than he is (such as one of our all-time favourite TV detectives: Peter Falk’s Columbo).
5. Include both a PONR (Point Of No Return) and AILM (All Is Lost Moment)
Want to make your thriller great, not just good? Then there should be a clear ‘Point of No Return’, which is the moment when the hero realises that he or she can never go back to the life they had at the beginning of the story. This ramps up the tension and adds significant weight to the overall narrative.
There should also be an ‘All Is Lost Moment’ where the hero loses everything he values and the villain looks unbeatable. If it fits into your narrative and is done well it can truly effective. To make your story really impactful you want your reader to question whether the weakened hero is actually capable of rising up to face (and hopefully defeat) the villain—or will they fail.
6. Add a series of skirmishes between hero and villain
Great crime thrillers include a series of skirmishes between hero and villain—either directly or indirectly. Critical elements to include are: that the protagonist’s initial strategy to outmanoeuvre his enemy fails; that the protagonist discovers his enemy’s external ‘object of desire’; or that the hero becomes the victim, with the antagonist making his crimes personal to the protagonist (killing or injuring a loved one, for example). All of this adds depth, complexity and tension to the plot.
7. Include a ticking clock
Your story must include a time limit for the protagonist to act, clearly showing that, if the protagonist doesn’t conquer the antagonist by a set point in time, the antagonist will just get what they want by default. This ‘ticking clock’ defines the limits of the story and whether the protagonist will succeed or fail. It gives your story a driving force, something to keep the reader engaged and wanting to read on, and on. Without it, the reader is left wondering why the protagonist doesn’t just take their time to outsmart the villain.
Remember, these 7 tips are just a guide. They are what readers expect, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t deviate from them—many great novels take a genre and bend elements of it to create something new. However, you should do so consciously and with an understanding that the reader may need support in shifting away from the tropes they were expecting.
We promised at the start of this blog that we would include some useful books on thriller writing – here are some of our favourites:
Stephen King’s: ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’
Christopher Vogler’s: ‘The Writer’s Journey’
Scarlett Thomas’: ‘Monkeys with Typewriters: How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories’
Robert Mckee’s ‘Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting’
We hope that these 7 tips help—and if you have a crime thriller that you think is ready for submission then pop on over to the Burning Chair submissions page for details of how to get it to us.
Burning Chair team
Photo by Rene Böhmer on Unsplash
Going Dark, by Neil Lancaster
Published 17 April 2019 by Burning Chair Publishing
When everything and everyone—friend and foe—is working against you, where will you turn?
Tom Novak is a troubled soul with a dark and bloody past.
A former refugee, Royal Marine, and member of the elite Special Reconnaissance Regiment, he now finds himself struggling with the deadening routine of day-to-day policing.
When he is deployed undercover to infiltrate a gang of people-traffickers, things go badly wrong. Faced with an impossible choice, his cover is blown and he finds himself on the run from the Serbian mafia and even his fellow police colleagues.
With no-one to trust, and his enemies using all the resources of the state against him, Tom has only one option: to Go Dark.
Who are the police traitors feeding the Serbian mafia his every move? Is there anyone he can trust? Can Tom prove his innocence before it’s too late?
Going Dark is the debut crime thriller from former covert specialist Detective Sergeant Neil Lancaster, and the first in the Tom Novak series. If you enjoy gritty suspense, thrilling action and flawed heroes battling against the odds, then you’ll love Going Dark.