Here’s a handful of quick-and-dirty pointers I’ve learned along the way writing thrillers and action-adventure stories...
1. Open Strong
I’m a firm believer in shedding a little blood and gunning the engine in the opening phase of a thriller. Think of the start of the book as a microcosm of the story to come, like the overture at an opera. You’re setting the tempo for the readership, giving them the first inkling of what the rest of the book will be like. This doesn’t automatically mean you need to begin with a smack in the face (metaphorically speaking!), you can just as easily start with a small, intimate moment – but however you get off the blocks, it has to be with power behind you. Set up questions in the mind of your reader and challenge their expectations. Make them want to keep reading.
2. The Villain Always Has a Plan
The odds are, if a character starts a story with a plan, they’re likely to be the bad guy. Villains are always the ones with the scheme – irradiate all the gold in Fort Knox, assassinate the French President, steal everything in the safe at Nakatomi Plaza – and our heroes are the ones who mess it up, thwarting their plots and saving the day. Make sure your villain has a solid plan and your heroes will always have a place to go, an action to react to. Ask yourself how your story would play out if the hero never showed up, and then look for all the places where they can get in the way and bring down your villain.
3. Ride the Roller-coaster
Thrillers can’t be full-on, high-octane, pedal-to-the-metal all the time. You risk overloading your readership if the story is sacrificed for the sake of action over everything else. Instead, think of your narrative like a roller-coaster, with peaks and troughs. Build in quiet moments where both your character and your readership can pause to catch their breath. Ramp up anticipation of the next plunge into action and crank up the tension on the rises. If you never take a moment to slow down, your action moments will all blur into one and be robbed of their individual impact. Don’t be afraid to go ease off on the throttle!
4. Detail or Die
In fiction, as in life, it’s the little things that matter. There’s that old adage that says “don’t sweat the small stuff” but in fiction, the small details are the things that make a story come to life. You don’t need to illustrate every tiny thing, but work on developing an eye for the important detail – the way a loaded gun feels in your hand, the swoop of fear when you jump off a cliff, the crunch of breaking bone – and sprinkle these in like seasoning over your cooking. A little goes a long way, and these tiny moments are the hooks that will keep your readers grounded in the story while the action swirls around them. Do as much as you can to get the details right, because there will always be someone reading your work who knows when you get it wrong.
5. Close Big
Go big or go home! Just like your opening narrative salvo, this doesn’t have to be a literally big moment – like sinking Hawaii into the ocean or nuking the Moon – but it has to be big in terms of the emotional stakes of the characters. Give your heroes something to lose that is meaningful to them, then send them into the inferno to save it. This is the time for you to reveal your crowd-pleaser moment, so when your reader closes the cover, the thing they remember is how much excitement you brought them.
James Swallow is a New York Times, Sunday Times and Amazon bestselling author, a BAFTA nominee, a former journalist and the award-winning writer of over fifty books, along with numerous scripts for videogames, radio and television.
His latest novel ROGUE – the latest in a series of high-octane action thrillers featuring ex-MI6 agent Marc Dane – is out now from Bonnier Zaffre. For exclusive content, sign up to his Readers’ Club here:
You can also follow James on Twitter at @jmswallow or visit him on his website at www.jswallow.com.
Rogue by James Swallow published by Zaffre Books 28th May 2020 Hardback, and ebook £12.99