Plots in thriller novels require careful planning. There is a structure to them that readers enjoy, and literary agents and publishers expect. Because thriller plots are often complex, with many twists and turns, it’s best not to start writing until you know how your plot starts and ends.
I think of thrillers as being written in three acts.
Act I is where you establish your main characters, hook the reader, establish goals and blind spots, define crucibles – what motivates characters to do what they normally wouldn’t – and establish what the book is about. The moral problems of the characters are demonstrated. This takes up about five percent of the story’s timeline.
Act I starts with an inciting incident – something changes in the life of the protagonist. This “something” is the reason for the story to be written. This needs to happen within the first five pages – the earlier the better. The inciting incident creates a call to action for the protagonist, and an internal crucible – a defining moment where the protagonist has to make a choice, and the story spins in a new direction. This is the transition point from Act I to Act II.
Act II is about complications and subplots. The protagonist tries to reach his or her goal, but obstacles mount up, complications arise, each more difficult than the last, the stakes always rising, building suspense and tension. One or two subplots are added, each revolving around the main character. Nothing ever goes right. This is also the time to show the story from the antagonist’s point of view – giving the reader insight into impending trouble the protagonist doesn’t see coming. It’s also the time to build suspension of disbelief for the reader, because the reader will need to buy into the heroic actions of the protagonist in Act III. At the midpoint of Act II (and the book) there is a moment of enlightenment for the protagonist – an awakening that the old stuff doesn’t work, which moves the story in a new direction and propels the protagonist into a downward spiral. There is conflict in every scene and piece of dialogue. The main character falls from grace until he or she reaches a point of no return, and must decide whether to quit or go forward, knowing that going forward has no chance of success. This is the Big Gloom, where everything the protagonist has tried has failed, and there is no path forward that can possibly work. The protagonist is destroyed. Act II takes up 90% of the book’s timeline.
In Act III, the protagonist rebounds and overcomes all obstacles – personal, emotional, get the bad guy, and get the love interest. The main character reaches his or her goal in the climax, subplots are resolved, and the main arcs conclude – both the story arc and the protagonist’s character arc. This is also the time to throw in a twist, and to solve puzzles.
There are no rules for writing a novel, and structure can’t guarantee success. But taking the time to put together the structure for a thriller – I spend at least nine months outlining, planning, and identifying the plot points before I start writing – will help you keep the story moving in ways that professionals will be looking for.
Steven G. Jackson May 9th, 2016
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