Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writing a thriller is a dangerous game. Why? Because success is a binary process. Other genres allow for compelling ideas to stand out against lackluster writing, or for amazing characters to charm readers through the boring bits of the plot, but a thriller reader is either thrilled or they aren’t, and that’s the ball game.
There are a lot of ways to plot and write an exciting story, but there’s one technique that every thriller author has to know. It’s a basic plotting decision that should be made early on, ensuring that your thriller is built on sturdy ground, and yet one that can easily elude writers as they wonder why their thriller just isn’t holding together. Thankfully, once you know it, you’ll never forget it.
The DNA of a thriller
So what makes a great thriller? Well, In Roderick Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever (later adapted into the movie Die Hard), a retired detective is trapped in a skyscraper by terrorists. In Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, a group of scientists are trapped on a dinosaur-infested island during a tropical storm. In Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, a U.S. marshal is trapped on an island while investigating the disappearance of a criminally insane woman.
Notice the pattern? Yes, what your thriller desperately needs is dinosaurs, and as many of them as possible. No; although dinosaurs probably wouldn’t hurt the thrill-count, what these stories actually have in common is that they all trap their protagonists.
Trap your protagonist
This is the secret that thriller writers need to know: your story will be better if, in some way, shape or form, you find a way to trap your protagonist. So, why is this true, and how can you do it?
Being thrilled is about tension – about turning the reader’s worry about what might happen into a fascination with what’s happening right now. I’ve written before about how fight scenes work when every ‘move’ exists in reference to a goal. It isn’t interesting to punch a character until that punch means they might lose the fight. Thrillers work according to a similar logic – tension is built by having the audience interrogate every event for how it might affect an overall goal.
Of course, what makes a thriller different to a mystery is the urgency of that goal. If you have to catch a murderer because that’s your job, then you’re in the potentially cozy confines of a whodunit. If you have to catch the murderer before morning or it’s your gun, badge, and marriage, then you’re in a thriller.Trapping your protagonist creates tension – the lifeblood of a thriller.Click To Tweet
Here, the consequence is barreling towards the protagonist, and the reader is asking again and again, ‘Is this the answer? Is this the solution?’ As time passes, that solution is more and more vital, because there’s a ticking clock, and it’s ticking down to disaster.
By trapping your hero (and we’ll get to what that means in a minute), you fix them on this path. Opportunities fly by, each ratcheting up the tension as it looks like it might work or just makes things worse. But what happens when your hero isn’t fixed on that path? What happens when they could feasibly just take the next exit and go home?
Freedom = boredom
What happens is that all your tension is lost. Those opportunities whizzing by are no longer the only solution – it’s not ‘this works or else’, it’s ‘this works or they just escape’. It’s a fight scene where the hero can tap out at any minute without consequences; who cares what happens anymore? At best, each punch stops mattering, at worst, the characters are idiots for letting themselves get hit.
This may sound like something that’s completely obvious, but that’s not the case. Many authors don’t take the chance to trap their protagonists, and the stakes suffer as a result. One of the most noticeable changes between Peter Benchley’s relatively unknown Jaws and Steven Spielberg’s mega-hit movie adaptation is that, in the movie, the protagonists stay out on the water overnight rather than coming home to sleep. Of course, being constantly surrounded by potential danger invites far more tension, but it took a movie adaptation to reassess that choice.
Jaws offers up another reason to trap your protagonist – reader sympathy. It’s a lot easier to root for a character who made one dangerous choice than one who keeps charging back into the breach. Or, rather, it’s a lot harder to keep convincing the reader that the protagonist is a reasonable person.How many times can a hero dive into danger before they lose the reader’s sympathy?Click To Tweet
In Alan Partridge, the titular radio DJ is trapped in a hostage situation that reawakens the public’s interest in his career. When he accidentally escapes, and interest wanes, he goes to great lengths to be taken hostage again. It’s a plot that’s played for comedy, but the truth is that the viewer doesn’t need any prompting to view the character as a fool – making him look like a hero would be harder, and it would be necessary right as the writer was also trying to increase the tension. As an author, why give yourself that extra work?
There’s rarely a good reason, but many authors think they have one. I’m going to end this article by covering some easy ways to trap a slippery protagonist, but first, here are some of the things that might tempt you to let your thriller protagonist go free.
So we’ve established that trapped protagonists make thrillers more exciting and easier to write. Why, then, are authors tempted to avoid trapping them?
Often, the answer is exposition. An exciting situation can make it difficult to explain things comfortably – if your main character is undercover in the mob, it’s a lot easier to have her ‘take a trip’ out of state and go report to her commanding officer than to fit that information into her new life. Again, though, this saps tension, and it raises the possibility that they can leave when they need to.
You might be thinking that you can have your cake and eat it too – trap the character, free them for a bit, and then make it clear that they’re trapped again, and it’s worse than ever. That can have limited effect, but remember that the reader isn’t running on pure logic. Showing your character leaving the dangerous situation raises immediate safety as a possibility; as something to consider.
Even if it’s not an option in the moment, the reader still subconsciously views it as possible. That means that in a situation where your protagonist has to kill someone to survive, the reader is silently adding the caveat ‘or find a way to escape’. Because no matter how impossible escape is at the moment, it’s on the table, it’s something they’ve seen happen, even though it’s not something you want them to consider.
Rick Remender’s Deadly Class has a stellar premise – a teenager is inducted into a school for assassins, and must survive among the children of the world’s most dangerous gangs and spy organisations. Schoolyard grudges come with body counts, even the good kids are packing heat, and coming top of the class might just put a price on your head.
It’s the perfect place to trap a character, and yet Remender passes up the opportunity, giving his protagonist a Saturday job away from the school. Now, whatever dangers the school presents, the reader knows that the other option is a normal life. Succeed, die… or go get a job. There’s no way to erase that option completely, especially when you ramp up the tension and the reader is desperately searching for potential routes to safety.Tell the reader which ‘happy ending’ to hope for and they won’t have to make up their own.Click To Tweet
Where possible, find a way to build around your trapped protagonist. This is especially true for exposition, but applies to other reasons for leaving your protagonist free to wander. Want to build their character, explore the family life that’s at stake, or tactically relieve tension? Great – your story will be the better for it – but don’t have them strolling out of danger to do it.
That undercover character? Have her talk to her boss on a payphone, constantly worried that a gang member might spot her and wonder who she’s talking to. Better yet, explore her regular life through flashback, using the time she wasn’t trapped to highlight the extremity of her current situation. Another option is simply to hold off on the action – tension should build, so there’s a strong argument for showing your protagonist safe, comfortable, and free before trapping them in your thrilling situation. You’ll need a way to hook the reader’s interest, but that’ll be a lot easier than building tension with a neon ‘EXIT’ sign in the periphery of the reader’s vision.
Finally, if you must have your character escape their situation for a while, make sure the reader knows it’s temporary. This is the case in 1984, where excursions outside monitored society are always presented as a temporary reprieve (and even this is eventually revealed to be a trick). Try not to allow your character to escape multiple times – it only reinforces the idea that they could do it again – and above all, avoid scheduling your protagonist’s freedom with the reader. If they have to escape their trap, have them steal away or seize an opportunity to make a break for it. If a character is able to plan their ability to leave a situation and then return, they have too much control for true tension to build – though there’s merit in making these plans just to show them falling through.
In art, there’s always an exception, but it’s almost never a good idea to scoop your protagonist out of danger to serve another aspect of the story. Trap them – trap them in every way you can think of – and writing a compelling thriller will be so much easier. So, if that’s the case, what are your options?
How to trap your characters
When I talk about ‘trapping’ a protagonist, it’s easy to assume I just mean physically. Don’t get me wrong; this is a great option. Trapping your hero gives them a clear goal that a reader can appreciate on a visceral level.
Die Hard is often hailed as the greatest thriller ever made, and there’s certainly a reasonable argument behind that stance. Consider the perfection of a skyscraper as a place to be ‘trapped’. The ground floor is the way out, with numbered floors getting further and further away from that possibility. By showing a character to be on floor 15 or 30, you’re basically assigning a numerical value to their jeopardy.
Of course, in Die Hard (and Nothing Lasts Forever before it), the protagonist isn’t just physically trapped. A key part of both stories is that the antagonists have captured the hero’s family member – someone they don’t feel able to leave behind. Since the heroes are cops, there’s also the suggestion of professional duty; an inability to walk away from this situation, even if doing so was physically possible.You don’t need a prison to trap your characters.Click To Tweet
Literally trapping your characters is compelling, but if it isn’t possible, there are more ways to ensure the reader sees them as being trapped. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl achieves the impression of trapping its protagonist by having a police investigation (and the media) encroach further and further into their life. They may be able to travel, but they’re trapped in their situation, and it’s getting worse. (Even here, the threat of literal imprisonment is never far away.)
If you can’t trap your character in an established ‘prison’, have the world close in on them. What do they need, physically and mentally? Ensure that they can only get it in a certain way, and use that to trap them. Can you make a reader believe that a character is ‘trapped’ in a job they hate, even though they could quit? Absolutely, and in about a hundred different way.
Keep in mind, too, that you can keep shrinking the prison. Did your character start off trapped on an island? Then trap them in a facility. Building to the climax? Then trap them in a large room, then a smaller one, then the wardrobe. This is Crichton’s method in Jurassic Park; begin with the protagonists trapped on an island packed with various dangers, and then cram them into confined spaces with specific threats.
Again, this doesn’t have to be just physical – whatever your character needs, find a way to make it harder and harder to access. If they’re a drug addict, have their regular dealer arrested so they have to pay more to someone they don’t know or trust. If they need a friend’s reassurance, break their phone or throw some static over most of the call. In Die Hard, the protagonist’s wife starts out as one of many hostages, then ends up in a smaller group with the chief villain, then ends up as his personal hostage. There’s even a scene where shattered glass traps the shoe-less hero at one side of a room. Tighten your grip further and further and, when you finally release it, the reader will be left with a sense of elation.
I said earlier that you should use every method available to trap your protagonist, and the above advice applies to this method. Don’t trap them physically and then call it a day – find every way possible to constrain their freedom. Remember, a great thriller is like a tunnel. The reader is barreling down it, desperate for everything they see to be a way out. Give them more problems and there are more solutions to look out for, more ‘angles’ to try and figure out. That’s how it feels to be in a real crisis, and if you can recreate that experience for the reader, you’re writing a thriller they won’t be able to put down.
Trapping an existing protagonist
Of course, all isn’t lost if you’ve already begun your thriller with a free protagonist. This is exactly the kind of issue that editing and drafting are designed to address. Be careful, though, that your protagonist feels trapped. It’s not enough to just limit their freedom – the reader is sampling desperation, grasping at possibilities, not solving a puzzle.
If you’re struggling to evoke this feeling, consider expanding your protagonist’s needs to give them more to lose. An easy move is to make them a smoker, immediately setting them on edge if they can’t find a cigarette. If they’re trying to get a job they want, why not also put them in debt? If they’re being held hostage, give them diabetes. In Die Hard and Nothing Lasts Forever, the protagonists aren’t just visiting loved ones, they’re trying to rebuild damaged relationships.
Ideally, all these needs will be answerable by the same solution, giving the reader a clear, single goal to hope for. Getting that promotion will allow the protagonist to pay off their loan shark, prompting the baddie to release their spouse (who happens to have some one-of-a-kind, lifesaving medicine in their pocket). Even if things are going to end badly, there should be a fairly straightforward solution for the reader to hope for.
An amazing thriller
Done right, thrillers offer the reader a visceral thrill – a shot of pure enjoyment that will guarantee they show up for your next project. Make sure to pay particular attention to trapping your protagonist, and seek out as many ways as possible to increase the pressure.
For more on thrilling writing, check out Scared Of The Anticlimactic Ending? Here’s How To Kick It To The Curb and Here’s How To Write A Damn Good Fight Scene. Or, if you want to know more what changes between a novel and its big-screen adaptation, check out CineFix’s Die Hard – What’s the Difference? and Jaws – What’s the Difference?