Avoid A Boring Thriller With This One Simple Trick - A character stares out from between the bars of a cage.

Avoid A Boring Thriller With This One Simple Trick

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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.

Roaming protagonists

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.

Can you think of an exciting or unusual way to trap a character? Let me know in the comments, and 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.

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14 thoughts on “Avoid A Boring Thriller With This One Simple Trick”

  1. Rob ~ your article arrived at a most opportune time for me. I have been struggling with story that needs a plot. Trapping my protagonist can be the plot. In fact, considering the setting, my protagonist can be trapped multiple times.

    Thanks.

  2. Can’t believe no one else has commented on this. I have to say, this is one of the most helpful writing articles I’ve read in a looong time!! Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Carol,

      I’d suggest developing traps based on the character’s motivations and the necessities of his actions. For instance, what did he have to do to steal and dispose of the plane? Is there somewhere he has to hide it? If so, you can trap him by introducing someone that could stumble on the plane – I can easily envision a scene where he needs to leave a location to attend to Task A, but he can’t because a bumbling friend might stumble across the plane if he leaves them on their own. Similarly, does he have a family who he’s trying to hide the theft from?

      Did he steal the plane because he needs money? Then put a date on when he has to pay by, and introduce someone whose job it is to harass him, or put a date on when he has to sell the plane, and a buyer who’s nervous enough to back out if he doesn’t make it.

      Often, in stories like this, it’s satisfying to turn a small event into a huge problem for the protagonist. Think the neighbor coming around for a cup of sugar when there’s a dead body in the next room. That said, this should be secondary to letting the trap grow out of the necessary motivations and actions – one issue should spiral into another, making it easier to address them all with the same solution.

      If you’d like more specific feedback on your story, a developmental edit would be ideal for your needs:
      //www.standoutbooks.com/services/developmental-editing/

      Best,
      Rob

  3. I am writing a spy thriller and I found your article. I have a question though. Can someone else besides the protagonist-say the president of US- be trapped and it still be a thriller novel? Also, thanks for all the advice you have given.

    1. Hi Sami,

      The short answer is ‘yes’, but it would be a thriller novel with a lot of potential problems. There are a lot of ways to be trapped, though. For example, what exactly is stopping your protagonist from just walking away from the problem? Are they duty bound to solve it? Will it hurt them if it happens, or benefit them if it’s stopped?

      If your protagonist doesn’t feel forced to intervene – if they’re not at least trapped in that way – it’s likely you could improve your story by finding a way to turn ‘the’ problem into ‘their’ problem.

      Best,
      Rob

  4. Hello Rob,
    I am writing a thriller about an architect fighting the real estate mafia in Eastern Europe. How would you trap him?
    Thanks!
    BTW, your article was the most helpful I read this year.
    Livia

    1. Hi Livia,

      It would depend what freedoms are necessary for the plot to continue and which can be sacrificed, but here are a few ideas. First, it should be relatively easy to trap the protagonist in one country/area, since a stolen/lost/destroyed passport creates at least a short-term problem. Robbing someone of financial freedom is another good trap, as forcing them to work with limited resources emphasizes their hierarchy of needs and how under pressure they are. A stolen wallet could account for both these traps, at least in the short term.

      If possible, it would be effective to cut off access to traditional sources of authority. Maybe the protagonist finds out that some of the police/influential politicians are working with the mafia. The good thing about this is that a little doubt can cut off a lot of options – even if only one officer is in their pocket, the protagonist can still believably abandon contacting the police when in trouble, since it’s not worth the risk. Knowing a person in power is working against them could also be a reason they feel unable to travel via normal means, since they’re trying to stay under the radar. Finally, a kidnapped loved one is an old favorite for forcing a protagonist to play by specific rules, if potentially cliche.

      Of course, these traps should intensify as the story progresses, so it’s feasible to tell the part of the story that relies on free travel/money/access to authority before upping the ante. Another useful feature of the authority trap is that you play around with what needs to happen to resolve the story – instead of having something like finding enough evidence be what allows the protagonist to triumph, you can make it so they HAVE the evidence but there’s nowhere safe to take it. This opens up more options in terms of potential action-packed climaxes and makes the plot a little more malleable without sacrificing believability.

      I hope that’s the kind of thing you were looking for. 🙂

      Best,
      Rob

  5. Thanks very much for this article. It had very concrete tips that are helpful. I am not writing a novel or short story. I am running a tabletop game (yes, I know
    I’m super geeky) and I need to write a tangled political web into which the players should fall.
    It is tricky because my protagonists’ actions are not written or predetermined. They are payers with free agency who can decide to do as they wish. So I need to trap them in the story, and it must be so tight that they cannot wriggle their way out.
    I suppose the only way to start is to determine what the antagonist wants and spin the web from there. But I am having a hard time connecting the dots. The heroes of the game have already walked into the trap, but the trap, as it stands goes nowhere. The king (of this fictional medieval feudalistic kingdom) has already given them a “gift” marrying one character way above his station giving him lands, title, and so on. Then later when a Duke falls from grace, the king grants the fallen territory and riches to the Heroes as long as they agree to “owe the king.”
    I want the king to be cold, calculating, brilliant. Who is not evil for the sake of being evil, but is so completly selfserving he will do anything as a means to an end. I want him to always be two steps ahead of the heros basically until his downfall. A Moriarty, or a Frank Underwood, or Little Finger. The king has two sons. The eldest of the two (his heir) is dim-witted, spoiled, and impulsive. His second son is cunning, bright, observant, and discerning. The king will ask the heroes to sneak into the castle to assassinate his firstborn son so that his second son will sit on the throne. If the heroes are caught, they will be hanged for treason.
    I would like this to be only the beginning of a long web of manipulation (assuming they survive) that the king has planned out. But I am not as smart as the villain I am writing. And thus, lies my problem.

    1. Hi Haley.

      Not at all – tabletop gaming is a fascinating narrative experience and a relatively emergent writing market at the moment. Based on what you described about your plot, the articles below should help with your issue:

      How To Make The Reader Trust Your Villain
      The Dos and Don’ts Of Writing Smart Characters
      How To Make Multiple Antagonists Shine In Your Story

      I think that last one might be the most useful – labyrinthine plots work best when multiple people are all trying to meet their own goals. Of course, the king can still be controlling/anticipating his adversaries (or be controlling other characters as proxies), but this should help prevent your players from identifying and outwitting their major enemy too quickly. If I had a specific suggestion, it would be to introduce a character who is secretly acting on the king’s orders but is also trying to accomplish their own goal. If their purpose is to push the players into distrusting certain characters for the king, but they’ve added a few names to the list for their own purposes, then suddenly you’ve got one character actually acting out two agendas. That kind of behavior is hard to figure out in the moment, even as it makes perfect sense in retrospect, and even if the players decide to distrust this character, their suspicions don’t necessarily spread back to the king.

      Best,
      Rob

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