Thriller Writing Made Easy: 4 Steps to Starting a Thriller

Want to write a thriller, but stuck on the beginning? Novelist Daniel Palmer uses his own experience and that of his father (bestseller Michael Palmer) and lays out the essentials to get you on your way.

Step 1. Choose your rhino.

Michael Palmer once was asked to describe writing a book. His answer? Writing a book is like following a recipe for rhinoceros stew. The first step of which is to find the rhino—which isn’t your plot, character or hook. It’s that huge idea that defines the book, such as a deadly virus. Daniel’s latest rhino was identity theft.

Step 2. Formulate the What-If question.

Daniel said to think of this essentially as your elevator pitch—that pithy, snappy description of your book you should have at the ready should you be stuck in an elevator with an agent or editor. Cap it at two sentences, 25 words. It needs to be as tight as possible, and it shouldn’t delve into things like characters or plot twists. “I spend days doing those two sentences, and I would urge you to do the same with yours,” Daniel said.

One What-If example from Michael’s work: What if everybody involved in a surgery six years ago is being murdered one by one?

Step 3. Answer the What-If question.

The answer to this pivotal question is what’s known as the MacGuffin: the reason people think they’re reading the book. (MacGuffins can be a confusing subject, but they’re key.) Ultimately, Daniel said the answer is that it doesn’t matter—people read to the end of a book for the characters. But you need something to keep them flipping pages. The MacGuffin is simply that tool that gets them to stay with the characters.

Daniel said when you have the answer to your What-If, you should file it away and forget about it for a while. If you focus solely on the MacGuffin, your book will be plot-heavy and bogged down by it, and you’ll have lost your readers.

Step 4. Figure out who you’re going to write about.

“You’re looking for your character who’s got the absolute most at stake, and that’s the person who you want your story to be about.” Daniel said to develop your arc as they go along, chasing the MacGuffin, and they’ll change and grow.

BONUS: Step 5. Write on.

Daniel likes to think of plot as a “cannibal’s stew”—a simmering cauldron into which you drop your character in. Once he’s inside, it boils. But you don’t have your character simply jump out—you slam a lid on the cauldron and nail it shut so your character has to figure out how to survive the plot.

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