Writing a Killer Thriller

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Respected editor and blogger Jodie Renner presents concrete techniques that work for writing fast-paced, captivating fiction that sells.

You’ll find these tips indispensable for plotting a riveting story, creating compelling characters, writing a gripping opening, and designing suspenseful scenes.

And the reader-friendly layout makes it easy to navigate the topics, including advice with examples for picking up the pace, ramping up the tension and intrigue, and revising for power.

Buy the print version on Amazon and get the e-book for only $0.99.

Praise for Writing a Killer Thriller:

“…for writers of this genre, this book is or should be the ultimate authoritative resource. … will save a new writer so much time in learning the craft. … Your before-and-after examples show the most difficult-to-grasp techniques and concepts clearly and concisely. … What a great resource for a thriller reader!”

~ Judge, Writer’s Digest Self-Published e-Book Awards

“Finally, someone who understands the thriller! More than ever an author must also be his own best editor and Jodie Renner is there to help. Writing a Killer Thriller should be on every thriller writer’s desk. It breaks down the thriller into its must-have component parts to write a scintillating, edge of the seat novel that will get readers buzzing and sales flowing.”

~ Robert Dugoni, New York Times bestselling author of The Jury Master and Murder One

Writing a Killer Thriller by Jodie Renner is an in-depth journey through each component of the thriller. Renner breaks down the process into key elements, each essential to keeping the reader turning those pages. From character development to building suspense, Writing a Killer Thriller should be on the desk of every thriller author out there. A staple for the beginner, a refresher for the pro.”

~ Joe Moore, #1 Amazon and international bestselling co-author of The Blade and The Phoenix Apostles

“Writing is hard, editing harder, and self-editing almost impossible. Writing a Killer Thriller demystifies each of these steps on the road to a published manuscript. Read this book. It will help you now and for many years to come.”

~ DP Lyle, Macavity Award winning and Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Benjamin Franklin, Scribe, and USA Best Books nominated author of the Dub Walker thriller series




Chapter 1 – Thrillers versus Mysteries                              


Chapter 2 – Know the Basic Ingredients of a Killer Thriller

What a Thriller Needs

High-Concept Fiction

How and Where to Start

Ideas, Premise, What-ifs, Storyline

Chapter 3 – Build Your Story on a Solid Foundation

The Hero’s Journey

The Classic Three-Act Structure

Gustav Freytag’s Five-Act Dramatic Structure

Nigel Watts’ Eight-Point Story Arc

Chapter 4 – Avoid These Plot and Structure Gaffes

Plot and Structure No-No’s to Find and Fix


Chapter 5 – Invent a Charismatic but Conflicted Hero

Attributes of a Bestselling Hero or Heroine

Chapter 6 – Devise a Worthy Antagonist

Create a Cunning, Determined Villain


Chapter 7 – Craft a Killer Opening

Essential Ingredients of a Gripping Opening

Chapter 8 – Avoid These Storytelling Gaffes

Checklists of Do’s and Don’ts

Chapter 9 – Put Tension on Every Page

Tips for Adding Tension

Chapter 10 – Write Riveting Scenes and Chapters

Every Scene Needs Tension and a Change


Chapter 11 – Powerful Point of View

Use Deep Point of View

Use Multiple Viewpoints

Chapter 12 – Show, Don’t Tell

How to Show instead of Telling

Evoke All Five Senses

Show Your Character’s Reactions and Emotions


Chapter 13 – Build in Tension and Intrigue

Some “Big-Picture” Techniques for Adding Suspense

Chapter 14 – Use Foreshadowing for Maximum Reader Involvement

Devices for Amping up the Tension and Suspense


Chapter 15 – Delay, Tease, and Stretch out the Moment

Withholding Information, Delays

Stretching out the Moment

Chapter 16 – Twists, Surprises, Epiphanies, & Revelations



Chapter 17 – Story Climax, Resolution, and Ending

Knock ’Em Dead with a Kick-Ass Climax

Create a Memorable, Satisfying Ending


Chapter 18 – Revising for Power

Style and Pacing for Tension and Intrigue

Chapter 19 –Structural Tips for Amping up Tension & Intrigue


Jump cuts

Chapter 20 – Rivet Your Readers with Savvy Sentence Structure and Spacing

Style tricks for keeping your readers’ interest and attention

Chapter 21 – Tighten Your Writing and Pick up the Pace

Tips for Writing Tighter

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing


Chapter 22 – Wrap-Up: Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller

Chapter 23 – Checklist for Ratcheting up the Tension and Suspense


Appendix A – Glossary of Fiction Terms

Appendix B – Subgenres of Thrillers

Appendix C – Resources for Thriller Writers

A Few Words from the Author

About the Author

“A killer of a thriller guide! Jodie Renner lays out, in clear, easy steps and lists, how the best writers craft their works of art – and shows how you can do it, too. A terrific how-to in avoiding the pitfalls and burnishing the gotta-haves of writing a bestselling thriller novel, by an editor who knows her way around action, drama and creating characters so fresh and real you’ll swear they were your friends.”

~ Shane Gericke, national bestselling and No. 1 Kindle bestselling author of Torn Apart

“Jodie Renner is a terrific fiction editor who is constantly updating her craft. She’s edited several novels for me, and I highly recommend her services and books. Even if you don’t write thrillers, her advice is applicable to writing a compelling story in almost any genre.”

~ L.J. Sellers, bestselling author of provocative mysteries and thrillers

“If you’ve got the some 10 or so hard-copy, thriller- and suspense-writing how-to titles on your bookshelf, you’ll find Writing a Killer Thriller is a well-focused prism of all those – and more! If one’s foolish enough to NOT add this gem to their self-training arsenal, they’re losing a valuable tool that only gives them that extra mind-gripping edge with which authors hope to cause readers sleepless nights.

“Jodie has effectively and simply defined the ‘DNA structure or genome’ of what it takes to write an eye-burning, can’t-put-it-down, page turner.

“I’m buying and reading everything else Jodie has available to sell or to share. Her Rosetta Stone of Thriller Writing Advice only makes the other how-to titles on your bookshelf that much easier to understand, appreciate, and put to good use.”

–   Andy Fields

“With years of experience as a professional editor to many successful authors, Renner knows what it takes to write a good thriller, and she lays it all out here in a no-nonsense, easy-to-understand manner. From building excitement and suspense on every page, to adding tension and conflict to each chapter, this book is packed with information you simply can’t afford to miss if you want to gain that ever-elusive competitive edge in the world of fiction.”

–         Andrew E. Kaufman, #1 bestselling author of The Lion, the Lamb, the Hunted and While the Savage Sleeps

“Jodie Renner has demystified the process of thriller-writing with Writing a Killer Thriller. This little booklet is packed full of information which is not just useful, but critical to the success of any thriller writer, whether just starting out or a veteran of many books.

“Jodie helped me transform my thriller The Lonely Mile from a good book to a ‘gripping and unnerving’ Amazon bestseller, and I look forward to working with her again. If you want to avail yourself of the knowledge of one of the best freelance thriller editors in the business, you couldn’t ask for a better deal than Writing a Killer Thriller.”

–          Allan Leverone, bestselling thriller and horror writer


Excerpt from Writing a Killer Thriller:


If you want your thriller or other suspense fiction to be a riveting page-turner, make sure you’ve included most or all of these elements:

~ A compelling opening

Don’t rev your engines with a lengthy description of the setting or background on the character’s life. Jump right in with your protagonist in a tension-filled scene with someone important in his world. See my article, “Act First, Explain Later.”

~ Deep POV

Start your story in the head of your main character, in close third-person viewpoint, or first-person. Deep point of view is the most intimate and compelling, and engages the reader fast. See my three-part series: POV 101, POV 102, and POV 103.

~ A protagonist who’s both ordinary and heroic

Rather than having a “Superman” invincible-type hero, it’s more satisfying to the readers if you use a regular person who’s thrown into stressful, then increasingly harrowing situations, and must summon all of his courage, strength and inner resources to overcome the odds, save himself and other innocent people, and defeat evil. Readers relate more personally to this type of main character, so bond with him better.

~ A likeable, sympathetic protagonist

The readers need to be able to warm up to your main character quickly, to start identifying with her; otherwise they won’t really care what happens to her. So no cold, selfish, arrogant characters for heroes or heroines! See my article, “Creating Compelling Characters.”

~ A worthy adversary for the protagonist

Your antagonist/villain needs to be as clever, strong, resourceful and determined as your protagonist, but also truly nasty, immoral and frightening. See my article “Creating a Worthy Antagonist.”

~ An interesting setting

Readers like to find out about places they haven’t been, whether it’s the seedy side of Chicago, glitzy Hollywood, rural Kentucky, the mountains of Colorado, or the bayous of Louisiana—or more distant, exotic locations. And milk your setting for all it’s worth. Also, show the setting through the senses and reactions of your viewpoint character. See my article “Show Your Setting Through Your POV Character’s Eyes.”

~ An inciting incident

What happens to the main character to set the story events in action? Make it tense and compelling.

~ A crucible

According to Steve Berry, the absolutely essential crucible is “that thing that gets a character to do what they normally will never do.” It’s a set of circumstances the protagonist can’t escape from, so he has to go forward, through it.

~ A great plot, with ongoing conflict and tension

You need a big story question and plenty of intrigue. And every scene should contain tension and conflict of some kind. If it doesn’t, delete it.

~ Lots of suspense

Keep the readers on the edge of their seats, turning the pages to find out what’s going to happen next.

~ Multiple viewpoints

Narrating the story from various points of view, including that of the villain, will add interest, complexity and suspense to your novel. But most of the story should be in your protagonist’s POV, and don’t head-hop within a scene! Wait for a new scene or chapter to change viewpoints.

~ A tight, generally fast-paced writing style

Streamline your writing to improve flow and pacing. Go through and take out all unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs, and any repetitive phrases, events or ideas. Thrillers are not the genre to wax eloquent or show off your erudition. See my articles, “Cut the Clutter and Streamline Your Writing,” Part I, Part II, and Part III.

~ Internal struggling of the protagonist

Give her a moral dilemma; show his inner conflict. Make them complex and fascinating; never perfect, complacent, or overly confident.

~ Lots of emotions

Bring your characters to life by showing their fear, trepidation, panic, pain, worry, anger, determination, courage, satisfaction, relief, joy, excitement, elation and other emotions. See “Show Those Feelings — and Reactions!

~ Vivid sensory descriptions

Put the reader right there in the scene by using all five senses wherever possible, plus emotion. Show what the character is hearing, smelling, feeling, touching and tasting, not only what they’re seeing. Appeal to the Senses — and Emotions!

~ Increasing danger

Keep raising the stakes and putting your hero in deeper and deeper trouble, to stretch his courage, determination, physical abilities and inner resources to the maximum—and increase the reader’s admiration and emotional investment in him!

~ A ticking clock

Your hero is racing against time to defeat the villain before innocents are killed—or even the whole world is imperiled. Adding ever-increasing time constraints increases the tension and suspense.

~ Troubles that hit home

Endanger the protagonist or someone close to her, to add a personal dimension and more stress to the threats and conflicts.

~ Critical turning points

Present your hero with life-or-death decisions and show his anxiety, tension, and indecision.

~ Obstacles in the way

Your heroine runs out of gas on a lonely road; your hero’s weapon falls into the river far below; he is wounded and can’t run; her cell phone battery is dead; whatever can go wrong does, and more.

~ Enough clues

Be fair. Use foreshadowing, and layer in clues and info as you go along, to slowly reveal the plot points and character backstory and motivation to the reader.

~ Twists and surprises

Write in a few unexpected plot twists, but make sure that, in retrospect, they make sense to the readers.

~ A compelling climax

Put the protagonist at a disadvantage in the final conflict with the antagonist, to heighten the stakes. Pile on the adversity the hero has to overcome at the end.

~ A satisfying ending

Leave the unhappy or unresolved endings for literary fiction. Let the good guy overcome the bad guy—by a hair.

~ Psychological growth and change in the hero/heroine

Adversity has made him or her stronger, braver, wiser—a better person.