11.27: The Elemental Thriller

Let’s get this out of the way up front: in the syntax of elemental genres, the phrase “the element of thriller” is clunky. But we’ll say it anyway.

We discuss the difference between the drivers in thrillers, horror stories, and mysteries, and use the elemental genre tools to assist in the differentiation. We also cover the tools we use to develop and maintain the tension that is so critical in a thriller.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 


Ramp up the tension! Take the “yes, but; no, and” approach on one of your try-fail cycles. Prune the “sequel” down to nothing between a pair of “scenes,” and force your characters to move directly from a problematic success (“yes, but”) or a disastrous failure (“no, and”) into the next crisis.

Patriot Games, by Tom Clancy, narrated by Scott Brick

8 thoughts on “11.27: The Elemental Thriller”

  1. Okay.
    Now I know what people talk about having to wait an entire week before an episode comes out… not fun.
    You guys are absolutely awesome!!! These have been some crazy few weeks in which my headphones never left my ears. All I can think about now is my current book and my writing. HUGE destruction from school. I can’t wait for the semester to end so I’ll be able to work on it freely. Right now it’s impossible and it’s a torture!
    I have a problem with the book that I’m working on, and a solution came into mind while listening to this episode, though it’s still a little hard for me and I’d like to hear an opinion.
    I have a character that one main motive of his drives him to extreme situations in order to find out the truth about himself. I know what the truth is going to be (or a great part of it. I’m a discovery writer mostly), but I’m afraid that the reader will want to know the true so badly that eventually the answer will not fulfil them and they will be ‘oh, that’s it?’ no matter what I’ll wright.
    Now, listening to you guys, I thought about making it, like Mary said, less triumphant to the character; ‘Yes, I got my answer -but, it cost me a great deal because now there’s that huge problem’, or whatever. Like that, the failure will have an effect on the reader as well and will take off a bit of the overweight that is invested in the ‘big reveal’, because, as a result, there will be something much more horrifying than the truth itself.
    Does that make any sense?
    Can it work? Are there other possibilities?
    And again, thank you so so much for this. You changed my life at a point where I needed it.

    1. So I’m not a professional or anything (yet), but perhaps you could drop tidbits about himself that lead the reader to a red herring truth. But when the end comes, the truth is not at all what the reader was expected to believe.

      Or if you reveal something larger than your truth about him, make it so that any normal person encountering that problem would have a forseeable solution to it (even if it would be difficult to solve), but the truth he discovers makes HIM SPECIFICALLY solving that problem extremely difficult and not without possible severe consequences.

      Just some thoughts. :)

    2. Sounds like you have set yourself up for a perfect storm.

      I see three things you need to consider:
      1. The reveal has to be big enough to match the level of anticipation. If you feel it isn’t big enough, pull back some.
      2. You need enough foreshadowing that the reveal is easy to accept without giving it away.
      3. The character’s reaction should closely resemble what you want for the audience. This is probably the most important and, fortunately, the easiest to control.

    3. Hey Heni,
      I’m just a listener myself but I think there are two things you can do. The first is get a alpha reader, or preferably a couple of them. This is one of those things where it would be helpful to see how other people react and then based on their reaction you can change it or keep it.
      The other answer is to work it through character. If it’s something really powerful for the hero, or something that causes them allot of grief or surprise, than the readers won’t really think ‘thats it’ because it’s such a big thing for the character. And so important to them. You’ve probably already heard them, but season 10 around 40ish has some really great Plot twist podcasts that might help.

  2. He opened the door, and…
    He opened the door, and there was a coffin on the other side. Who had died?

    Racing through the night, the fearful foursome felt the wheels come off as they chased the elusive thriller, and timebombs ticked down all around. Meanwhile, the grasping fingers on the edge of the cliff slipped, slowly… still, they persevered!

    But when you want to know how to make your own potboiler perk, read the transcript! Available in the archives, or over here:


    Take a deep breath, and breath into this paper bag. We can get through this…

  3. Based on this, I’d say that Shadow of Self is a Thriller. I know it’s a mystery too – but when you all were talking about Thrillers – it sounded like what I was feeling during SoS.

  4. Hi guys. I’m a fellow writer at final chapter of my first novel, about to start shopping for agents. (Personally, I hope I wind up with Tor) Also, am a -huge- fan of Brandon Sanderson. Easily, my favorite author. I’m also a huge Jack Reacher fan and Clancy fan, with hard copies and digital copies of as any of their books as I can get my hands on.

    So this is the first of these podcasts I’ve checked out and I’m sold! Going to be into these from now on. Would love to actually participate in these discussions. Great ideas presented here, as well as some good explanations.

    My only gripe! “Techno-thriller”, to me, doesn’t specifically have to be about the military. I feel it’s better defined by the use of real-world research and information provided as key elements of the writing that really gives a solid “meaty” feel to the story as well as explaining -why- it’s important to the suspense. It also adds major believability because it’s info a reader can research themselves. Military fiction lends itself to this well, as it’s a treasure trove of technical information that can be exhaustively researched, quickly explained, then used for great scenes. Clancy does this so well that readers often don’t even realize the education they just received til afterward, if they ever even figure it out.

    Example: The Hunt For Red October was required reading for guys going into nuclear submarine work during the 80s and early 90s because it was so well researched and well explained, yet also stood to as a really compelling and very believable story. And all done without the use of those “dirty tricks” you guys mentioned.

    There! Had to get that out there as I’m a major fan of the “techno-thriller”.

    I have to agree on the whole stigma applied to James Patterson. While quick reads, they are…cliché, I think? I often find them very predictable and a little boring because of it. The tricks used also kind if grate on my nerves as a reader and writer, because they feel formulaic and frankly lazy.

    But the man sells books, so it must work lol

    Reacher is a whole different beast. Child does a marvelous job of creating unpredictable plots and stories, leaving you tense and ready to keep reading without a whole lot of obvious tricks, and making you think one thing before proving you wrong with the reveal. And he does this while still providing good “rest and process” moments that still manage to move the story/plot along, or explaining important aspects of both.

    And well…Jack Reacher is just a cool character. Tougher than roofing nails, smarter than you ever expect, and great at coming up with surprising and satisfying solutions to problems on the fly. And lots of neat character quirks, both positive and negative, that make him a more “human” character than a lot of series characters ever are.

    So…on that note, I’ll just state that Child does wonderful thriller work that will make you want to read every book, even the ones that would be “good reads” compared to his “blockbuster hits”. If you haven’t checked him out and like thrillers, do so! You won’t regret it.

    So I’m going to close by saying thanks for great info, guys, and I’m looking forward to checking out all the rest of these podcasts
    Hopefully, they will help me finish this crazy epic sci-fi/fantasy adventure I’m working on!

    Take care, fellow word junkies!

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