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How to Write A Crime Thriller Book

How to write a crime novel - Alice Clark Platts

How to Write a Crime Thriller Book

I teach creative writing at Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore and – also – online through my own course, Telling Yourself the Story.

Most of my students want to know how to start writing their own novels, their own stories. But many of them – for obvious reasons, given the genre I write in, – particularly want to know:

How do I write a Crime Thriller???

  • Does it require a different style of writing from other books?
  • Where do you start writing – the beginning or the end?
  • Do you plot your books?
  • Do you know the end of the book ie. Whodunnit before you start?
  • How do I get my book up as a bestseller on the shelves in Waterstones or Tescos?
  • How do I write the perfect murder mystery or the best psychological thriller?

Well, I hate to tell you (and I bet you knew I was going to say this!) but there is no magic formula. A lot of books will get you to part with your hard-earned cash, promising that THEY can make you a best-selling author!!

They can’t.

Crime – as with all other genres – starts with story. And what I teach to my students is that story – or plot – begins and ends with character.

You need to discover WHO you’re writing about, and WHY you’re writing about them.

What do they want? And what is preventing them from getting or holding on to it?

This is the key to any good story. It’s what keeps the reader engaged.

It’s a character’s INTENTION and GOAL and the OBSTACLES that they face.

In technical terms, we break this down into a Protagonist’s dramatic arc and the effect upon them of the antagonist. This handy little formula is the basic root of drama and it’s what makes a story work for us.

Think of:

  • Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games;
  • Lieutenant Brody in Jaws;
  • Hercule Poirot in any number of Agatha Christie mysteries;
  • Nick and Amy in Gone Girl.

When you begin formulating your ideas and thoughts for your book, always ask yourself this question:

 – What does my main character love or want the most? What would they do if they lost it or failed to get it? –

This is your starting point for writing a terrific crime thriller.

Going on from this to consider whether an author starts at the beginning or the end when they write their novels, my gut instinct (and the way I write all of my books) is very much to start at the beginning with a blank page. I never know the ending of my books until I write them. I may think I know the ending, but – in reality, it never comes out on the page in the way I had imagined. In fact, in Bitter FruitsI didn’t know who the murderer was until I wrote that actual scene.

I know some authors who will be shuddering in their seats reading this! Tons of writers don’t write a word until they have planned out the entire book, chapter by chapter. This gives them the confidence to start writing, knowing that they will get to the end, that the denouement of the book is actually within reach.

My method is far more stressful and, in fact, quite unlike my character which is very organised. I love to plan normally! But I can’t write that way for some reason.

Both processes however, will always start with character. Even if you come up with an AMAZING plot device, your story won’t sing and your book won’t engage, unless the reader really feels that they are going through every step of the way with the protagonist. Take Lee Child and the Jack Reacher books as an example. Lee Child writes brilliantly fast-paced thrillers. But I am willing to bet they wouldn’t have been half as successful if we didn’t feel that we know Reacher, that we are familiar with him, and able to understand his character and decision-making. That comes from Lee Child’s writing, from his creation of Reacher as a fully drawn character.

So, taking your formation of your main character as your launch pad – thinking about what they love and what would happen if they lost it – now think about how you could develop that into the structure of a plot by dividing your story into THREE PARTS:

  • The Beginning (the Conflict)
  • The Middle (the Crisis)
  • The End (the Resolution)

Bear in mind that the conflict doesn’t need to be violent! It just means that moment when the protagonist’s INTENTION or GOAL is put under threat by the OBSTACLE. I go into this in more detail on my course, but obstacles or antagonists don’t necessarily have to be people either. They could be based in nature (Lord of the Flies); society (1984); or the supernatural (Moby Dick).

Your aim with the plot is to devise a way to get this conflict ramped up to a moment of crisis when the protagonist has to change the way the way they view the world. James Joyce called this a moment of epiphany.


  • Katniss Everdeen decides to win the Hunger Games;
  • Lieutenant Brody gets a bigger boat;
  • Hercule Poirot realises something crucial to the solving of the case;
  • Nick and Amy swapped narratives and the reader realised the essence of the twist in Gone Girl.

This moment – this crisis – is the catalyst that leads the reader to the resolution of the plot and of the novel. This is what makes sense of the story and means that the end of the book is in sight. It is as if the reader has reached the crest of a mountain and can now see the way home. It may be thorny and bramble-filled as the protagonist still has to fight to get there – and the reader is very unsure if it is even possible. But we can see that the story is finite. It will not go on forever.

This is also crucial in drama because high tension can’t be sustained indefinitely. It burns out. We can only be entertained at such a level for so long. Think of watching a horror film. The best ones are short and sharp and leave you gasping for breath. It’s the same with thrillers. They need energy and pace and it’s an unspoken agreement that the reader has geared themselves up for that. We need to see the finish line.

So, there you have it:

The elements of writing a crime thriller in a nutshell. A bitesize lesson in starting your next bestseller!

Does this make sense to you? How do you begin developing character? Are you a plotter or do you fly by the seat of your pants?! Let me know about your books in the comments!

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