Monday, February 28, 2011

Guest Post by Andrew Gross: What is it that makes a great thriller?


This post has me a bit excited. I read Andrew Gross before I ever thought of ever writing a book. He is not only a great writer but a great person. As a reader and writer of thrillers this information is invaluable.

Thrillers are all about action, movement, tense moments and entertainment. Andrew learned from the best, James Patterson and has launched out to make his own mark in the book world.

Thanks for taking the time to blog for us and I wish you all the best!


Andrew Gross
New York Times Best-Selling Author and Co-Author of Six #1 Thrillers with James Patterson

What is it that makes a great thriller?

The inability to put it down? Pages that seem to turn themselves? Lots of unseen twists and turns? The need to find out how it ends? Lots of murder and sex? The identification with a strong hero?

Most people know I spent a few years writing a five #1 bestsellers with James Patterson before I branched out on my own. Whatever it is that goes into what makes a thriller great, there were a number of elements I picked up from my time with Jim that I’ve tried to incorporate into my own books as well—and if you’re an aspiring writer, or just a savvy reader, I think it will be helpful to build some of them into your own writing or reading too. Remember, none of these are hard and fast rules—there are no rules, only ability. But I do think most are transferable to all types of fiction—whether commercial or literary—no matter how broad one’s aims.

So here goes:

1. PACE, PACE, MORE PACE. (It’s not the traditional bromide, “don’t let the story drag”—it’s rocket it forward. Make the story the engine. Eliminate or streamline whatever does not directly advance the story. And the prose should be tailored to the specific action that is going on.)

2. THINK IN SCENES. (Short, crisp movie-like chapters stripped down to their elemental, dramatic core. Get the reader into them quickly—start in the scene, not in the back story or too much scene setting. And end it with a punch that leads the reader into what will happen next. The goal is for them to turn that page, even against their will.)

3. TIGHT FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW. Well, everyone has there own feeling about this and the structure has to fit the story. But make the reader feel as if the actions are happening to them. It’s okay to alternate these with 3rd person chapters, especially in the “bad guy” chapters or when some sympathetic victim is being harmed. Mostly, you want the reader to “feel” the emotions and conflict of the hero and bad guy.

4. A RIVETING OPENING EVENT. (A bride and groom killed on their wedding night. An FBI agent who captures a wanted killer, but in the capture, loses his best friend. A likeable, suburban soccer mom who’s husband goes off to work on the train and is lost in a Grand Central bombing. Grab the reader in the first ten pages. And an equally important ending. Begin strong, end strong.)

5. MAKE ME CARE. A likable hero or heroine. Funny, self-deprecating, spiritual, romantic; a soft heart under a rough exterior. Get the reader invested in your hero’s plight from the opening pages. (Let us feel we know them straight from the opening bell.)

6. GIVE US A BAD GUY YOU WANT TO HATE. (Not dislike. Not hold ambivalent feelings about. HATE. Delight in seeing him brought down. And make sure the reader feels his reactions when it occurs!)

7. CHART YOUR CHAPTERS. (Label them plus or minus. Plus chapters bring some dramatic reveal, or un-put-downable action. They give you a high. Minus chapters carry the mail: give evidence, background, information. Every five chapters there should have a big plus sign!

8. THE BIG HINGE. (The Big Ah-ha moment. Shifts the book in a completely different direction from where the reader thought it was before. And it works well when this moment occurs near the middle, not at the end. Of course, a second ah-ha moment works well too.)

9. WHAT’S AT STAKE ALWAYS WIDENS. (If you start with a traffic ticket, don’t end up in traffic court. What the hero is REALLY chasing has to grow in magnitude and importance. The reader’s moral voice should be saying, “This can’t happen!”

10. OUTLINE UP FRONT. (A detailed outlines. Ours ran sixty pages, 100 chapters. In a plot intensive story, map out your scenes. Know where you’re heading. You want to control the book, not the other way around. It’s your mortgage! That doesn’t mean every scene or twist is written up front in stone, nor does every character end up in importance they way they started out. But a story is linked-together chapters, and part of the process of plotting is sitting down in advance and mapping it out. It’s like a chess game; learn to think ten chapters ahead.

And a few more throw-ins:




Anyway, I hope this gives you an idea how we did it, and how I think about my own books, though I have to admit I now take shortcuts in every rule. Reckless, my fourth solo thriller, is out this week in paperback. It’s great way to see many of these elements put in action. I promise, it’s a story that won’t let you down.

If anyone wants to comment on any of this, feel free to contact me on facebook or at

Thanks for having me, Aaron.

Books by Andrew Gross:

Eyes wide open (coming soon)
Don't Look Twice
The Dark Tide
The Blue Zone

Books with James Patterson

Judge and Jury
The Lifeguard
The Jester
3rd Degree
2nd Chance


  1. Welcome Andrew

    Great post. Love the format. Spot on! 11 and 13 are my fave.


  2. Great advice. I tend to focus my writing on YA fiction, but I think theses rules are great to take into account :) In this day in age with books competing against movies, video games and other media, I agree that it's essential for a book to capture the reader's imagination quickly and move them through the story to where the reader suddenly finds that they're already halfway through the book with no idea how they got there :)

  3. This is some of the best advice I have ever read about writing fiction!

    Thanks to both!

  4. Thanks for this great recipe for writing success, Andrew. And thanks, Aaron, for hosting such a great guest post.

  5. This is all great, because after I read it I was like, "duh." But I couldn't have got to "duh" if Andrew hadn't gotten me there.

    Anybody heard of the Seven Master Plots, by Christopher Books? I'm gonna start reading that pretty soon. I think maybe my art could benefit from a little more science.

  6. Especially loved the part about the detailed outlining... probably because i really need to work on that. =)

  7. Those short crisp scenes will get them every time.
    Chapter 1

    "I hopped in the truck, fired up the 8-cyl.
    He'd been sitting behind me the whole time.
    I barely got a look at his eyes in the rear view when I felt the pressure of cold steel up against the back of my head."

    Chapter 2

    great post!

  8. Excellent post!! Andrew has such an amazing talent and I loved reading his tips. Does #13 count in real life as well?! LOL! I love short chapters in thrillers. There is just something about them that adds intensity to the story, I think.