How to Plot a Thriller

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Almost exactly a year ago I published a blog called “Plotty Training”. Since then, I have learnt a huge amount, so here’s my latest take on the development of plot for a thriller.

1. Be clear what the theme of the book is.
2. Define a clear central question (CQ), triggered by an inciting incident, for the main character to pursue.
3. Write a logline and a blurb. Print and paste above your computer as reminders.
4. The CQ forms the “spine” of the story. As soon as this question is answered, the story MUST end.
5. Subplots are desirable, but they must enhance the search for the answer to the CQ.
6. Everything that happens in the story must be perfectly explained by cause and effect. There must be no coincidences, happy (or unhappy) accidents, or extraneous distractions.
7. Keep dialogue to a minimum. Pare it down ruthlessly.
8. Build the book scene by scene. The only effective fuel for a successful scene is conflict.
9. Avoid explanatory exposition at the end. “But what I don’t understand, Inspector, is how the evil nun got into the hotel in the first place.” Everything must be explained through action.
10. Build subtext. Privilege subtext, especially, is where a story gains its strength.

This last point I got by reading The Story Book by David Baboulene. It’s the best book on plotting by a mile. Baboulene lives in Brighton, UK, and is studying for a PhD in something or other. Buy the book, read it. It removed the veil from my eyes.

The other source of plotting instruction that I have is my editor, Lucille. After developing what I thought was a reasonable working outline for the second Ben Jordan book, I began to write it. When I had 30,000 words in the bag I showed the first few chapters to Lucille. She threw me some probing questions that caused me to rewrite some of it. Then I decided to show her my outline. She tore that to pieces. There was just too much in there that she called FDUMSF (Feather Dusting Unless it Moves the Story Forward). Five or six versions later, I was still struggling to come up with a solid outline that followed the core story in a way that Lucille was happy with.

Six months have passed since I first began work on this book. I now have 29,000 words that take the bones of the story through from start to finish. Lucille calls it an outline. I’ve given it to her and await with trepidation her reactions.

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