Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller

27 Nov

Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller

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

1–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.

2–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!

3–A worthy adversary for the protagonist. Your antagonist needs to be as clever, strong, resourceful and determined as your protagonist, but also truly nasty, immoral and frightening.

4–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.

5–A story that fits the protagonist and vice-versa. If it doesn’t, change your protagonist — or your story line. You can always use your present one in another novel.

6–An inciting incident. What happens to the main character to set the story events in action? Make it tense and compelling.

7–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.

8–Lots of suspense. Keep the readers on the edge of their seats, turning the pages to find out what’s going to happen next. See my blog post at

9–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 don’t head-hop within a scene! Wait for a new scene or chapter to change viewpoints.

10–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.

11–Increasing danger. Keep 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!

12–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.

13–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.

14–Lots of emotions. Bring your characters to life by showing their fear, trepidation, panic, pain, determination, courage, satisfaction, relief, joy, excitement, elation and other emotions.

15–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.

16–Critical turning points. Present your hero with life-or-death decisions and show his anxiety, tension, and indecision.

17–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.

18–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.

19–Twists and surprises. Write in a few unexpected plot twists, but make sure that, in retrospect, they make sense to the readers.

20–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.

21–A satisfying ending. Leave the unhappy or unresolved endings for literary fiction. Let the good guy overcome the bad guy — by a hair.

22–Psychological growth and change in the hero/heroine. Adversity has made him or her stronger, braver, wiser, a better person.

Jodie Renner is a freelance manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at, as well as Crime Fiction Collective, of which she is a founding member.



Posted by on November 27, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing


13 responses to “Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller

  1. ~syrya~

    November 27, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Hi! I follow your blog and I love it! Thank you!!!!


  2. J.D.

    November 28, 2011 at 6:14 am

    “Write in a few unexpected plot twist.” Sure, got ’em right here. “A satisfying ending.” Coming right up.


  3. franstewart

    November 28, 2011 at 6:56 am

    Thank you for such succinct advice. Even those of us who have a number of published mysteries can use a reminder. I’ve copied your post into a Word .docx and plan to refer to it periodically.


  4. Jodie Renner

    November 28, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Thanks for your comments, Syrya, J.D. and Fran. I’m happy when writers find my tips helpful – we all gain in the end, with more compelling, exciting novels to read.


  5. Allan Leverone (@AllanLeverone)

    November 28, 2011 at 10:02 am

    All genre fiction requires certain critical elements, and thrillers are no exception. Thanks, Jodie, for a complete and thorough checklist…


  6. ianjwalkley

    November 28, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    This is an extremely valuable checklist. Thanks Jodie. I’ve copied it to refer to later.


  7. londongirl

    November 28, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Your advice is very helpful and I will use this tool forever.


  8. Jodie Renner

    November 28, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Thanks, Allan, Ian and LondonGirl for your kind comments. I’m glad my list is helpful! Keep on writing!


  9. Marilyn Levinson

    November 29, 2011 at 11:19 am

    A wonderful check list of important elements. This blog’s a keeper.


    • Jodie Renner

      November 29, 2011 at 11:42 am

      Thanks, Marilyn! And thanks to Dr. D.P. Lyle for hosting my craft of fiction articles. If anyone is looking for a freelance editor, please check out my website (URL above) for more info on my process and services.


  10. joel weiss

    November 29, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    Found your tips very helpful looking foward to more


  11. J.L. Hammer (@HammerJL)

    December 5, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    Jodie, thank you for the useful tips. I printed this out to use as checklist for developing and revising my novels.


    • Jodie Renner

      December 5, 2011 at 7:23 pm

      Thanks for the kind comments, Joel and J.L. I’m glad you find my tips helpful. Hope to see your thrillers in print!



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