How to Write an Action or Thriller Novel

I want to write an action novel with a slight of thriller essence. Can someone give me an idea for a start?

This was a question request I got on Quora the other day, and the answer I started drafting really wanted to be a blog post. So here it is:  how to write an action novel that’s also a thriller.

action thriller image

1.  Choose your main character.

Main characters in action/thriller novels are pretty stock. You can, of course, differentiate your novel from the rest of the genre by deviating cleverly from the stock elements, but for the sake of this tutorial, let’s stick with a recognizable action protagonist.

Main character: Bud Steelabs, age 36, ruggedly good-looking.

2.  Decide where the story ends. 

Most action/thriller novels and films end with the main character prevailing over the bad guys, so let’s go with that.

The story ends when Bud Steelabs defeats the bad guys.

Okay, but who are the bad guys? Terrorists? Let’s go with terrorists.

The story ends when Bud Steelabs defeats the terrorists.

Once you know where the novel ends, you have a pretty good idea where it begins. Its start should be more or less the opposite of its end.

The story starts when Bud Steelabs learns that the terrorists are ____.

The terrorists are probably terrorizing someone in some place. Since most thriller plots are plausible enough to happen in the real world, it’s important to do enough research to understand the place in the world the primary action of the plot takes place, who is likely to be involved, and so on.

But what the terrorists are up to isn’t actually the most important part of the plot. How Bud Steelabs stops them isn’t the most important part, either. More important than either of these is question number 3:

3.  Decide where the main character ends.

Sure, Bud Steelabs stops the terrorists. But who is Bud Steelabs when he does this – and how is the Bud Steelabs at the end of the book different from the Bud Steelabs at the beginning?

Good novels differ from forgettable novels in one key way: in good novels, the main character, not the external events, is the one who undergoes the biggest change. This is even true of action stories and thrillers.

In order to decide how Bud Steelabs changes, ask yourself: Why is Bud Steelabs going after the terrorists in the first place? Sure, it’s his job, but no one is required to be the main character of an action novel; Bud could just as easily decide to retire and take a weekend job at Home Depot. Why does stopping these terrorists matter to Bud?

Maybe the terrorists have kidnapped his wife and child. (See: several Liam Neeson films.)

Maybe Bud is getting a little long in the tooth and needs to prove he’s still relevant in a rapidly-changing world. (See: Skyfall.)

Maybe the terrorists are his wife and child, or his best friend. (See: Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)

Bud needs a personal reason to go after the terrorists. A reason that’s going to gnaw at him. A reason that will trip him up a bunch of times, but that also keeps driving him forward.

Once you know what kind of person Bud Steelabs will be once he ends the plot….

4. Decide where the main character begins.

Do not start the book with a recount of The Glorious Birth of Bud Steelabs. Do not. No one cares how Bud Steelabs got born.

Instead, start with where Bud Steelabs is internally; the thing that’s going to change for him over the course of the story. If Bud Steelabs is feeling a little old and irrelevant, the story might start with him failing a physical, or failing to catch a pickpocket. If Bud Steelabs is about to learn his best friend is a terrorist, the story might start with a co-worker chiding Bud about how all he does is work and he has no real friends. If Bud Steelabs is about to learn his daughter was kidnapped by terrorists, the story might start with Bud missing a soccer game in which she scored the winning goal.

This is where the story starts: by setting up the main character for an important change in a way that also introduces the stakes of his inevitable fight with the terrorists.

5.  Then other stuff happens.

Generally speaking, every story gets worse before it gets better, and The Saga of Bud Steelabs is no exception.

One good rule of thumb for action and thriller-type plots is to introduce two problems for every one problem the protagonist solves. Eventually the main character will need to start wrapping these problems up, but for about 4/5 of the book, make things continually harder for him.

Jam his gun. Make him run out of ammo. Give him a serious, mobility-limiting injury. Kidnap more children. Hire more terrorists. Just generally make his life suck more and more. (Die Hard does an excellent job of this.)


6. Make the action the least important part of the plot.

But wait! It’s an action story, right? Shouldn’t there be action?

Yes, there should. There should be action. There should be plenty of action.

But the action is actually the least important part of writing an action novel. The most important part, from the writer’s perspective, is to make the audience care about the main character.

Give readers a reason to root for the main character – not for just any generic “good guy” who might stop the “bad guys,” but for Bud Steelabs specifically. Why should we want Bud to succeed – so he can be reunited with his adorable daughter, save his best friend, prove his relevance, learn the meaning of Christmas?

A main character we care about is the difference between a good novel and a mediocre one. Bud Steelabs wouldn’t write a mediocre novel, and neither should you.

Like this post? Buy me a coffee. It’s what Bud Steelabs would do.