Print Friendly, PDF & Email


In July, I attended the International Thriller Writers’ annual ThrillerFest in New York. This was my second year attending and it was great to be reacquainted with some friends from last year as well as breathing the same air as the likes of Ken Follett, Robert Crais, Gayle Lynds, David Morrell, Karin Slaughter and many other famous thriller authors.

Writers tend not to have the egos of actors, and their bodyguards are unarmed publicists, so even the most hallowed writer would generally be open for a chat, or at least willing to spare a moment for a kind word of encouragement to a fellow writer, even one as yet unpublished. And hearing other writers talk about how they approach writing, particularly how they started, is immensely inspiring.

ThrillerFest has three components: CraftFest, AgentFest and ThrillerFest itself. At CraftFest, authors present on a variety of topics around the craft of writing thrillers. AgentFest is like a two hour speed-dating session between agents and unpublished writers. This year 200 writers had three minutes to pitch to sixty two agents. In the time allowed I found five agents willing to consider my manuscript, which is five more than I have been able to attract in Australia. ThrillerFest is two days of topic panel discussions and spotlight guest speakers, with social events each evening.

Here are some of the gems I collected from CraftFest:

Dr. DP Lyle (Forensics in fiction):

  • Don’t forget that in small towns police don’t have the same resources as in the big city (particularly in the US). This gives more opportunity for gaps in the forensics, and also for evidence to be tampered with.
  • Also, did you know that semen can live for a week in dead people?

Steve Berry (Psychic Distance):

  • To create emotional connection with the reader, it is essential in third person POV that the writer doesn’t make the mistake of zooming in and out. Remain close to the narrator – keep the psychic distance close by the use of “he” or “she” after first use in a chapter/scene of the narrator’s name, rather than constantly using the name. Only use the name again where there may be confusion in dialogue as to who is speaking.

William Bernhardt (Plotting):

  • There are only five types of plots – “Education Plot” (growth), “Disillusionment”, “Testing”, “Redemption” and “Corruption” (where the hero goes bad).
  • There needs to be an event, a change and conflict in every scene, otherwise it is superfluous.

Andrew Gross (Emotion):

  • When plotting a novel, start with key relationships between characters and build the plot around them (I like this one).
  • Ensure that in the first ten pages the reader is able to empathize with the main character.

Michael Palmer (Crafting the thriller):

  • In developing a story choose a topic and develop a series of questions around it to flesh out the concept. Then ask yourself – “Whose story is this?” (and in each scene, to decide POV, ask “whose scene is this?”) That is, who has the most at stake?
  • At the end of the day the thing everyone is chasing is unimportant (Google “MacGuffin” if you don’t know what that is). It is only the actions and reactions of characters that are important to the reader.

John Gilstrap (Point of View):

  • There are basically three types of stories: “Chase me”, “Fix it” or “Stop it”.
  • Setting is a character in itself (eg Hogwarts in Harry Potter).
  • When you are writing in third person consider the scene a movie and think about where you would place the camera – what would you see/describe?
  • Never stop the action to reveal character backstory, always make it part of the story as it unfolds.

Ken Follett (How thrillers work):

  • Research and description are useful devices to distract the reader from thinking about the clues you are leaving. They also help to involve the reader and intensify character feelings.
  • When writing in the POV character, include thinking about what might be likely to happen, what other characters might be doing or about to do, what others are thinking, and what others are thinking about that POV character. Give the POV character curiosity. (I like this too).
  • Surround the hero with family and friends who love him/her. Give the hero lots of vulnerabilities. Obstacles should address vulnerabilities as well as where the hero has skills.

Erica Spindler/JT Ellison (Relationships without killing pace):

  • Use relationships as plot devices, and as obstacles to achieving character goals.
  • Remember that the hero and the villain have a relationship even if they haven’t met. What is the nature of that relationship? How do they think about each other?
  • Relationships can contribute to or detract from the character arc.
  •  Don’t forget the relationship of a character with themselves – do they delude themselves? Do they make up excuses to justify their behaviour?
  • Use sex to show character – the way they have sex is a reflection of their personality.
  • Give the victim a personality and motivations and relationships.
  • Point out when characters act out of character.

Gayle Lynds (Suspense):

  • Plot is the suspense that binds the scenes in your story.
  • Hero= Jeopardy; Villain= Menace.

MJ Rose and Doug Clegg (Buzz your book):

  • Use something controversial done by a character as a marketing prompt for your book.

One other useful tip was to add a heading at the start of each chapter (or scene) stating whose POV it is. Then, as part of the editing process, search on the POV and follow the linear progress of that character all the way through the book.

These are only a fraction of the take-outs from Thrillerfest. I’d encourage any emerging writer to attend a writers’ festival if you haven’t been. It’s inspiring how much camaraderie and skills can accrue from such an investment.

Ian Walkley, Brisbane, Australia.


Karen Dionne
Latest posts by Karen Dionne (see all)