The secret to writing a thriller

By Joe Moore

In a recent writer’s forum, the question was asked: What is the most important element in a story? Plot, character development, pacing, voice, etc. Of course, they’re all important. But in my opinion, there’s one element that will always get an agent or editor’s attention in a query letter. It’s the one thing that that must be in your book to make the story work? I think it’s the secret to writing a page-turning thriller.


Conflict deals with how your characters must act and react to reach their goals.

It’s the key ingredient that turns a stranger into a fan or causes an agent to request your full manuscript or an editor to drop everything and read your submission: a clear understanding and statement of conflict.

Is your hero in a race against the clock to solve the puzzle and find the treasure before all hell breaks loose? Is your heroine on the run to prove her innocence before the police track her down? That’s the plot. But what makes it interesting and compelling is what stands in their way. What’s tripping them up, causing them to falter or doubt or take a detour?


Conflict makes a thriller more thrilling. It’s the single element that keeps readers up at night. It forces the reader to continue to ask, “How is he going to get out of this one?”

There are two kinds of conflict—external and internal.

External Conflict is the struggle between a character and an outside force. The external conflict can be from another character or even a force of nature such as battling the elements—a hurricane or the extreme cold of the Arctic. External conflict usually takes place between the hero and another person or nature, or both.

Internal conflict is a struggle taking place in the hero’s mind. Mental conflict can be much more devastating that external because your character usually has to decide between right and wrong or between life and death. Internal conflict is the hero battling against himself.

Conflict causes the excitement to build to a climax, and the climax is the turning point of the story leading to a resolution. Without conflict, a story lacks life, energy and drive.

How do you approach conflict? Do you insert it into each scene? Do you use internal or external, or a combination of both? Have you ever read a story that didn’t have conflict? Was it worth reading?

11 thoughts on “The secret to writing a thriller

  1. No question, conflict is essential, and it needs to be somewhere on every scene. My problem is when the conflict is brought too much to the front in too many scenes. If it’s been set up properly, it can be left to simmer under the surface, as the reader will be aware the actions and dialog in the scene are influenced by the conflict, even if it’s not made obvious at the time.

  2. In all seriousness, Joe, I am going to slap’a you face if you ever discuss conflict on here again. There is no drama in conflict, and no place for conflict in drama.

  3. I recently did a Q&A with my publishers publicity person for the next Derek Stillwater novel, The Fallen. One of the questions was: Derek really takes a beating in this book. Can’t you give him a break?

    My answer was: What fun would that be?

    Then I went on to say that part of what I do in the Stillwater novels is put Derek in a pressure cooker. It varies from book to book, but sometimes that pressure cooker is physical, like it very much is in The Fallen. Sometimes it’s emotional, mental, even spiritual. Another word for that, of course, is “conflict” but there’s a lot of different types of conflict, and the stakes in the Stillwater novels, which focus primarily on biological and chemical terrorism, tend to be very high. If he’s trying to stop a few thousand or more people from dying, the conflict needs to be more than a broken nail. That said, having his car break down is one thing, having it break down while he’s rushing to stop the bad guy is another.

  4. I once had a writing instructor espouse “conflict on every page.” I don’t know if I’d take it that far, but it’s not bad advice to aim for.

    Internal vs. external? I say go for both. It’s one thing for a protagonist to go after a criminal(external). It’s another, more satisfying, thing altogether if he has to break the law or do something against his moral code to bring the criminal to justice (internal and external).

  5. Joe~

    You and Lynn have so much dang conflict in your books you could sell the excess! But I’m with ya brother – give me tension, my word for conflict, at every turn. Doesn’t have to be a high speed chase, or can he pick the lock before the dogs race across the yard and catch him? But a guy sitting on the couch eating chips watching a baseball game ain’t got a whole lot of tension – it just looks like my life…..

  6. Good advice, Joe. Without conflict, one is writing The Village of the Nice, Happy People, which makes for a dull read. Sometimes the conflict can be framed into a scene in subtle ways. No matter how your protagonist is moving forward, you can put in a counter-current. It can be psychological, environmental–even the hour of day may be working against him. It can’t be raw conflict all the time, because then you wind up with the Perils of Pauline.

  7. Waffles or Pancakes
    History Channel or ESPN
    Chinese food or Mexican
    Hunting or Fishing
    Cats or Dogs
    Rugby or Whimpy American Football
    Jalapenos or Tabasco
    Toilet Paper or Baby Wipes

    Life is full conflict, its what make it thrilling.

    Thrillers should be full of life which is, be definition…conflict.

  8. Thanks all for your comments and threats.

    Elizabeth, I agree with you completely. It’s gotta be there in one serving or another.

    Dana, you’re right. You don’t want to turn the story into a Perils of Pauline.

    John, you made me spill my coffee. 🙂

    Mark T. I’ve read your books and you’ve got more conflict than a WWF smackdown. You write my kind of thrillers.

    Alan, agreed. There’s plenty of room for both.

    Mark C. thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoy our books.

    Kathryn, great point. I never want to read (or write) The Adventures of Happy Town.

  9. This is a very good post; your information and advice are sound. Conflict often is, however, integral to literary works not of the thriller genre. It is in fact at the core of my recently released biographical novel, Broken Saint. The book is based on my forty-year friendship with a gay, bipolar man, and chronicles the internal and external struggles of his intensely bizarre life as he battles for stability and acceptance (of himself and by others). More information is available at

    Mark Zamen, author

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