How to Write a Thriller

The Steel Dagger Award is a prize for the best Thriller published in the UK, and Ian Fleming Publications Ltd established the prize as a tribute to Ian Fleming’s great contribution to the genre. In ‘How to Write a Thriller’, Ian put forth his ideas on what makes a successful thriller, and we still use the criteria Ian came up with to judge the submissions for the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award.

There is only one recipe for a best-seller and it is a very simple one. You have to get the reader to turn over the page.

Ian Fleming, How to Write a Thriller

We asked the 2009 Steel Dagger short-listed authors to let us know what their advice would be to those setting out to write a great thriller; and though not all novelists are lucky enough to be able to write in the morning and scuba-dive in the evening in a beautiful house in the Caribbean, some of our Steel Dagger short-list authors did have some sage advice and encouragement!

John Hart

John Hart is the Edgar Award winning author of three novels, The King of Lies, Down River and The Last Child, all of which were New York Times bestsellers. His books have been translated into twenty-six languages and published in over thirty countries (including the UK, where Down River was a London Times bestseller and a Richard and Judy Summer Read). A “recovering attorney”, John has also worked as a banker, stockbroker and apprentice helicopter mechanic. Other than writing, his favourite job was pulling pints in a London pub. A husband and father of two, John still lives in his native North Carolina, where he writes full-time.

How to Write A Thriller

There are so many kinds of thrillers, it’s hard to say that any “list” of things makes them successful. Yes, Mr. Fleming was absolutely correct when he said that for a thriller to work the reader must turn the page. That is the ultimate requirement. The question then becomes, “How best to do that?” Some authors like to put the fate of the world in the balance, as Mr. Fleming did so very well. That often requires high-stake literary devices such as terrorists, nuclear weapons, the threat of global warfare. Some authors use ancient secrets, deadly cults and other shadowy forces. I love those books, but since my novels, so far, have been set in the rural south, that kind of plot was never really an option. Instead, I try to build a character or two that the reader knows very well. I make that person as real as possible, so that his fate – life or death, prison or freedom, happiness or despair – can hopefully buy the same kind of emotional commitment that the theoretical end of the world might. This is no original trick, mind you – countless authors before me have used it – but in a smaller setting, it will always come down to the people I build. So, that’s my trick: build a character that the reader cares about, show his world with great clarity, then set that world on fire.

Charlie Newton

A thumbnail on the Chicago-born author reads like that of one of his characters—a fellow who, in his mid-fifties, has seen a bit more reality than is often healthy but come away with P. J. O’Rourke’s sense of humor instead of angst and Hunter Thompson’s pathology sans the .44 magnum. Charlie’s early career leaned toward pirate-adventurer rather than responsible citizen, living and working in exotic, often-unhealthy places, doing some of the devil’s business and some of the king’s.

The semi-adult epiphany arrived with his thirtieth birthday. Charlie Newton has built successful bars/restaurants and resort apartments, raced thoroughbreds that weren’t quite so successful, and brokered television and film in the Middle East to gentlemen who often weren’t. Generally speaking, he’s lived a life in the borderlands (literal and figurative) where stories like Calumet City happen. And survived to enjoy it.

Bio from

How To Write A Thriller

First, I’m honored to be mentioned—for any reason—in the same sentence with Ian Fleming, let alone asked to pontificate. Fleming’s turning of the page is a layered endeavor—exotic locales, brilliant characters in high-voltage, yet visceral situations. But it’s that tale told with the least Psychic Distance, that speaks to me. Whether in first or third, I want to be skin-to-skin with the devil or the Valkyrie who defeats him, on the receiving end of all that is threatening.

Mr. Fleming did that. And he’d also let you hold hands Ursula Andress when she walked out of the water.

Daniel Silva

Born in Michigan, raised and educated in California, Daniel Silva was pursuing a master’s degree in international relations when he received a temporary job offer from United Press International to help cover the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. In 1987, while covering the Iran-Iraq war, he met NBC Today Show National Correspondent Jamie Gangel. They were married within the year. Silva returned to Washington and went to work for CNN as Executive Producer of the talk show unit which included shows such as Crossfire, Capital Gang and Reliable Sources.

In 1995 he secretly began work on the manuscript that would eventually become The Unlikely Spy. After the book became a New York Times and international bestseller, he left CNN and began writing full time. He continues to reside in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. with his wife and 14-year-old twins, Lily and Nicholas. Silva was recently appointed by the President to serve on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the governing body for the U.S. Holocaust Museum. When not writing he can usually be found roaming the stacks of the Georgetown University library, where he does much of the research for his books.

How To Write A Thriller

It is a question I am asked often during encounters with readers: How do you write a good thriller? What are the secret ingredients? My answer is always the same: a good thriller needs good characters. Yes, plot, setting, subject matter, and pace are all critical elements, but in my experience it is character, and characterization, that nearly always carry the day. A clever turn of plot is sometimes forgotten. But a powerful moment involving a key character can stick in the memory of the reader long after the final page is turned. Not long ago here in America, a critic wrote of my work: “Silva continues to provide some of the most exciting spy fiction since Ian Fleming put down his martini and invented James Bond.” Of course it is very flattering, but it also speaks to how thrillers and spy fiction evolve. For without James Bond, there would be no Gabriel Allon. And without Ian Fleming, no Daniel Silva.

Olen Steinhauer

Olen Steinhauer is the author of a critically acclaimed five-novel sequence set in Cold War Eastern Europe, as well as The Tourist, a New York Times bestseller that was picked up by Warner Bros to star George Clooney. Next year the follow-up, The Nearest Exit, will be released. A well-traveled American, Olen has lived in Budapest since 2002 with his wife and daughter. At the moment, he is the new Picador Guest Professor at Leipzig University for the Winter 09/10 semester. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages.

How To Write A Thriller

It’s called storytelling—not advanced character analysis, and certainly not sugarcoated sermonizing. This truth is a thriller-writer’s best friend.

While a thriller can be as deep as any literary novel, without the rigorous forward momentum it’s a failure. Because the world is not a writing class; no one is obliged to read your book. The onus is on you, from the opening pages, to give them a reason to keep at it. Your story must be more enticing than television, surfing the Net, or sex with one’s significant other.

Good luck; you’ll need it.

Andrew Williams

After graduating in English from Trinity College, Oxford, Andrew Williams trained with the BBC and worked as a Producer on Newsnight and as a Senior Producer with Panorama and Timewatch. For ten years he wrote and directed historical documentaries for the BBC. He is the author of two best selling non fiction books, The Battle of the Atlantic and D-Day to Berlin. He writes regular book reviews for The Independent. The Interrogator is his first novel. His second, To Kill A Tsar was published by John Murray in March 2010.

Andrew Williams’ Author Page

How To Write A Thriller

It’s impossible to argue with Ian Fleming’s own recipe to shake and stir from the first page to the last. Pace, panache, a clever turn of phrase and the sort of detail that is painted with a fine brush to create atmosphere. I try to write characters the reader will recognise who are obliged to make the toughest of choices in the most testing of times.

I find writing rather a lonely business but it is a desperate habit.