2010 Steel Dagger Authors on 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 2010 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!

Simon Conway

Simon Conway is a former British Army officer and international aid worker. He was born in California in 1967, educated in Britain and studied English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He served in the British army with the Black Watch and the Queens’ Own Highlanders. After leaving the military he worked for The HALO Trust clearing land mines and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia, Kosovo, Abkhazia, Eritrea and Sri Lanka. As Director of Landmine Action he set up and ran ordnance disposal projects in Western Sahara, Liberia and Guinea Bissau. As co-Chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition he successfully campaigned for an international treaty to ban cluster bombs.
He is now a full time writer living in Washington, D.C. with his wife the Channel Four News Correspondent Sarah Smith. He has two daughters.


How To Write A Thriller

Hurry. Grab the reader by the throat and force feed. Use good ingredients, a strong plot and true-to-life characters. Be original. Bear in mind that the best lies are sandwiched between truths: lurch between believable calamities. Keep hurrying. Punish your characters in unusual ways. Write interesting words rather than dull ones. Keep your chapters short. Now and then ignore your own rules, Fleming did. Remember Von Moltke – ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy.’ Improvise! Finally, as with all lying, do it with bravado. It’s a leap of faith.  You might just get away with it.

Mick Herron

Mick Herron lives in Oxford and works in London. His short fiction regularly appears in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and his novella “Dolphin Junction” was joint winner of the 2009 Ellery Queen Readers Award. Slow Horses is his sixth novel.

Mick Herron’s Author Page

How To Write A Thriller

As a writer, what keeps me going is wine and chocolate. As a reader, what keeps me turning pages is caring about the characters – though “caring about” doesn’t always mean the same as “liking”. I can think of dozens of characters I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with, but I very much want to know what they’ll do when they get out of that lift. And that, I think, is the key – making the characters strong enough to be able to drag the reader along after them.

Henry Porter

Henry Porter has written five novels for Orion and one children’s novel. Brandenburg, which is set in East Germany at the time of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger in 2005. His thriller, Empire State, the first about extraordinary rendition, was nominated for the award. His books have been translated into over a dozen languages. For five years he campaigned against the attack on civil liberties by the government in the Observer newspaper where he writes a column. During that time he debated Tony  Blair in a public exchange of emails about his government’s record on surveillance, databases and the rights of the individual. He has been the
London editor of Vanity Fair since 1993.


How To Write A Thriller

A good thriller should be both credible and original – two qualities which are quite hard to get right at the same time. Like any good novel, the thriller  should have pace, characters you like, find interesting and recognise as real people, and a plot that is complete, as well as being surprising. But it must  have something else – a compulsive quality that occupies the reader’s mind and senses to the exclusion of almost everything else in their life. It is the thing that all great stories have had since the first light of history  – the  ability to seize hold of the reader’s imagination  so that he or she  experiences the dangers and isolation faced by the hero, frame by frame, as  though living it themselves. The thriller is about the struggle between the good and the bad and the desperate choice between fight or flight.

Scott Turow

Scott Turow is a writer and attorney. He is the author of nine best-selling works of fiction, including his first novel, Presumed Innocent (1987) and the sequel, Innocent, published by Grand Central Publishing in May, 2010.   He has also written two non-fiction books about his experiences in the law. Mr. Turow has been a partner in the Chicago office of SNR Denton, an international law firm, since 1986, concentrating on white collar criminal defense, while also devoting a substantial part of his time to pro bono matters.    He has served on a number of public bodies, including the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment to recommend reforms to Illinois’ death penalty system, and was the first Chair of Illinois’ Executive Ethics Commission which was created in 2004 to regulate executive branch employees in the Illinois State government. He is also President of the Authors Guild, the nation’s largest membership organization of professional writers, and is currently a Trustee of Amherst College.


How To Write A Thriller

I never set out to be a writer of thrillers, and am perpetually surprised that I’m regarded as a success at it.   I think the secret is managing audience expectations, delivering surprises that are fairly anticipated in what’s been written, rather than pulled out of a hat, but which readers still didn’t see coming.

Lee Child

Lee Child was fired and on the dole when he hatched a harebrained scheme to write a bestselling novel, thus saving his family from ruin. Killing Floor went on to win worldwide acclaim.  The hero of his series, Jack Reacher, besides being fictional, is a kind-hearted soul who allows Lee lots of spare time for reading, listening to music, and the New York Yankees.