How to Write a Damn Good Thriller A Step-by-Step Guide for Novelists and Screenwriters

James N. Frey

St. Martin's Press




306 Pages



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A quick look at any fiction bestseller list reveals that thrillers make up most of the titles at the top. How To Write A Damn Good Thriller will help the aspiring novelist or screenwriter to design, draft, write, and polish a thriller that is sure to grab readers. Frey uses examples from both books and movies and addresses the following topics:

—Germinal ideas—Breathing life into great thriller characters—Crafting a gripping opening—Maintaining tension—Creating obstacles and conflicts—Writing a mean, lean thriller scene—Adding surprise twists—Building a smashing climax

In his trademark approachable and humorous style, Frey illuminates the building blocks of great thrillers and gives the reader the tools to write his or her own.


Praise for How to Write a Damn Good Thriller

 “James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Thriller is a must-read for anyone who dreams of writing a great thriller for the screen.  Scorning simple-minded formulas, Frey shows with absolute clarity how to create well-orchestrated, highly motivated, complex characters and pit them against each other in a high-stakes conflict.  This book is destined to be the thriller-writer’s Bible.”—Phil Gorn, screenwriter and award-winning director of S.F. and Ultimate Reality

"Jim Frey invented and owns the territory of disciplined fiction writing.  Because he absolutely knows his stuff, he demands and tolerates nothing less than solid craft from his writing students, without settling for the niceties of mediocrity that won't get you published. If you want to understand what it takes to write a great story, and with unflinching clarity, Jim Frey is the guy."—Larry Brooks, author of Darkness Bound, Serpent’s Dance, Bait and Switch, and Pressure Points

“I have James N. Frey’s books on my shelves and the spines on both are falling apart from use. He absolutely forced me to understand things like 'premise' that I otherwise would not have had a clue about. I firmly believe his books are among the best, if not the best books on the craft. He demands a lot of writers, but we both know that is absolutely essential if you are seeking to get published in this difficult market. I would be first in line to buy his new book on thrillers, though I'm certain it will cause me hours of angst because of all the things I don't know. Never met him, but would shake his hand if I did and thank him. He forces writers to think, and we don't like to do that, we like to write, but it is absolutely essential.”—Robert Dugoni, New York Times bestselling author of Wrong Death, The Jury Master, and Damage Control

“For over twenty years, James N. Frey has been providing insightful, straightforward how-to guidance on how to achieve greater dramatic effect and power in writing fiction. His gift for clarity and his passion for craft resonate on every page. Don't be put off by the bare-knuckles title. This is a wise book. Anyone interested in writing thrillers would be foolish to pass it over.”—David Corbett, author of Blood of Paradise, Done for a Dime, and The Devil’s Redhead

"Whether you plan to write a thriller as a novel or a screenplay, this book will help you throughout your creative process.  All the tricks of the trade and all the insights of a master storyteller are laid bare for your use in this compulsively readable and relentlessly pragmatic book. How to Write a Damn Good Thriller is a practical guide, a useful admonition against the trivial and clichéd and a fun read all wrapped up together.  Read it, use it, then thrill us with your story."—David Howard, author of The Tools of Screenwriting and How to Build a Great Screenplay

How to Write a Damn Good Thriller is an inspiring, entertaining read, packed with great advice about crafting your thriller, from finding a concept, through creating believable villains and heroes, to building an exciting climax. I’ve written four published thrillers, and Frey’s book has me psyched to get started on the next one.  I wish How to Write a Damn Good Thriller had come out years ago.  It would have saved me a lot of time and trouble."—Patrick Quinlan, author of Smoked and The Takedown

"The author’s fifth guide to writing 'damn good fiction' offers a useful and entertaining look at the process of writing a thriller. Some readers may be confused, at first, by his seemingly overbroad definition of a thriller (the Iliad? Miss Congeniality?), but thrillers, Frey argues, should be defined by their key elements: heroes with impossible missions, theatrically extreme villains, a series of obstacles, a rousing climax. The author leads us through the process of putting together a thriller by creating several stories and then showing us how to elaborate their plots and how to design their characters. It’s an interesting approach, sort of a hands-on seminar. He also refers frequently to various well-known thrillers (The Boys from Brazil, Jaws, The Day of the Jackal, etc.) and explains why they work the way they do. By adopting a practical approach—showing us in specific terms how to build a character, for example, rather than simply giving us general pointers—Frey makes the prospect of writing a novel feel considerably less daunting."—David Pitt, Booklist

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

How to Write a Damn Good Thriller
1 Germinal Ideas: High Concepts and Bad ConceptsTypes of Thrillers, Plus a Special Note About Psychological Thrillers 
The germinal idea is simply the idea that you have that gives the spark to your creative fire. It's something you feel hot about, something you think you can turn into a damn good thriller and hope that the reader or audience will think so, too.High concept is a Hollywood term. It refers to the germinal idea for a project that excites producers and makes their hearts go thumpety-thump when they hear it. It's usually
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  • James N. Frey

  • James N. Frey is the author of internationally bestselling books on the craft of writing and nine novels, including the Edgar Award-winning The Long Way to Die. He teaches creative writing and is a feature speaker at writers' conferences throughout the United States and Europe. He lives in Berkeley, California.
  • James N. Frey Elizabeth Frey