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Thursday, September 19, 2013

A perfect thriller: my secret formula

September 13, 2013: I have been enjoying political thrillers for most of my life.  I am entirely enamored by a good thriller, one with intrigue, drama, political twists and turns.  A great political thriller must start with great politics. A realistic political plot is the foundation upon which the entire story rests. A thriller can have all the remaining attributes of a great story, but if it gets the politics wrong end of story.  

What do I mean by getting the politics right? It's setting up plausible scenarios, ones that are possible not only physically but also politically. Starting from this point is a sure sign the author has done his/her homework.  An author can kill ones suspension of disbelief quick if they present a political event that is impossible, say the House of Representatives rejecting a treaty or the president enacting legislation unilaterally. Get the politics right and the rest is icing on the cake.

I am less drawn to the explosions and car chases of traditional thrillers.  They often leave me tired and often fail to push the story line in any real way. However, I recognize explosions and car chases have there place.  But give me well written political intrigue and I'm happy. A hanging threat in my book is far more terrifying than the actual violence.

I also like thrillers that muddle the bad guy. Thrillers that make it hard to suss out the actual villain are particularly appealing.  Again, its far more terrifying if evil could be anyone, rather than the mustache twisting cliché.  I am also drawn to villains that have motivations other than doing pure evil. The villains in their own mind can rationalize their violence. This approach makes the reader more likely to relate to the villain and in my book make their use of violence more tragic, more powerful. 

Thrillers that portray the hero as less than perfect are also intriguing.  A hero that must defeat the bad guy, but also overcome his/her own shortcomings makes them more believable and their effort more heroic. Heroes that are perfect lack drama. Where's the suspense in a hero that can't lose and has no flaws?

So here's my formula for a great thriller. Start with great and believable political intrigue/drama/twists and turns, minimize the car chases and explosions, throw in a complicated bad guy, and add a less than perfect hero. Voila, a perfect thriller.

Here are a few of my favorite thrillers.

What are your thoughts on a perfect thriller?


  1. Hughie Green would have had an extra metric ... star quality, which does fade eg Dan Brown. For consistency I would pick Bernard Cornwell

  2. Thanks Paul. I will check out Bernard Cornwell.

  3. Writing a trilogy mystery without all the things you also seem to dislike. Love the venue and always put environmental comments and my political leanings into the work. Fun.