Five Simple Rules for Thriller Writers

Guest Blogger: Kyle Mills

After fifteen years making my living as a novelist, I recently had a couple of new and strange experiences.

I was happily plugging away at my manuscript for THE IMMORTALISTS when I got a call from the Robert Ludlum estate asking if I’d be interested in writing a book for their COVERT-ONE series. I honestly wasn’t sure but then I started to think that trying to write in someone else’s voice—particularly one of the genre’s masters—would be an interesting learning opportunity. I shoved what I was working on in a drawer and dove head first into dissecting Ludlum’s style and trying to combine it with my own in what became THE ARES DECISION.

It took about a year to complete the novel and by that time the details of THE IMMORTALISTS had dimmed to the point that I had to sit down and go through it more or less like a reader would. This was completely new to me—the farthest I’d ever penetrated one of my completed books was the title page when someone asked me to sign it.

The experience of writing a Ludlum novel and reading my own work with fresh eyes got me to thinking about the basic rules of thriller writing—a subject I hadn’t pondered in years.

I won’t bore you with all the nitpicky and complicated edicts that popped into my mind but I thought that some of the more straightforward ones might be helpful to aspiring thriller writers.

I recognize that artistic rules are meant to be broken and that there are people who will scream “formulaic!” and chase me around with a hatchet. But, at a minimum, it’s important to understand the rules you break so you can assess whether you have a good enough reason to stare into that particular abyss.

1:  Write in the past tense. It won’t hurt you and it’s what most thriller readers expect. Reading a present tense book when you’re not used to it can be a bit jarring.

2:  Write in the third person. I know, you’re thinking, “I’ve read perfectly entertaining first person thrillers… In fact, you wrote one of them!” And it’s all true. However, if you’re early in your career, the first person presents unnecessary plotting complications and is coloring a bit too far outside the lines.

3:  Be fairly strict with your point of view. I know, McMurtry isn’t. But you and I aren’t McMurtry. This is easy to do, enhances clarity, and gives more emotional impact to your scenes. Further, you won’t turn off those editors who hate wandering POV.

4:  Don’t get lazy on research. I remember how hard it was to do research before the Internet. After three separate calls to CIA agents, I gave up trying to figure out if an obscure (at the time) terrorist group was actually called al-Qaeda or if that just referred to their base of operations. But now we have limitless resources that can both make our books feel real and give us incredible ideas we would never think of on our own.


5:  Read SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS (Browne/King) and WRITING THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL (Zuckerman.) Twice, preferably. If you really digest these two books, you’ll have both the big picture and the minute details necessary to not make silly errors that can cause an editor or agent to put down your manuscript. If you get a rejection, you want it to be for something real—not a trivial bit of mechanics.

So that’s it. All easily accomplished and virtually guaranteed to help you improve your work. Now put away your ego, press your nose to the grindstone, and get to work.

Good luck!

Kyle Mills is the NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of eleven political crime thrillers, including DARKNESS FALLS and Robert Ludlum’s THE ARES DECISION. His initial inspiration for his novels was his father’s career as an FBI agent and director of Interpol, and it is those familial connections with international law enforcement that lend striking realism to his work. He and his wife are avid rock climbers, skiers, and mountain bikers, happy to call Jackson Hole, Wyoming, home for almost twenty years.



  1. Great practical advice, Kyle.Thanks for posting this, Janice!

  2. Thanks! Great advice. I just started re-reading Self-Editing… again this week. I read it years ago. I’m surprised how much more I’m getting out of it this time around. With a few years of writing experience I now have a better sense on how to apply Browne’s /King’s words of wisdom. I have a stack of TBR writing books to re-read including Zuckerman’s book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *