Tips for Writers

Thrillers to Learn From

I gave a talk a couple of months ago at Muse and the Marketplace, the terrific annual writers conference sponsored by Grub Street in Boston, where I listed the best books to learn thriller-writing from — a few nonfiction books, but mostly great thrillers that I think every thriller writer should read and take notes from. I’ve received loads of requests to put this list online.

Here it is, my list of the thrillers you need to read if you’re an aspiring thriller writer (or just want to read some great suspense novels):

  • Peter Abrahams, The Tutor. Mom and Dad hire an SAT tutor for their slacker son. Turns out he’s the tutor from hell. Abrahams is one of the best writers around.
  • James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Sounds old-fashioned, right? Nope. Apart from some dated slang, the language is crisp and timeless, and the story is fast and furious and unfolds like a Greek tragedy.
  • Lee Child, Persuader. Reacher is a great series hero, and Lee Child’s dry, crackling prose is among the best in the business. The opening to Persuader is one of the best, most cleverly worked out thriller openings I’ve ever read.
  • Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park and Disclosure. Two very different books of his: I’ve always admired the way he incorporates research and complicated technical detail without slowing down the pace; on the contrary, all that stuff heightens the intrigue.
  • Harlan Coben, Tell No One. Irresistible hook, great voice, twist after twist after twist.
  • Nelson DeMille, The Gold Coast. One of my favorites. More of a straight “novel” than a thriller, but this, along with all of DeMille’s books since then, is a model of how to incorporate humor and attitude into your storytelling without diminishing the suspense.
  • Ken Follett, The Eye of the Needle. Hits on all cylinders: plot, pacing, love story, narrative momentum, and characters — especially a great, interesting villain.
  • Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal. I think I’ve gone through three paperback copies already. Forsyth is no great stylist, but that’s not a disadvantage here: it reads like a documentary in novel form. Plausible, realistic, authoritative, really exciting. Wonderfully executed. A classic.
  • William Goldman, Marathon Man. This is the one that has influenced more thriller writers working today than any other, whether they admit it or not. Why? The voice – slangy, casual, intimate, fresh. The twists you don’t see coming. Fast, stripped down, elegant, powerful.
  • John Grisham, The Firm. A great hook, told with economy and relentless pace.
  • Robert Harris, The Ghost. It’s all in the telling – Harris, an elegant writer, ratchets up the suspense with hardly any violence or bloodshed. Also a great book about writing.
  • Thomas Harris, Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. Red Dragon is one of the scariest books you’ll ever read, and Silence of the Lambs is more than Hannibal Lecter. Harris is also a wonderful writer who knows how to do exposition and incorporate detail in a completely natural way. Check out the brilliantly choreographed escape sequence, chapters 36 to 38.
  • Anthony Hyde, Red Fox. For some reason, this is all but forgotten. But it’s excellent – spare prose, linear story line, with each revelation leading to the next, and extremely atmospheric.
  • John le Carre, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. A simple, fable-like story, told with grace and power. It reinvented the spy novel.
  • Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby and The Boys From Brazil. As far as I’m concerned, nobody in my line of work ever did it better. Very different plots, but each is the work of an unsurpassed, understated, yet incredibly elegant prose writer. No wonder Stephen King said of Levin: “Every novel he has ever written has been a marvel of plotting. He is the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel; he makes what the rest of us do look like those five-dollar watches you can buy in the discount drug stores.”
  • David Morrell, First Blood. Forget whatever you think about Sly Stallone and Rambo. This book is a now-classic chase novel, a mano à mano confrontation between a damaged Vietnam vet and a sheriff, and you won’t be sure whom to root for.
  • Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent. Amazing: melancholy, a tmospheric, a first person unreliable narrator, a plot that unspools masterfully.
  • Donald Westlake, The Hook. Classic tale of two writers in NYC, one “literary” and one “commercial,” and a murder that involves them both.

And a few non-fiction titles; most “how to” books aren’t much use, but I’ve found these helpful:

  • Stephen King, On Writing.
  • Robert McKee, Story. This is directed at screenwriters, but it’ll teach a novelist a useful and whole new way of looking at story structure.
  • Al Zuckerman, Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Some of Zuckerman’s examples are out of date, but the basics remain, and it’s very smart.