I will admit that I have become disillusioned with thrillers in recent years. In addition to so many of them being written so unimpressively, I'm starting to think of them as mostly interchangeable. The last dozen or so thrillers I've read have all had the same characters, same villains, same plots, as follows:
Brilliant protagonist (computer specialist, usually) +
Shady government types +
Conspiracy theories +
Several double-crosses +
Evil, stop-at-nothing-to-get-money corporations =
1 Boring Thriller
I admit that I'm not quite as well-read in thrillers as I am in other types of crime fiction, but I still know what I like to see, and what gets me interested in a manuscript. So, here goes.
1. GIVE ME AT LEAST TWO PLOTS. The average thriller, for whatever reason, usually ends up about 100 printed pages longer than the typical mystery. To make the most of those extra hundred pages, it really helps to have at least two main plots, intersecting in interesting ways, along with a subplot or two. While I'm a huge advocate of tight crime fiction, I do think the thriller subgenre allows more to be crammed between the covers. It's pretty tough to keep one plot going for 400+ pages, so I do need to see more, AND both plots have to be equally intriguing, and they have to come together around the middle of the book, so that I don't feel like I'm reading two separate books until the last chapter.
2. GO BEYOND A CARTOON VILLAIN. Of all the subgenres (though some may quibble that thrillers are a full genre unto themselves, rather than a subgenre of crime fiction--an assertion with which I would not argue too much), thrillers seem to have the largest number of cartoonish villains, people who are bereft of all human sentiment, all moral fiber, and any sense of remorse or self-inspection. Lord, what I would give for a thriller in which the villain, or bad guy/gal, is more than Satan himself come to earth. An old saying goes, "The best villains think they're the hero," and a little more attention paid to that shibboleth would give us many more rich reading experiences. WHY is the villain behaving as he does? What motivates him, other than sheer evil or greed? Why can't we have more villains like Javert in Les Miserables? Think of an antagonist as more of a foil, and less as a villain, and you're on the right path to doing something interesting.
3. THERE'S MORE TO LIFE THAN COMPUTERS. Without magical computers than can solve cryptic ancient codes and process billions of possibilities per second, I fear that today's thrillers would be unable to move beyond Chapter 1. Certainly technology is advanced, and advancing farther each day, but I feel that it's become a crutch for lazy writing. The protags of today's thrillers don't seem to have much in the way of smarts; one wonders how they've become so heroic simply by feeding data into a mainframe and having the computer spit out the answer. I'd love to see some really smart, interesting protags (and I do believe that this is one of the factors that kept The Da Vinci Code at the top of the best-seller list for so long. Robert Langdon wasn't the world's most interesting man, but he certainly was a brilliant man at the top of his game.)
4. LIFE IS NOT ONE BIG CONSPIRACY. I know that conspiracies have an inherent level of interest, and certainly there's nothing like a good conspiracy. But in life I tend to think of conspiracy theorists as a little nutty. I find them so hard to swallow when I hear people spouting them at cocktail parties (and it's always a bit shocking to me how many supposedly intelligent people believe quite inane things) that I have a hard time suspending disbelief in fiction. Really, I think that a good thriller has a lot in common with a good caper, with the difference between the two being what's at stake. The stakes are a lot bigger in the thriller; but I'd encourage writers to think that the stakes can be really high without the entire world being in jeopardy.
5. AND WHAT ABOUT THOSE SERIAL KILLERS? A lot of times, I think, the serial killer book gets swept into the thriller category. I understand why; in a lot of these books, alternating chapters follow the investigators, victims, and killer, so we see multiple viewpoints, with each chapter furthering the action and creating nice suspense (in the best cases). It's really, really hard to do a good serial killer book these days, maybe because they've become such a staple of the genre that it's tough to do anything different. One serial killer book I liked, not only for the plot but also for the writing, was Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. The early Pattersons were quite good in this regard, too. I'd really like to see (if I must) a serial killer with a reasonable motive beyond insanity/psychopathy. That makes them multiple murderers rather than serial killers, which promises me a more intriguing plot and characterization.
6. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. See the recipe with which I started this post, and don't do it. It would be really, really nice if there was a motive beyond money and/or world domination. There are lots of well-meaning lunatics out there, like eco-terrorists, fanatical hobbyists who'd kill for a rare stamp, people who live life according to a theory rather than reality, and so on. There are protagonists who aren't G-men, computer specialists, or former military types. Let's try to see some new protags and antags, some of the overused techniques of suspense applied to different situations. If I see one more gorgeous, sexy, brainy femme fatale in these books I'm going to scream.
7. START WITH A BANG. These leisurely, "cerebral" thrillers that take 100 pages to kick into gear may fit someone's definition of a good read, but they sure don't fit mine. A great first chapter with some action is important in any of the crime genres, but I'd argue that it's intensely important in the thriller. The job of a thriller is, first and foremost, to thrill. You can't do that without action, without giving the reader that roller-coaster feeling right from the beginning.
8. PARCEL OUT THE SURPRISES. A good crime novel can hold its own with a shocker in the last chapter. Thrillers, however, need more than one good shock (I'd recommend at least two or three) parceled out throughout the book. It's really that sense of shock and surprise that is the most thrilling to readers; cliffhangers can and should appear throughout the book instead of in the last 20 pages. All of this means that you have to be a good planner, a good plotter, a writer with a terrific sense of pacing. Know what surprises you're going to throw at the reader before you write your first sentence, and keep them coming. Double agents and double crosses will sometimes do the trick, but they're the easy way out. Try something more subtle or more audacious, if you dare.
9. A THRILLER ISN'T A TEXTBOOK. One really nice thing about thrillers (well, any good fiction) is their ability to introduce the reader to a world they don't know much (or anything) about. I truly believe that even people who read for escapism like to learn while they read. However, too many of the manuscripts I see have been written by experts who can't write about their field for the layperson. For example, I've seen thrillers written by chemists that would require the average reader to have a Ph.D. in order to understand them. Long passages of exposition about scientific phenomena derail the action; it's much better to give a greatly simplified, easy-to-understand primer than to go into excruciating detail about your field.