The 6 Scenes Every Thriller Novel Needs
Thrillers are popular fiction for a reason. They combine the criminality and suspense of a good detective novel with the danger and pressure of a scary horror story. And while there’s no fool-proof way of writing a successful thriller, there are ways to ensure that your story is ticking all the right boxes.
So, in today’s post, I’m going to go over the six key scenes that must be present in your thriller novel in order to satisfy those readers and to write a story that works. I’m also going to show you how these scenes manifest in three popular movies—Silence of the Lambs, Misery, and Gone Girl. But before we get into the obligatory of the thriller genre, let’s go over some basics.
What makes a thriller?
People often get thrillers confused with mystery novels because they are shelved together in bookstores. But there are quite a few differences between the two genres that you need to understand if you want to write a thriller that works.
In a mystery novel, the protagonist has to figure out who committed a crime that’s already happened. The detective or sleuth drives the story forward as he or she tries to figure out the criminal’s identity.
A thriller centers around a crime that’s about to happen… unless the protagonist can stop it, of course. In a thriller, the reader often knows who the villain is from the beginning, sometimes watching over the villain’s shoulders as he or she prepares to carry out the crime. Unlike mysteries, thrillers are driven forward by the antagonist.
Beyond that, thrillers can have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have various levels of danger or violence. They can include different subplots as long as the quest to outsmart and stop the villain remains the main focus of the novel.
Why do people read thrillers?
Thrillers are fast-paced novels full of conflict, tension, suspense, unexpected twists, and high stakes. People choose thrillers because they want to experience the thrill of trying to outsmart and stop the villain before he or she commits a crime–all from the comfort of home.
And like all genre fiction, you have to deliver the obligatory scenes and conventions readers are expecting in order to give them the emotional experience they’re hoping for.
What are Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
Conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of roles, settings, events, and values that are specific to a genre. They are things that readers intuitively expect to be present in a work of genre fiction whether they consciously realize it or not.
Obligatory scenes are the key events, decisions, and discoveries that move the protagonist along on his or her journey. These key scenes are what will evoke emotional reactions in the reader—and when coupled with your genre’s conventions—will give the reader the experience they’re looking for.
What are the Obligatory Scenes in a Thriller?
#1. The Discovery of the Crime Scene
The first scene you’ll want to include in your story is a scene where a crime is discovered. This could either be your protagonist discovering the crime on their own, or it could be that the crime has already been discovered but your protagonist is hearing about it for the first time. And what’s important here is that the crime isn’t just any crime -- it’s a crime that’s indicative of a “master villain.” So, a villain or an antagonist who is either really talented or smart or someone who’s done this before. And this scene is almost always the global inciting incident of a story. From here, the story will be about figuring out how to prevent a future crime (usually of similar nature) from happening. So, like I mentioned earlier, it’s not about solving the “whodunnit” of this initial crime, it’s about stopping another crime from happening in the future.
- In Silence of the Lambs, the FBI is after a serial killer they’re calling Buffalo Bill. He’s responsible for kidnapping and killing multiple women.
- In Misery, Annie Wilkes kidnaps Paul Sheldon and holds him hostage in her house under the guise of “helping him recover from his injuries.”
- In Gone Girl, Nick Dunne comes home to find that his wife, Amy, has gone missing. When he walks into his living room, he sees overturned furniture which causes him to believe that Amy might have been kidnapped or maybe even murdered.
#2. The Stakes Become Personal Scene
The second key scene you’ll want to include is a scene in which the stakes become personal for your protagonist. So, whatever happens here, you want it to be super clear that there’s now something personal at stake for your protagonist. In other words, they now have something personal to lose or gain -- and winning or losing this thing is dependent on stopping the antagonist from committing another crime. So, the stakes are now personal for your protagonist, and because of that, your protagonist is committed to stopping the antagonist. This scene normally occurs around the end of act one, cementing your protagonist’s way forward into act two.
- In Silence of the Lambs, Lecter says he’ll give Clarice a chance at what she wants most—advancement. He gives her a clue that leads her to a storage unit containing the severed head of Benjamin Raspail, one of Lecter’s former patients and Buffalo Bill’s first victim. Clarice hopes that if she helps solve the Buffalo Bill case that she’ll advance through the FBI quicker.
- In Misery, Annie reads Paul’s latest book and is horrified to learn that Misery dies at the end. She confronts Paul and tells him that she never called any of his friends or family–no one knows where he is. The stakes are personal because his life is now tied to hers. Annie even says to him, “If I die, you die.”
- In Gone Girl, Amy makes things personal for Nick when she leaves him a scavenger hunt for their anniversary. Both the police and Nick have seen the first clue, but Nick is motivated to figure out the rest of the clues before the police do. And of course, we know he has a leg up on the police because all of the clues are personal to Nick and Amy’s relationship. Eventually, we learn that Amy orchestrated all of this because she’s getting back at Nick for cheating on her.
#3. The Protagonist Learns What the Antagonist Wants Scene
The third scene you’ll want to include in your thriller is a scene in which the protagonist discovers what the antagonist wants and why. So, this is the MacGuffin or the thing your antagonist wants. And when your protagonist discovers what this MacGuffin is, and why the antagonist wants it, this realization usually helps them move from a reactive state to more of a proactive one. In other words, they go on the offense instead of constantly being on the defense. This scene usually occurs around the midpoint of a story, or in the middle of act two.
- In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice realizes Buffalo Bill wants to be a woman. Lecter suggests that Clarice start looking into people who have applied for sexual reassignment surgery because Buffalo Bill was likely denied. Clarice takes his advice, and the puzzle pieces start coming together.
- In Misery, Annie brings home supplies for Paul–including a typewriter and paper–and tells him to write a new Misery story that brings Misery back to life. Paul realizes Annie is so obsessed with Misery that he can potentially Misery and this new story as a way to manipulate Annie and maybe even escape.
- In Gone Girl, Nick realizes that Amy is trying to frame him for her murder. He knows that he has to catch Amy before the police arrest him and put him in jail for murder. And this is a great scene because not only does this realization up the stakes, it changes everything, and puts Nick on the offense instead of always being on the defense.
#4. The Protagonist Becomes the Victim Scene
The fourth scene you’ll want to include in your thriller is a scene in which the protagonist learns or does something that puts them on a direct path to a meeting with the antagonist. In other words, they learn or do something that sets them up to become the antagonist’s final victim. And this scene usually happens at the end of act two, pushing the protagonist into act three and into the inevitable climax of the story.
- In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice realizes that Buffalo Bill knew his first victim personally. She decides to go to Buffalo Bill’s hometown to investigate.
- In Misery, Paul realizes that Annie is a serial killer. He understands now that he’s not going to make it out alive unless he kills Annie himself.
- In Gone Girl, Nick finally gets arrested (after the police confront him with Amy’s diary and the Punch and Judy puppets). And just when it looks like there’s no chance that his innocence will ever be proven, Nick learns that Amy has returned home. So, this one is kind of complicated but, basically, he was set up to become her final victim once he was arrested, but that was based on her original plan. After Amy murdered Desi, her plans change and she came back home, making Nick her final victim in a new way.
#5. The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain Scene
The fifth key scene you’ll want to include in your thriller is a scene in which the protagonist is at the mercy of the antagonist. So, this is the scene readers have been waiting for when your protagonist and your antagonist finally face each other. Whatever happens here, the best “hero a the mercy of the villain scene” usually includes a moment where your protagonist uses their special gift, talent, or skill to overpower or outsmart the antagonist. And this scene is going to be the global climax of your story.
- In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice follows Buffalo Bill into the basement of his home and quickly becomes at his mercy when the lights go out. Buffalo Bill has night vision goggles and is familiar with the layout of the basement, but all Clarice has to rely on are her instincts. Luckily for Clarice, her instincts payoff and she shoots Buffalo Bill dead.
- In Misery, after Paul realizes Annie is about to kill him, he bargains with the only thing he has left—a promise to finish Misery Returns. He tells Annie that she can kill them both but only after he finishes Misery’s story. In their final confrontation, he uses the finished draft as a way to throw Annie off her game and hits her over the head with the typewriter.
- In Gone Girl, Nick confronts Amy about everything she’s done. Amy tells Nick that she’s pregnant and uses this as a way to get him to stay with her. At first, Nick says he’s leaving no matter what, but eventually decides to stay with her for the sake of their child.
#6. The Justice Prevails (or Justice Fails) Scene
The final key scene you’ll want to include in your thriller is a scene in which readers learn whether justice prevailed or not. So, this is a scene where you’ll show readers whether or not the antagonist got away with their crime.
- In Silence of the Lambs, justice prevails. Buffalo Bill is dead. Catherine Martin is safe.
- In Misery, justice prevails (kind of). Annie Wilkes is dead, but Paul is still haunted by her memory and their time together.
- In Gone Girl, justice fails. Amy doesn’t face any consequences for her crimes because no one knows the truth about them but Nick.
So, there you have it! The six scenes every thriller novel needs to have in order to satisfy fans of the genre!
You might think that including these scenes in your thriller novel sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many drafts I see that are missing more than half of them. If you want your thriller to “work,” and to satisfy fans of the genre, make sure to deliver each of the scenes listed above.
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Do you have these obligatory scenes in your thriller novel? If not, how can you add in what’s missing? Can you identify these key scenes in your favorite thriller books or movies?