Learning to Write a Thriller with John Gilstrap

“A thriller is an interesting story that has a rapid heartbeat in places.” – Bestselling author John Gilstrap

Imagine taking a master class from a master storyteller. I did that on Thursday with John Gilstrap’s “Adrenaline Rush: How To Write Suspense Fiction”

Our instructor, John Gilstrap- currently a best-selling author and creator of the Jonathan Graves series – lets us know what he planned for our class.

John started right from the beginning. John set the class up as a collaborative learning environment- he asked lots of questions of students. We talked about what makes a great thriller to strong ideas for books.

We dealt with outlines. Outlines are huge. How to create a scene. How dialogue works, the importance of setting and the development of character.

“Write the story, don’t just write sentences,” said John. “It’s a daunting idea to sit down and start a book.” He covered what we needed to learn to start writing our own best-sellers.

“I hope you guys will pick up a lot of tricks of the trade,” said John.

John broke the class into several modules.


“Before we dive in, we have a few recommendations for getting the most out of your experience,” said John. John took advantage of the innovative tools and interactive assignments he created to enhance our education. We did three interactive writing assignment.


“To enjoy this class you only need a desire to learn. I’ve found that some students learn best when using a few other tools, so here’s a short list of ‘nice-to-haves’ to help maximize your learning potential, “ said John. Here is the list:

1. Raw ideas- Where do great ideas come from? Writing ideas down and keeping a journal.

2. Plot- Create conflict. Build in surprise with worthy opponents.

3. Outline- Outlining as a tool to troubleshoot your story. A character centered approach vs. an action driven plot. Outline as a tool to step back and start writing.

4. Create characters- Make a complex hero and villain- this creates reader intimacy. The importance of secondary characters.

5. Prose- Favorite first lines. Pulling the reader in with developed prose, this gets the reader invested early. Get the reader invested using simple, short declarative sentences with terse prose.

6. Dialogue- Example of great dialogue that heightens reality and reveal your characters through dialogue. Dialogue move the story forward and allows you to compress time.

7. Ending the book- What the ending needs. Plant seeds along the way. Think of alternate endings. Analyze your favorites and why like them. The secret to great endings.

8. Editing- Remove the distractions. Edit the dialogue. Keep the pages turning. Stay positive during the edit in the 200 page slump.

9. Getting published- Find the right agent. Send query letters. Don’t give up. Enjoy the victories and learn from the failures.

Gilstrap’s Rules of the Roads

“A thriller is an interesting story that has a rapid heartbeat in places. An internal pulse of the action. That’s created through sentence structure, paragraph structure,” said John.

“In movies, you’ve got the soundtrack to give you that sense of pulse. In a book, that’s gotta come from the syntax of the sentences and the word choice. As the action gets quicker, sentences get shorter and verbs become stronger. You don’t knock, you pound. It’s a secret sauce,” said John.


I learned a lot from the informative, entertaining day-long class on the craft of writing a thriller. John Gilstrap answered the questions: What makes for a strong plot? How do you take cardboard characters and bring them to life on the page? Through a lively lecture and writing exercises, we all got a peek at the skeleton that gives structure to the stories that keep us reading long into the night.