Arjun Sunil
[WIP] Writing Thrillers
Personal notes and excerpts from the Dan Brown's Masterclass

These are just excerpts and notes that I’ve written to remember the course work better. All writings below are my perceptions about the coursework and might not be entirely accurate of how the course is.

There will also be a take from a geek (me) who has done any kind of training in literature of any sort.

Some words you will come across in the following notes, but might not be familiar with (I know I wasn’t when I started this course)

  • Protagonist: The chief hero/character
  • Antagonist: The opposing side, usually the villain


Ch 1. How to write a Book

1.1 The anatomy of a thriller

“Suspense is all about making promises. It’s about telling a reader, ‘I know something you don’t know. And I promise, if you turn the page, I’m going to tell you.’” - Dan Brown

The suspense begins with the three C’s:

The contract

This is a promise that you make to the reader about what I will deliver by the end of the book. It is very important that you keep every single promise, no matter how trivial. Even if it’s just the fact that the protagonist is looking forward to buying a black dress, tie up that loose end. By the end, we’ve got to see her buy the dress or understand why she didn’t.

The clock

The clock is useful in creating higher stakes and more interest in your reader.

For example, if there wasn’t a ticking time bomb in the Vatican that would blow by midnight, Langdon wouldn’t have rushed and tried to stop it in time. He could have done it some other day and that would be no thriller now, would it?

There are thousands of ways to add time pressure — it will depend on your characters and their world, but don’t be afraid to use standard “clock” elements like ticking bombs or villains who stay one step ahead.

The crucible

The crucible can be a box that constraints your characters. This offers the characters, no escape in any form and forces them to act. As the story progresses through a series of tasks to reach the end goal, each task should get harder than the previous one. If the reader’s sense that the journey is becoming easier, they will lose interest.

1.2 Finding the idea

Trust your taste

Write the book that you would want to read. Do not write for someone else’s taste. Some people will like it, some people will hate it. But the good part about thrillers is that there is such a vast spectrum of writers to choose from.

So be true to yourself. As a writer, you want to write something that you would want to read. If you like it, somebody else will share your taste.

Write about something you care about. Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone, watch documentaries, study about these topics. In the internet age, you can virtually learn everything that there is you need to know about a place without actually visiting it.

Don’t pick a topic you’re not too keen about. Make sure it isn’t a fluke. Just the fact that you will spend a long time writing and learning and researching about ideas; you definitely don’t want to be picking a topic you’re not so sure you would want to spend time with. So make sure you’re picking a topic you’re passionate about.

I don’t have a big idea; I don’t know where to begin

When beginning, you don’t have to worry about the idea yet. Just ask yourself this one question, “What is the world you want to write your novel about?”. Once you pick a world, you’ll get an endless series of moral questions. As you gradually start answering these questions, you will have your “big idea”.

How do I find something that’s of interest to me?

Start skimming through the headlines of a newspaper. If you stop at one and start reading about what’s happening under the headlines, that is something that you’re interested in. It’s in the news because there’s some conflict. There’s some story there that you can use.

The sole dramatic question

Build the foundation of your novel with a single brick, a sole question. Make it simple and easy to follow.

Will Langdon diffuse the bomb in time?

Will Tom Cruise be able to save the world this time?

The outcome might look complex, but it answers one fundamental question. So when you write, ask yourself the question: What is my novel about?

If you seem to lose track and move away, you can always come back to this one question as your north star.

We can distill most thrillers and classics down to one simple question. It’s highly encouraged to define this one question when laying out your own story, do the same.

I need an idea that’s so amazing that I can write 500 ideas about it

Let it go. It’s never about the “What”. It’s about the “How”.

Ian Fleming wrote the same book repeatedly. Secret agent has to save the world, sweet talks the girl, he gets the girl and saves the world.

When we start that book, we don’t wonder if he’ll get the girl, if he’ll save the world in time. He will!

But you’re more interested and hooked to learn “How, " he did it.

So let go of the pressure that you HAVE to come up with something original, something new. Remember, every single idea has been used repeatedly.

But “how” we have done it is what will set us apart from the crowd.

Choosing the right idea

Let’s say you do your fishing and research and find a few ideas. How do you decide which one do you go with?

Write the prologue to each of the ideas and see which one you’re dying to finish. Another option to find a good idea from the pool would be to write the Flap copy. What is that three-paragraph description of the book that will want to make the reader read the book?

Which one of these would you want to read? That’s obviously the one you will want to write.

1.3 Choosing Locations

A lot of your heavy lifting can be done if the locations are picked properly. Sure, you could set the conversation in any other taco bell.

But if you change the location and set the scene say at sunset say at under the Eiffel tower. You’ve changed the perspective of the story. You’ve made it something that the reader would probably want to know more about next.

If it’s a place that you can visit, explore each nook and corner of the place. Place yourself in the character’s perspective, you’re writing about. This will help you find more inspiration.

Do not write too much about the place. Everyone reads fiction to know the story about the protagonist. No one want’s to know how, the what the entrance looks like and how they lay each tile out across the hallway of the louvre. If we write more about the place than the actual plot and what your character is doing, it becomes more of a travel journal than a thriller. They want to know what’s next.

Don’t forget it’s about the characters.

1.4 Creating Heroes and Villains

Choose a hero that..


Last modified on 2020-12-22

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