Navigation Menu+

Spy Novel Plots – Four Great Spy Story Ideas

Do you want to write a spy novel? Do you have a great high concept idea? Awesome! We are 0.1% of the way to fame and fortune!

What? 0.1%? Surely not? Can’t we just phone Random House and tell them our idea and they’ll send a cheque over?

Unfortunately not… first what we need to do is take that great idea and turn it into a story.

To do that we need a plot. And the first thing we need to do to work out our plot is decide what type of plot it’s going to be.

Luckily, as a professional spy thriller novelist and the author of A Kill in the Morning, I’m here to help. I’ve narrowed down our options to four classic spy novel plots that almost all spy thrillers use.

I explain what the four classic spy novel plots are below, but first, we need to know a little about archetypes.

Spy Novel Plots: Archetypes

Story archetypes are the building blocks of fiction. The four main ones we need to know about are:

Protagonist – Protagonists are responsible for most of the action in a story.

Antagonist – The Antagonist is the primary obstacle to the Protagonist.

Mentor – The person who helps, advises or trains the protagonist.

Prize – Whatever the Protagonist wants to win, achieve, find or defeat.

For more explanation of archetypes please see my post about  story archetypes.

Spy Novel Plots: The Big Four

Spy thrillers are genre novels and so they have a contract with the reader to deliver a certain type of story that is within those genre boundaries. That limits the options to four archetypal spy novel plots:

The Mission

The Mystery

On The Run

Playing Defence

Spy Novel Plot 1: The Mission

This plot is a straightforward one but it’s also one of the best. The Protagonist is simply given a ‘mission’  and attempts to carry it out. The Protagonist often works for an espionage agency or a covert military unit and their Prize is successfully achieving the mission.

Black Helicopters

The ‘Mission’ Plot

The Protagonist:

  1. Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
  2. Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
  3. Makes a plan to complete the Mission.
  4. Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
  5. Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
  6. Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
  7. Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
  8. Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes).
  9. Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.

Examples of the Mission spy novel plot are Argo, Firefox, The Day of the Jackal, The Eagle has Landed   and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Spy Novel Plot 2: The Mystery

In the Mystery plot the protagonist investigates a disaster attempting to discover who was responsible. The Protagonist often works for a counter-intelligence or counter-terrorism agency and their Prize is unmasking the Antagonist.

How to Become a Spy

There are elements of mystery in many spy novels, but only some are Mysteries – the prime differentiator is that in a Mystery the Protagonist doesn’t know who the Antagonist is.

The ‘Mystery’ Plot

The Protagonist:

  1. Discovers a disaster perpetrated by an unknown Antagonist for unknown reasons (or is assigned to investigate by their Mentor).
  2. Makes a plan to investigate the tragedy and discover who the Antagonist is.
  3. Investigates and gathers clues suggesting who the Antagonist is.
  4. Is impeded by the Antagonist.
  5. Involves one or more Allies in their investigation (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
  6. Attempts to discover further clues to the identity of the Antagonist, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
  7. Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
  8. Discovers the identity of the Antagonist and the reasons for their actions and any wider plan.
  9. Is involved in a final confrontation with the Antagonist and stops (or fails to stop) them carrying out their plan.

Examples of the Mystery spy novel plot are SS-GB,   One Lonely Night   and Ice Station Zebra.

Spy Novel Plot 3: On the Run

The On The Run plot is the basis of many spy thrillers. The Protagonist stumbles on something vital to the Antagonist and has to run for their life with the Antagonist in pursuit. In the On the Run plot, the Protagonist is often an a reluctant amateur caught up in events they don’t understand, and their Prize is survival.

The Thirty-Nine Steps Book Review

There are two subtypes – the Straight Run, and the Conspiracy. The main difference between a Straight Run and a Conspiracy is whether the Protagonist knows the identity of the Antagonists. The Conspiracy has a Mystery element, as well as evading the Antagonists, the Protagonist has to work out what is going on.

The ‘Straight Run’ Plot

The Protagonist:

  1. Is involved in an Inciting Incident with a group of Antagonists.
  2. Realises they are not safe from the Antagonists.
  3. Is also not safe from the authorities, as they are tricked or controlled by the Antagonists.
  4. Goes on the run, pursued by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
  5. Involves one or more Allies in their escape (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
  6. Narrowly avoids capture and death (or is captured and escapes) by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
  7. Persuades the authorities they should work together to stop the Antagonists.
  8. Confronts the Antagonists and stops (or fails to stop) them.

The ‘Conspiracy’ Plot

The Protagonist:

  1. Witnesses an Inciting Incident with a group of Antagonists.
  2. Realises they are not safe from the Antagonists.
  3. Is also not safe from the authorities, as they are tricked or infiltrated by the Antagonists.
  4. Goes on the run, pursued by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
  5. Involves one or more Allies in their escape (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
  6. Narrowly avoids capture and death (or is captured and escapes) by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
  7. Discovers who the Antagonists are.
  8. Persuades the authorities they should work together to stop the Antagonists.
  9. Confronts the Antagonists and stops (or fails to stop) them.

Examples of the On the Run spy novel plot are Rogue Male   and North By Northwest,   which are Straight Runs. The Thirty-Nine Steps,   and Six Days of the Condor are Conspiracies.

Spy Novel Plot 4: Playing Defence

In the Playing Defence spy novel plot, the Antagonist attacks someone or something important to the Protagonist and the Protagonist tries to defend it. Often the Protagonist works in counter-intelligence or counter-terrorism, and the Protagonist’s Prize is elimination of the threat.

Skyfall staring Daniel Craig

Playing Defence is a less common plot than the other spy novel plots. Many novels and movies start with an attack by the Antagonist, but don’t have a Playing Defence plot. Instead the Antagonist attacks and then the Protagonist is given the task of recovering. The attack is the Inciting Incident in a Mission or  Mystery plot.

For example, Thunderball starts with SPECTRE, stealing nuclear weapons, but after that SPECTRE is largely on the defensive as Bond investigates.

The difference in a Playing Defence plot is that the Protagonist remains off-balance and reacting to the Antagonist throughout most of the story.

Several of Tom Clancy’s novels are Playing Defence plots. For example, in Patriot Games Jack Ryan foils a terrorist attack on the British royal family in the opening sequence. The terrorists then target Ryan and his family and make several further attempts to kill both them and a member of the royal family who has befriended Ryan.

A Playing Defence plot often ends with the Protagonist cornered and having to fight the Antagonist to the death, for example in Skyfall, where Bond ends up defending his childhood home.

The Playing Defence Plot

The Protagonist:

  1. Is involved in an Inciting Incident caused by the Antagonist.
  2. Makes a plan to stop the Antagonist.
  3. Trains and gathers resources to stop the antagonist.
  4. Involves one or more Allies in their defence (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
  5. Attempts to prevent the Antagonist’s attack, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
  6. Has their plan undercut by the Antagonist attacking differently.
  7. Narrowly fails to stop the Antagonist (or stops the Antagonist who then escapes)
  8. Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and stops (or fails to stop) them carrying out their plan.

Examples of the Playing Defence spy novel plot are From Russia With Love Skyfall, Patriot Games and my novel A Kill in the Morning .

Hybrid Plots

Spy Novel Plots - The Four Spy Story Plot Ideas

Mystery Hybrids

Many spy thrillers have a mystery element. Whether the overall story is a Mystery plot though depends on how prominent the unresolved question is. If it’s just a sub-plot, then the story isn’t necessarily a Mystery.

Similarly, if the Antagonist is out in the open before halfway through the story then it’s not a full-fledged Mystery. Starting with a Mystery and then morphing in to one of the other plots is very common. The discovery of the Antagonist’s identity serves as a prelude, either to a Mission plot where the protagonist attempts to prevent the Antagonist carrying out their scheme, or with the protagonist On The Run.

Fatherland,  is an example of a Mystery that is resolved in the second Act of the novel, in the final Act, Xavier March, the protagonist is On the Run.

Multiple Protagonists

Novels with more than one protagonist can either have a combination of plots, one for each protagonist. One could be investigating a Mystery while the other has a Mission for example.

The Hunt For Red October is an example of a novel with dual protagonists (Ryan and Ramius) Ramius is On The Run (trying to defect with his submarine), while Ryan has a Mission (to try and help Ramius defect)

Mission Gone Wrong

This is a hybrid of the Mission and the On The Run plots. The protagonist starts off on a Mission but it goes wrong and they end up On The Run chased by the Antagonist. Bravo Two Zero and  The Afrika Reich  are examples of this hybrid plot.

Defence and Attack

Starting off Playing Defence and then morphing into a Mission is also common. Again it’s a question of prominence. If the Antagonist is on the defensive before halfway through the story then its not a Playing Defence plot.

Hybrids with other Genres

Some novels though they might use spy motifs are hybrids with other Genres such as Romance or Adventure.

For example, The Great Impersonation  presents itself as a Mission but is really a hybrid of Mystery and Gothic Romance. Similarly,  The Riddle of the Sands  is a hybrid of Mystery and sailing Adventure, and  Casino Royale,  is a mission for the first two acts but then becomes a romantic tragedy.

Book Recommendation

The book on archetypes that I recommend is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It’s available on US Amazon here and UK Amazon here.  It’s not specific to spy novel plots, but offers generic characters and structures common to all stories.

But What About…

There may be some spy thrillers (particularly more literary works) that don’t have one of those structures. If you can think of a spy story that doesn’t fit into these four spy novel plots then please do let me know. Otherwise please feel free to share this article using the buttons below.

Loading...
Get my monthly free short story