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Writing Spy Fiction with an Unputdownable Plot

When you’re writing spy fiction you have one overriding goal: to keep the reader turning the pages. There’s no greater compliment to the spy thriller author than for their readers to say ‘I couldn’t put it down.’ But how can you keep the reader engrossed? How many supposed thrillers have you abandoned because you lost interest in them?

Make it a Page-turner

In this article I’m going to suggest four keys to developing a plot that has the reader sitting up all night:

First – Blockbuster Concept

Second – Killer Logline

Third – Flawless Structure

Fourth – Epic Narrative Drive

How to Develop a Blockbuster Concept

The concept is a single short sentence describing what your book is about. A blockbuster concept is one whose themes and appeal are:

  • Original
  • Obvious
  • Easily communicated

Imagine you have less than ten words to tell your friend why they should go out and buy your book, what will you say? That’s your blockbuster concept.

The classic spy thrillers always have a concept that can be described in a single short sentence. For example:

What if an assassin had amnesia?

The Bourne Identity

A big-game hunter stalks Hitler

Rogue Male

Can you explain the concept of your novel in less than ten words?  If you can’t, find out the five ways to  Discover Blockbuster Spy Novel Plot Ideas .

Killer Logline

Once you have a blockbuster concept you can get the main characters and conflict of your novel established by deciding on the logline. The logline explains the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, HOW and WHY of your story (and all in a one, or at the most two, sentences)!

There’s an art to writing a logline and  Writing a Killer Logline  introduces the Killogator formula that makes generating it easier. Here’s an example:

After 9/11, a CIA ana­lyst spends years track­ing Osama bin Laden down and must nego­ti­ate ter­ror­ist bombs, moral dilem­mas and scep­tical super­i­ors to find the ter­ror­ist leader’s hid­ing place and per­suade the gov­ern­ment to attack it.

Zero Dark Thirty

Flawless Structure

With the blockbuster concept and the logline nailed down, you can start sketching in the plot of your novel using the three act structure. This is a simply taking the bits of the story and putting them in the right place. Get all the ideas in your head and write them down, then decide where they go in the story. The aim is to get the story told, but on a single page, called a synopsis.

Act One – Setup

Act Two – Confrontation

Act Three – Consequences

Act One – Setup

You introduce the protagonist and something happens that they have to do something about. Act One ends with the protagonist committed to their goal.  It should be 10 – 20% of the story.

Act Two – Confrontation

You show the protagonist struggling to reach their goal and confronting the antagonist, who is stopping them. Act Two ends with the protagonist at a crisis where it seems all is lost. This act is the bulk of the story, around 60%.

Act Three – Consequences

You show the consequences of the protagonist’s decisions in the previous acts. Act Three ends with the protagonist triumphant, although perhaps at high cost, or it ends with them failing tragically. The third act should be around 25% of the story.

Writing a Powerful Synopsis

What you need to do is write a one page synopsis showing how the events of the novel fit into the three act structure. If you are struggling,  Writing a Short Synopsis of Power is here to help you.

Epic Narrative Drive

Readers of spy books want narrative drive. They are not primarily interested in the beauty of language for its own sake. In fact, straightforward language works best. What they do want is the excitement of the protagonist’s struggle with the antagonist. The wise author gives their audience what it wants by following some simple rules.

Stunning Opening

Dynamic Protagonist

Make it Realistic

Give them Action


Startling twists

1. Stunning Opening

Most readers won’t read several chapters of background and character introduction before the story really gets going. A lot won’t even read a first page where ‘nothing happens’. Page one should include an incident that points clearly to the blockbuster concept . For example, The Bourne Identity starts with the amnesic hero being pulled from the sea. Straight away the reader is wondering who the hero is and why he has lost his memory.

2. Dynamic Protagonist

This is the hero or heroine of the story. The reader of a thriller wants to follow their hero as he makes things happen. The heroes of spy novels shouldn’t sit back and watch things happen, they should get out there and make them happen. For example, the Jackal in The Day of the Jackal carries out his plan and the reader sees him making the assassination happen. See Archetypes to Make your Story Resonate for more on Protagonists.

3. Make it Realistic

Spy novels are not realistic. No real intelligence agency carries out plots like the ones shown in spy novels. But that doesn’t mean the story can dispense with an illusion of reality. Make sure there are no coincidences. Make sure there are logical reasons, however outlandish, why the events in the book happen. Eliminate all loose ends and plot holes. All these things take the reader out of the page-turning zone.

4. Give them Action

The protagonists of spy novels shouldn’t deal with issues inside themselves, they’re out to save (or destroy) the world. The action chapters are called set-pieces, and they’re where the author delivers action to the reader. The protagonist fights, chases, flies, examines and solves, and the reader is right there with them, looking over their shoulder as they do.

5. Cliffhangers

Because our aim is to keep the reader turning the pages and there’s an instinct to stop reading at the end of a chapter we have to make sure the reader can’t bear to put the book down but feels compelled to read on. We do that by ending each chapter just as an ‘exciting bit’ is about to happen. Cliffhangers are easy to arrange once you think like this, when you’re developing the plot just make sure you make a note of the cliffhanger you are going to end it on.

6. Startling Twists

Related to cliffhangers are twists. A spy thriller must have twists. New and surprising things must keep coming up. If the reader can see too clearly where the story is going then the page-turning stops. The trick of course is to make these twists happen without coincidences. And the trick to making sure there are no coincidences is to make sure everything is set up earlier. If there’s a gun hidden in the safe, mention it three chapters or more earlier.

It works!

I used all the plot techniques above when I was writing my spy thriller A Kill in the Morning.   I submitted the novel to the  Terry Pratchett Prize  and it was shortlisted. That lead to an  offer from Transworld  to publish the novel. And now it’s coming out in June.

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The Spy Thriller Plot Developed

So, there are the four keys to developing an amazing spy novel plot: blockbuster concept, killer logline, flawless structure and epic narrative drive. Of course there’s still a lot of work to do; we’ll cover other tips in further articles in the series.

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