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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 we keep the reader engrossed? How many supposed thrillers have you abandoned because you lost interest in them?

Writing Spy Fiction: 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

Writing Spy Fiction: How to Develop a Blockbuster Concept

Discovering Blockbuster Spy Novel Plot Ideas

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 we can reduce to 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.

Writing Spy Fiction: Killer Logline

Writing the Killer Logline

Once you have a blockbuster concept, we 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

Writing Spy Fiction: Flawless Structure

Spy Novel Plots - The Four Spy Story Plot Ideas

With the blockbuster concept and the logline nailed down, 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.

I’ve narrowed down our options to four classic spy novel plots that almost all spy thrillers use.

The Mission

The Mystery

On The Run

Playing Defence

To decide which type of plot is right for your novel, see Spy Novel Plots – Four Great Spy Story Ideas.

Three Act Structure

Once we’ve sorted out the type of spy story we are writing, you simply take all the ideas and cool scenes in your head and write them down, then decide where they go in the story. Think about the type of story and that should help you decide which bits go where in the three act structure, which looks something like this:

Setup: Act One

Confrontation: Act Two

Consequences: Act Three

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 they’ve failed. 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

So now we should have a blockbuster concept, a killer logline and a rough outline of the story. Now the aim is to get the story told, but on a single page, called a synopsis, which shows the events of the novel and how they fit together to tell a great story.

It’s difficult to get this right, that’s why Writing a Short Synopsis of Power is here to help you.

Writing Spy Fiction: Epic Narrative Drive

Writing Spy Fiction: Epic Narrative Drive

Now, with an outstanding story to tell, we need to tell it just as well and for that we need narrative drive, because that’s what readers of spy books want. They’re 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. We are going to give our 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 outlandish as 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. We call these action chapters ‘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, make a note of the cliffhanger you are going to end each chapter 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 you set everything up earlier. If there’s a gun hidden in the safe, mention it several chapters earlier.

It works!

I used all the techniques above when I was writing my spy thriller A Kill in the Morning. After being shortlisted for the Terry Pratchett Prize, I sold A Kill in the Morning to a major publisher, Transworld. So I know this stuff works!

Read the opening of A Kill in the Morning by clicking here or on the cover:
A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin

Writing Spy Fiction: Need Help?

If you’d like me to help you develop your spy fiction, then please email me. Otherwise, feel free to share the article using the buttons below.