How to Write A Thriller


I’ve poured over countless manuals on writing. Characters, voice, descriptions, plot points. I’ve read bestselling thrillers until my eyes burn. I’ve paid attention to all the ups and down and emotional rollercoasters necessary to make a story un-put-downable.

But the best lesson I’ve ever learned in writing came from baseball.

Okay, so this isn’t just about a thriller. This story transcends all genres. It’s a coming of age story. It’s a thriller. And it’s also a love story, because who doesn’t love an underdog? Who doesn’t put everything into something they love so passionately? It’s a love story between fans and a team, and players and the game.

No author I know of could have written the script any better. Not Grisham. Not Sparks, not the entire team at Disney. Not even Patterson. And despite her ability to write pure magic, not even J.K. Rowling.

This is the story of the Chicago Cubs.

I’m from Chicago. While I wasn’t born there, I grew up in Cook county. It’s been a long time since I last visited my hometown. Many, many years. But this one thing is true: you can take the girl out of Chicago, but you’ll never take the Chicago from the girl. The woman even more so. I’m not that into sports, though I played field hockey in my youth. Unsurprisingly, I’m a Blackhawks fan. My dad loved baseball and the Cubs was my team. I fondly remember summers sitting on the couch and watching the games with my dad. It wasn’t just a game, it was a lesson. Never give up. Never turn your back on something you love. You’re in or you’re out, but you’re not a fair-weather fan.

While I might not have sat and watched many games after my father died in the 90s,  I still kept up with the Cubbies. Every year, I secretly hoped that this was their year. I admit, I stopped believing in fairy tales.

Not the Cubs, though. They still believed. They last won the World Series back in 1908. Twice they’d made it to the series and lost. They’re the come-from-behind kids. Their story is the stuff of dreams.

Every great story seems to have an underdog — the hero in their everyday world who has been thrust into something bigger. The Cubs rebuilt themselves from the ground up. Wrigley field got a make-over. Want a first class team? Treat them like one. You’ve got to believe, even against the odds. And the Cubs changed their mindset, too. They even used a mental skills team to retrain how the players saw themselves and the game.

It’s now 2016. They rallied against the Giants in the ninth inning to win the division. They beat the Dodgers for the Pennant. Do we dare breathe? Do we dare to hope again? In the book world, we have our hook and the end of our first act — the point of no return. Throw in characters Hendricks, Chapman, Lester, Bryant, and Fowler. Each character with their own backstory story. And then there’s Ross. This is Ross’s last season before retirement. We love these characters.  We love the emotion. We’re invested. According to reports, over 40 million of us are glued to our sets. The 2016 World Series becomes the most watched game in 25 years. Stars like John Cusak and Bill Murray are in attendance.

We eagerly turn the page.

The second act is usually where our hero gets a setback, and the World Series is no different. The Indians sweep the first game: Indians 6, Cubs 0.

The Cubs take the next game, 5-1. Things are getting tense for our Cubs. And then the moment where the Kick-in-the-Teeth scene happens. The Indians win the next two games. Now, it’s do or die. Win or go home. The Cubs need a three-game winning streak.

Game 5: We hold our breath. And the Cubs win it by one. We wait, impatiently, until we can sit down to see what unfolds next.

Enter game 6.

And what a game. The Cubs win, 9-3, but it comes at a very heavy cost: Chapman is overworked and it shows. If the Cubs lose the series, coach Maddon will be to blame. Oh, the drama!

We’re past the door of act two and are squarely in the third act. This is where everything our hero has gone through, everything they’ve learned, leads up to this point. Everything is at stake.

Early on in game 7 the Cubs take a 6-3 lead making it look fairly easy. Ross, ready for retirement, hits a home run making him the oldest player to do so in game 7 history.

But no great story works without conflict. Our heroes falter in the eighth. Chapman’s strength is zapped and the Indians rebound, tieing the score. One more inning. The Indians seem to have the upper hand. Chicago prepares for another defeat.

In my writer’s mind, this is where someone standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a dense crowd that has gathered outside Wrigley field begins to sing. “Take me out to the ballgame, take me out to crowd.” And someone else starts up, and like a wildfire, the tune catches and the crowd chimes in, “Root, root, root for the home team. Root, root, root for the Cubs…”

And over three-hundred miles away the Cubs dig in. Hard. In fiction, we’re down to the final battle. The Cubs put in Lester, who some feel isn’t up for the challenge. Lester is too nervous. Too much weight on his shoulders. Who can blame him? We feel nervous, too.

The next inning ends in a deadlock. In fiction, this drawn-out tension is good, but not enough to ensure a knock-out ending. In writing, we usually say to add more sharks to the tank, or add a man with a gun.

In this story, the Cub’s story however, we add rain, which delays the game 15 minutes and changes history. The rain, you see, plays a part in this story, too. In writing, this moment is more than a plot device. It’s a metaphor. Yeah, stay with me. While the Cubs wait for the game to start up again, they decide not to look at the rain and dark skies as something negative. Rain washes away dirt and sweat. It washes off bad mojo. They look to the positive. They shake off the rain and walk onto the field as determined and steadfast as their mindset coaches have taught them.

They don’t think about losing. They think about winning.

We’re in overtime. It’s the tenth inning. With bases loaded, the Cubs’ run ends with a 2 point lead. Now  the Indians have their turn at bat. Can our heroes hang on? Can they shut the Indians down? There’s new pitcher — Montgomery. At first, shutting the Indian down looks like a piece of cake. The Cubs set a record for the most players with an RBI in any game 7. The Cubs are on an emotional high and we’re right there with them. Things are going in the Cubs’ favor.

Not so fast.

The Indians aren’t finished. They rally. The score is now 10-9.

This is the moment. Our heroes stare down their darkest moment because that’s what happens at this point in bestsellers.

And then this… because at this point, I have no words. I’m not emotional when it comes to sports, but this… This..


And for just a fraction of a second, there’s a silence so imperceivable that you almost miss it before the crowd goes wild. The Cubs end a 108-year drought and win the World Series in spectacular fashion. Yeah, told you the rain plays a factor.

I guess you could say I’ve waited my whole life for what happened last night. Life lesson restored. And once again, I believe in fairy tales.

Way to go, Cubbies. We’ve cheered and screamed and stayed to the end, devouring every word in your story. And like all great endings, we’re relieved, we’re happy. We want more.

And that, folks, is the way you do it.

This series is the stuff of legend, of history. Hollywood is calling, Cubbies. Mark my words.



2 thoughts on “How to Write A Thriller

  1. It was the rain. Like a Deus ex Machina, it rolled in and let the Cubbies pause and regroup. What a roller coaster of emotions during that game. My heart hurts for the Indians as much as I rejoice for the Cubs. They were all valiant warriors.
    From both teams I learned it’s not the mistakes you make, but the way you fight back from them.
    This is the year.

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