Ten killer steps to writing a great medical thriller


For many physicians and other professionals, aspirations of crafting a work of fiction are not uncommon — and with good reason. We are, after all, a generally well-disciplined bunch capable of completing complex tasks, and there is certainly no shortage of excitement and drama in medicine and surgery — ample fodder for thrilling stories. Nonetheless, writing a novel is a major commitment, and it requires persistence, patience, and dedicated time, especially for one with a busy medical career.

Getting started is not easy. Writing workshops are helpful, and in my case, I tried to mentor with some of the best. Before writing my novel, I attended workshops for aspiring novelists, given by noted physician authors Tess Gerritsen (Body Double, The Surgeon) and the late Michael Palmer (The Society, The Fifth Vial).

Writers are often advised to “write about what you know.” In my case, I combined my knowledge of medicine and my experience with the thoroughbred racing world to craft a thriller that one reviewer described as “Dick Francis meets Robin Cook.” For those who have never read the Dick Francis series, he was a renowned crime writer whose novels centered on horse racing in England. Having been an avid reader of both authors, that comparison was the ultimate compliment.

So against that backdrop, here is my distillation of 10 key points on the craft of writing a great thriller, based on my own experience in writing the novel Shedrow, along with some shared wisdom from a few legendary writers.

1. Start with the big “what if.” Any great story starts with that simple “what if” question. What if a series of high-profile executives in the managed care industry are serially murdered (Michael Palmer’s The Society)? What if a multimillion-dollar stallion dies suddenly under very mysterious circumstances on a supposedly secure farm in Kentucky (Dean DeLuke’s Shedrow)?

2. Put a MacGuffin to work in your story. Popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is that essential plot element that drives virtually all characters in the story, although it may be rather vague and meaningless to the story itself. In the iconic movie Pulp Fiction, the MacGuffin is the briefcase — everyone wants it, and we never do find out what’s in it.

3. Pacing is critical. Plot out the timeline of emotional highs and lows in a story. It should look like a rolling pattern of highs and lows that crescendo upward to the ultimate crisis. Take advantage of the fact that following any of those emotional peaks, you probably have the reader’s undivided attention. That would be a good time to provide backstory or fill in needed information for the reader – information that may be critical but perhaps not as exciting as what just transpired.

4. Torture your protagonists. Just when the reader thinks that the hero is finally home free, throw in another obstacle. Readers will empathize with the character and be drawn in by the unexpected hurdle.

5. Be original and surprise your readers. Create twists and turns that are totally unexpected, yet believable. This is easier said than done but will go a long way toward making your novel original, gripping, and unpredictable.

6. As a general rule, consider short sentences and short chapters. This is strictly a personal preference, but who can argue with James Patterson’s short chapters or with Robert Parker’s short and engaging sentences? Sentence length can be varied for effect, too, with shorter sentences serving to heighten action or increase tension.

7. Avoid the passive voice. Your readers want action. This is an important rule in almost any type of writing.

8. Keep descriptions brief. Long, drawn-out descriptions of the way characters look, or even setting descriptions, are easily overdone in a thriller. The thriller genre is very different from literary fiction in this regard. Stephen King advises writers to “just say what they see, then get on with the story.”

9. Sustain the reader’s interest throughout. Assess each chapter ending and determine whether the reader has been given enough reason to want to continue reading. Pose a question, end with a minor cliffhanger, or at least ensure that there is enough accumulated tension in the story.

10. Edit aggressively and cut out the fluff. Ernest Hemingway once confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I write one page of masterpiece to 91 pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

Dr. DeLuke is professor emeritus of oral and facial surgery at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the novel Shedrow.

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