How Thrillers Get to Those Exciting Climaxes

Thrillers are known for their over-the-top action finales. But how do thriller writers get from the beginning of the novel to that final suspenseful climax?

For me, it is important to know what the climactic scene will be before I even start writing a thriller. It isn’t enough to just have a slam-bam ending; for me it has to be believable and it has to fit the plot. And that means I have to plot the whole book out before I start writing it.

In my first thriller, The Killing Depths, I had two intermingled plots—one dealing with NCIS Special Agent Linus Schag’s investigation into a murder aboard a joint-crewed American submarine, the other involving a cat-and-mouse conflict between that sub and a rogue Iranian submarine. Right from the beginning I knew I wanted the climax to be a battle between Schag and the killer that occurred at the same time the U.S. submarine was engaged in underwater combat with the rogue sub. That required a lot of buildup in the middle of the book so the dual climaxes appeared to the reader to occur naturally.

When I wrote my first Peter Brandt thriller, Empty Places, I knew I wanted the climactic scene to be Peter’s escape from the bad guys and near drowning in a flood-swollen river. Since the plot takes place in the normally dry desert community of Palm Springs, I needed to set the stage for the flood to come. I started doing that right from the beginning when, in an early chapter, I have Peter quote an old (and probably apocryphal) Native American saying about the stupidity of building in a flood-prone valley, “White man who live in wash, get washed.” Midway through the novel, the dry, sunny weather changes. A light rain begins to fall, which then becomes a heavy rain, then a torrent. By the time the reader reaches the end of the book, they are prepped for the climax.

With the exception of the climax to Empty Places, which was based on a real-life Palm Springs flood I lived through and covered as a reporter, my climatic endings take a lot of research. For the ending to The Killing Depths, I had to research submarine operations and tactics. For the second Linus Schag thriller, The Butcher’s Bill, I had to do even more research.

I originally created the Linus Schag character for a short story, "Destroyer Turns," published by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in the mid-1990s. I conceived Schag as an “agent afloat,” an NCIS investigator who sails with the fleet to investigate crimes at sea, thus combining two of my loves—mysteries and the sea. I kept that premise in The Killing Depths. However, the plot I drew up for The Butcher’s Bill, which was inspired by a real-life event involving a cop gone rogue, took place on land. I wanted an ending that would take Schag back out to sea, or at least offshore. I decided that the bad guys had a ship offshore on which they held a hostage. Not just any ship, but a Very Large Crude Carrier or VLCC, the biggest oil tanker in the business. And I decided to blow it up.

I am personally familiar with oil tanker explosions. As a young U.S. Coast Guardsman, I witnessed firsthand the carnage resulting from the explosion of the oil tanker Sansinena in Los Angeles Harbor. I knew the cause of the Sansinena accident, and also knew that new safety measures should prevent a similar explosion today. So, I had to research another way to blow up an oil tanker. After weeks of online research—constantly expecting Homeland Security or the FBI to come knocking on my door—I finally discovered how explosions still occur on modern tankers. My climatic ending was not only explosive (pardon the pun), but well based on fact.

Now, as I said, that’s how I work. But I’m reminded of the story Nelson Demille told about how he came to the climatic ending of one of his John Corey novels, Night Fall. If I recall the story correctly, he had written most of the book but didn’t know how to end it. His son finally gave him a suggestion, and Demille went on to write one of the greatest climatic scenes I have ever read.