Wednesday, 24 January 2018 16:01

How to Write a Business Thriller

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Knuckle-biting suspense, breath-quickening action, an audaciously bold protagonist. Perhaps these aren’t things that come to mind when you think of a business book. We expect business books to dispense advice; thrillers to entertain. But just as a good thriller can have the ancillary purpose of instructing you on such things as how to escape a moving car or defend yourself with a pencil, why can’t a thriller keep you at the edge of your seat as it doles out its lessons?

“A book for the business traveler to be absorbed in and complete on a coast-to-coast flight.” More than once, a business person has told me that this is what they wanted to write. In order to go about this, there are just as many lessons to be learned from Ludlum as from Lencioni.

1. Create a likable though flawed protagonist/hero. That would be you. Your likability is reflected in a conversational tone, perhaps a touch of humor. Your flaws? You aren’t perfect. Throw in a story or two of a time you failed and learned from that failure. You are also not a pompous know-it-all. Don’t talk down to your reader. 

2. Lay out a threat with dire consequences. Your company may fail or never get off the ground. You may be fired. Your employees may leave en masse. Why?  You lack collaborative leadership skills, or you haven’t paid attention to the details, or you aren’t open to innovation or a toxic culture has taken over your organization. Describe a business version of creeping bacteria that is antibiotic-resistant.

3. Have your protagonist save the world. With expertise, a particular set of skills, and authority, demonstrate exactly how to keep this bacteria at bay or better yet, kill it off once and for all, and thereby achieve success and a harmonious working environment.

4. Create twists and turns. Nothing is new under the sun. That’s more the case for business books than thrillers so it’s important to offer what may be familiar advice in a compellingly new way. Find an interesting framework or metaphor (Who Moved My Cheese, anyone?) If you find yourself giving the same pieces of advice that you have read or heard many times before, take a detour. The best thriller writers and the best business writers keep their readers guessing, and guessing incorrectly.

5. Keep the action coming. We’d likely not get 10,000 feet in the air, much less across the country with Jason Bourne if he was contemplating the universe for pages on end. In the same way, the business writer must let story and not rumination or instruction lead the way. And make your stories interesting. Try them out with friends and family. They should generate as much enthusiasm around the dinner table as the conference table.

6. Leave your readers hungry for more… and feed them. One of your goals in writing a business book is probably to support your work as a coach, management/organizational consultant or speaker. When people put down your book (hopefully, not until they have read the last page), they should have found your arguments so compelling, your storytelling skills so vivid, that they are eager to see what satisfying adventures you will lead them on next. Don’t give away everything you know in one book. When you plan the first one, think about the second and third one as well.

Finally, for those of you going the self-publishing route, understand that people judge books by their covers. Think about what makes you pick up a thriller by a writer you never heard of before. While it probably doesn’t make sense for your book to depict dripping blood, a crazed looking knife-wielder or a haunted clearing in the woods, do take the time to make sure it looks thrilling rather than boring.

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