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Five Tips for Writing a Medical Thriller

by Frank on January 29th, 2011

Here are five ideas that a beginning writer of medical thrillers can’t go wrong thinking about.

1. First of all, you need a conspiracy. Someone is hiding something from someone else. It doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering secret, but given the fact that medicine exists at the intersection of human life, technology, big business and government, the vein is a rich one.

2. Give your main character the potential for greatness combined with an Achilles heel. This rule applies, I believe, for all good characters, whether they appear in literary works or genre fiction, comedy or tragedy, and for that matter, whether the character is hero or villain.

3. Don’t forget the huge role that women play in modern medicine. When I was in medical school in the late seventies, there were only 14 women out of a class of 100 (and some of our professors actually smoked cigarettes while lecturing). Most med school classes today are 50-60 percent female. So, if your hero isn’t a female, make sure you’ve got some strong female secondary characters. This will lend your story texture and verisimilitude, not to mention the potential for relationships. No spice, no flavor.

4. Sling the jargon like a pro. If you spend all your time explaining things like V Fib, ET tubes and laparoscopy, you may end up insulting some readers, boring others, and making your characters sound like robots. The average reader can understand enough medical terms through context alone to get the gist, and furthermore they will appreciate the fact you assume they’re smart enough to figure things out. In other words, don’t interrupt the flow with mini-lectures and definitions.

5. Go for the new. The success in recent years of medical thrillers—including medical TV shows—has created a big audience out there for this genre, but as also made our job a little more difficult in the sense that a lot of the easy ground has already been settled, and sometimes more than once. Yesterday’s fresh idea is today’s cliché. I’m talking about the mysterious epidemic caused by the toxic water supply, the underground cabal engaged in euthanasia, and the ever-popular organ harvesting plots. You get the point. There’s still a ton of great ideas out there awaiting development, but you’ll want to have some familiarity with what’s already been done. We all possess individual quirks and experiences that will inevitably lead us to fresh fields, though perhaps a little further from the highway. Onwards!

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