How to Write a Spy Novel

A few days ago, a friend (who will probably be among the first to comment) shot me a message, wondering how to write a spy novel:

Hey Katty!

So… you said you really like spy stories, and I just got an idea for a spy story. 😀 The problem is, I know diddly squat (er… my mom says that; I’m not sure if anyone else does! 😀 ) about spies and spy stories. 😛 Is there anything I need to know about them… or should I just wing it and see what I end up with? 😉

Love in Christ,

First off: DON’T WING IT! Whatever you do, do not wing the spy novel. I winged my first spy novel plot and ended up with so many twists and subplots with no resolutions that you couldn’t see the main plot (OK, slight exaggeration). If you get an idea that will change everything mid way through, great, but plot it out first and see if it’s vaguely plausible.

A spy novel needs to be thought out beforehand, even more so than novels of most genres. Unlike, say, a quest fantasy, where plot points can be shuffled or cut out or added without too much trouble, everything needs to be compactly connected to the main plot. (Unplotted) whims simply do not have a place.

I know you’re very excited and want to sit down and start writing right away, but you shouldn’t. If you start before you have your twists and ever-so-important plot points planned, you will be tempted to throw in twists and sidetracks and obstacles at every turn. This breaks the pace and spell, not to mention you run the risk of losing the main plot. No matter how big a panster you are (I’m right there with you), you need to accept this. Plot your major points. Plot your major twists. Plot your ending. Make a dreaded outline.

No James Bond coppies, please.

While plotting, make sure you do not lapse into a dreaded cliche. This is generally true for all genres, but in a spy novel you simply can’t get away with it. Ever since the spy novel was invented, people have been searching for plot twists and uniqueness. I’d say “There isn’t much left,” but imagination is boundless, so there is plenty left. You just have to find it.

A rule of thumb: if you’ve seen it done once, there are a lot of people who have seen it done a thousand times. TVtropes has an excellent list of spy tropes, many of which are cliches or have cliche versions. I highly recommend it.

There isn’t much unique to spy novels as a genre. First and foremost, they are thrillers. Knowing how to write fight scenes, chase scenes, and standoffs (ooh, I’m getting future post ideas) is imperative. That was one of my goofs in winging a spy novel: I didn’t know how to write a fight scene. I figured that out at the first one that came along and quickly searched for the information now contained in the above link.

But those are not the defining element of thrillers. Suspense is, and it is made in many ways.

Pacing is key. There should never be a relaxing moment for your characters. This doesn’t mean you should annoy your reader by keeping the pace racing ahead at headache speed. But something should always be happening. If there is a “dull” moment it needs to be peppered by the fact something else is going on at the same time and the point of view character knows it. In other words, keep scenes tense either for the characters or the reader.

You keep the reader tense by keeping secrets from them. Never, ever let the reader know everything. Give them just enough information to keep reading, wondering what the whole picture is. Scatter the hints naturally. Kill every single info dump and spread the information through a scene or two in suspenseful snippets.

For example, if you start a scene with a man hiding in a room, the reader wants to know from whom he is hiding, why they want him, and what his plans are. In that order. So give the answers in the reverse order. The man loads his gun. His plan. He positions himself. In between text. Next the man destroys a piece of paper, thinking he can’t afford it to fall in the wrong hands. Why his enemies want him (and a new question – What was on the paper?). There are noises, and the man prepares himself. In between text. KGB agents walk in. Who he is hiding from. The entire scene can end without the question of what was on the paper being revealed.

This tension and suspense would be completely destroyed if the man curses his enemies at the beginning of the scene, reads the contents before destroying the paper, and is then forced to action when the agents walk in.

Never do the expected, either. This is hard, because we want to go with the first scenario that comes to our mind. Thing is, the first scenario that comes to our mind has been done before. A lot. Take the time to think of unique and different twists. Think about what is expected in a situation – what would normally happen, what would a person normally act – and take an opposite route. This is fresh and new and most importantly, different. The reader wants to know how this different thing will turn out.

Some genres can get away with bending facts. Soft science fiction comes to mind. But a spy novel can not. The basic premise of spy novels – daredevil heroes running around on wild, exciting, adventuresome missions – is less than factual. Everything else must be, otherwise you lose the world, reader, and trust.

If you are going to use spy gear and guns, research them. If your spy is hopping around countries and borders, research and create plausible political scenarios (Don’t have your spy running to North Korea when they need a break.). It pays to do your geographical and cultural research. Little real details can make an incredible difference.

In short, plot it, be unique, know what you’re doing, be suspenseful, and be accurate.  With a healthy dose of writing knowledge, these will help you write a spy novel that stands out.

Have you ever written a spy novel?  Do you have any other tips about how to write them?  Do you read spy novels?  If so, what do you look for in a new read?

Related Posts:
Writing Prompt: Spy
How Long Should a Chapter be in a Novel?
How to Outline a Novel
How to Write a Fight Scene


About Kathrine Roid

I'm an science fiction and fantasy author living in Texas with an undead parakeet and teleporting cat. Think about that for a moment.

Posted on February 20, 2011, in Adventure/Thriller, How to Edit, On Writing, Posts by Genre, Spy Novels and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I’m so glad I asked you about this. 😀

    I shall outline, and I shall do my research.

    Thanks! 🙂

  2. Oooh, must write spy novel soon while this is still in my head! (spy novel = one that I’m planning out, for at least a part of it, it’s going to build into the spy stuff, so thus spy is going to be a sub genre 🙂 ) Thanks!

  3. You also want to pick your spy era. A spy in World War 2 might be tied to the OSS and have serious action where a cold war spy might be more intelligence gathering. Modern spies stories would depend heavily on computers and have much less physical action in them. Of course, when a computer analyst has to get on the ground, you have an interesting challenge!

    • Very good point, Leam. Thank you for bringing this up. Spy fiction is practically divided into subgenres by era. Each war has had it’s own set of difficulties, technology, and settings. Perhaps a future (ie; sometime in the next year 😉 ) post brushing over spy eras would be interesting. . .

  4. Hey will you write us a story spy opening now?? 🙂 😉

  5. I have started writing a spy story, it has been re-written twice, since I didn’t have enough on each page. Your tips are really good. Please write us a spy story opening.

  6. OOOOHOHHOHHHHHHHH MMMMMMMMMMYYYYYYYYYY WWWWWWWWWWOOOOOOOOOOOORRRRRRDDDDDDDDDDDD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Great information man. Definitely want to write a great spy novel and you told me how.

  7. Im working on the outline for a history spy thriller so I got a lot to juggel thanks for the tips.

  8. Well reaserch….check, outline, check characters and secret codes and everything…check…anything else i ned to know…^.^

  9. i have a vague plot and character line but need a specific setting and problem. looking for modern setting but it doesn’t matter where, mainly need a specific mission that is plausible.

  10. Thanks so much for this information, I am starting on my first spy novel and I am trying to create a brand new idea to this type of genre and I was stuck. But now i feel all better now…and thanks for the tips on how to write a fight scene.

  11. simleader1 guy

    yea thats a great post it helped and the fact about doing your research was good too. thank you! 😀

  12. WOW!! This is perfect! :0 You are extremely helpful… Your tips will take my novel to another level. 😀 I’ve written 10 pages and now there’s all these ideas rushing through my head. Thankyou very much! 😉
    I’m wondering, have you written a spy novel? If u haven’t I think you should. 🙂

  13. LPS Awesome In Action

    This is great but what I’m looking for is a main idea for a spy series I want to make. It’s called “Spy Guy”, on my youtube channel “LPS Awesome In Action”. I started it a while ago without any idea of what I was going to do. I want an idea that is Christian, but with a moral. Everyone that I have thought of over the past has seemed too, um, childish. Can you help?

  14. Pretty! This was an extremely wonderful post. Thanks for supplying
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  15. We’re a gaggle of volunteers and opening a brand neew scheme in our community.
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