Tips from Robert Ludlum on Writing a Compelling Thriller

Based on a two-hour interview with the late Robert Ludlum, author of some of the world’s best selling novels of international intrigue.

Q. How did your career in writing begin?

Ludlum: When I got out of college in 1952, I wanted to be an actor. I worked pretty consistently in plays and doing voice-over TV commercials until about 1958. Then somebody said to me, did you ever think of becoming a producer?

So I learned that field and produced original theater on Broadway for ten years. But I got bored with the pressures and labor problems. I had worked with a lot of playwrights, and I thought – I can write. So I wrote a humorous book about the funny things that happens when actors meet the general public – people who may not know anything about actors. I sold it to a publisher who told me, “Actually this is just what we want.” I named it “Broadway goes Suburbia.” Then the publisher said to me, “Of course, we have to make it much more serious. No humor. We’ll call it “Blueprint for Culture.” I ran out of the room laughing.

That Broadway book was my first attempt at writing. I thought I wanted a writing career. But I had responsibilities – my children, my wife. You can’t chuck everything aside to become a writer. But I kept thinking about it and got to the point where I really wanted to try it. My wife Marian, bless her heart, said, “You’re forty years old. If you don’t try it now, you’re going to regret as long as we live.” And so we got together and blocked out eighteen months to see if I could succeed..

Q. And you’re too good a writer to use that old cliché, “And the rest was history.” “The Osterman Weekend.” “The Bourne Identity.” “The Parsifal Mosaic.” And many other best sellers and movies later. How would you describe your writing techniques?

Ludlum: I love to observe people. I have always been interested in people who have decided to leave one lifestyle for another. On St. Thomas I met a man named John who used to be a very successful ad man in New York. He threw it all away to follow a new dream – running a charter boat in the Caribbean. He went to a patrol school run by the Coast Guard in St. Thomas. He supported himself by becoming a disk jockey on a local radio station for a $100 a week. Now he has his own charter boat business and is considered one of the more effective people on the island. A complete life change. Later I used that fact in “The Bourne Identify.” When one of my characters wanted to get away, he joined the boat people in the Caribbean.

Q. What other writing techniques work for you?

Ludlum:. My wife and I love to travel all over the world. And whenever possible, we take our kids and their wives with us. On a trip to Greece, they helped me gather restaurant menus, theater programs, ticket stubs, tour brochures. And I take a lot of really bad pictures. But I put all this in a big scrapbook. The scrapbook brings memories back to life and help make my writing more credible.

Q, What the biggest mistake you think many beginning writers make?

Ludlum: I get annoyed when a self-indulgent writer just shows off what he knows but doesn’t really tell a story. To me storytelling is first a craft. Then if you’re lucky, it becomes an art form. But first, it’s got to be a craft.. You’ve got to have a beginning, middle and end. And I have sort of applied the theatrical principles to writing. Throw the story in the air and see what’s going to happen.