We all know how to write a novel or script that’s a thriller, mystery, romantic suspense, or action adventure: start with an intense, life-or-death plot. Many other genres, such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, romantic suspense, and paranormal romance, often employ these kinds of story lines as well.

I had a lot of fun making this list. Some of the ideas are broad, and some are more specific. I included a few examples from movies and books, just for your reference. Here are some plot starters for your next edge-of-your-seat project!

50 High-Stakes Plot Ideas that you can make your own... for your thriller, mystery, scifi, fantasy, or YA novel! #writingtips #NaNoWriMo #how to write a novel

  1. Someone wants to destroy the country/planet/universe and must be stopped.
  2. Someone the heroine loves mysteriously disappears.
  3. The protagonist, someone he loves, or a team member is kidnapped or taken prisoner and must be recovered. (Saving Private Ryan; Taken.)
  4. Someone is trying to murder the hero or someone he loves, and he doesn’t know why. He might or might not know the would-be killer is.
  5. Someone is trying to murder the heroine or someone she loves, and she knows exactly why. Maybe the would-be killer has an old grudge, maybe our heroine has secret information, or something like that.
  6. There’s a serial killer on the loose who must be stopped. It could be a person, a machine, or a monster.
  7. A friend or family member has been brainwashed or possessed, turning them into a killer.
  8. The heroine, or a group, is breaking out of prison, or fleeing slavery or another kind of oppression. (Mad Max: Fury Road.)
  9. The investigation of a murder, maybe of a loved one, leads our hero to a foreign country or into a dangerous underworld.
  10. People in a house or building have been taken hostage. (Dog Day Afternoon; Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto.)
  11. A person who’s imagined or played at being a warrior or hero now finds himself in a real battle or a game with big stakes. (Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One; Galaxy Quest.)
  12. Someone is lost or stranded in an enemy environment, a harsh wilderness, or some other place where survival is a challenge. (Gravity; Into the Wild.)
  13. A natural disaster, such as a tsunami or a virus, threatens to wipe out our heroine along with everyone else.
  14. Someone is resolved to get revenge against the one who ruined his life or the life of a loved one—or at least bring the villain to justice. (Kill Bill.)
  15. Our hero is sure someone’s been wrongfully accused or convicted of a crime, and searches for the real culprit.
  16. A community asks a stranger to help save them from enemy soldiers, raiders, a dragon, or some other kind of threat.
  17. The hero is on the run from the law. He may be guilty, or he may have been framed. (Catch Me If You Can; The Fugitive.)
  18. Someone must find, retrieve, or get rid of a magical, cursed, or dangerous object or weapon.
  19. An ordinary person learns she has special powers or is otherwise destined for a heroic adventure.
  20. The hero has special powers or secret knowledge he must hide, or else risk getting killed.
  21. Someone’s stealing something important, such as government information or just a huge amount of money. (Ocean’s Eleven.)
  22. Someone wound up in the possession of something valuable, dangerous, or important, which leads to trouble. (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.)
  23. Rivals, enemies, or just seemingly incompatible people join together to take down a bad guy or reach some other goal. (Toy Story; Guardians of the Galaxy.)
  24. A criminal is recruited by the good guys so he can bring his unique knowledge or skills to an assignment or case.
  25. A team is on a mission, but one person turns on the others or organizes a mutiny.
  26. Lovers, brothers, or friends are pitted against one another, and only one of them can prevail.
  27. Through technology and/or other means, someone’s identity is wiped out or assumed by another person.
  28. A spy or assassin decides to help his target instead. (Snow White and the Huntsman.)
  29. A spy or soldier falls in love with the enemy—but remains loyal to her duties.
  30. A damaging secret letter or video is made public, and the heroine must deal with the aftermath.
  31. A voyeur or fan becomes obsessed, with shocking consequences.
  32. A person must travel to a certain point by a certain time—maybe with a prisoner or a treasure in tow—or there will be dire consequences.
  33. A human-made creature becomes a deadly threat. (Frankenstein; Jurassic Park.)
  34. A plane, ship, bus, or train crashes or seems likely to crash. (Titanic; Speed; Unstoppable.)
  35. A soldier, assassin, or other operative turns on his employers once he discovers they’re actually evil.
  36. Through training and determination, an unskilled person becomes an effective soldier, spy, or hero.
  37. Someone with a violent past, or someone retiring from a dangerous job, gets pulled back into the fray again. (A History of Violence.)
  38. A person in the wrong place at the wrong time becomes an accessory or a witness to a terrible crime, putting him in danger. (Witness.)
  39. Someone has killed herself, but our heroine is positive it was actually a murder.
  40. A small group defends themselves against an attack by a much bigger and/or more powerful force.
  41. Hundreds or millions of people are under attack by a small group, via computer viruses, biological weapons, or something else.
  42. A conspiracy theorist or psychic predicts something awful, but can’t get anyone to believe him.
  43. The heroine, or a group, wants to overthrow a government or other powers that be. (Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy.)
  44. Strange events lead our hero to believe that everyone in this seemingly nice family, company, or town is actually hiding some secret. (Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines trilogy; John Grisham’s The Firm.)
  45. A spy or imposter has infiltrated the group, and they’ll kill her if they discover her true identity.
  46. The hero has been turned into a deadly weapon against his will. A bomb has been surgically implanted in him, he’s been infected with a virus, or something like that.
  47. A murder case has been cold for years…and suddenly, a new murder looks like it was committed by that same unknown suspect.
  48. The hero must perform a difficult task or do something immoral, or else he or someone he loves will be killed.
  49. The heroine must deliberately give up her own life in order to save the lives of others. (J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)
  50. The hero must kill someone they care about, or at least let them die, in order to save a larger group of people.

If you want a big index of great words for action scenes, or even more plot idea lists than I feature on the blog, you’re in luck! They’re in my book Master Lists for Writers: Thesauruses, Plots, Character Traits, Names, and More. I think it will be a great tool for novelists during NaNoWriMo or any time of year.

Master Lists for Writers by Bryn Donovan

Happy writing!