Action. Tension. Suspense. Thrillers are among the most exhilarating books to read and to write. That’s why they’re persistently popular, flying off the shelves at bookstores and the reading racks at airports.
So how can you write a top-flight thriller?
Start as You Mean to Go On
Action and tension are fundamental to thrillers. Readers expect fights, chases, and stand-offs. They also expect moments of tension, the drawn-out scenes in which the threat of violence bubbles constantly beneath the surface as the protagonist faces or evades her enemies.
To make clear that this is what you’re providing, always start with action or tension. Action is the easy option if you can justify it. A cop caught up in a chase. A spy mid-mission. Alternatively, a mystery or a personal confrontation can provide that vital tension to keep the reader going.
Strong Character from the Get Go
A series of action scenes isn’t enough to create thrills. Readers need to care about the characters involved.
From the start, present your protagonist and show what makes them tick. Show their fundamental desires and fears, then use these to drag them through the story. Threaten them with the things they most dread, whether it’s a pit of snakes or the loss of family. Hold the promise of their greatest desire just out of reach, whether it’s the answer to a mystery, the fortune to set them up for life, or the safety of a loved one.
This will give the character a reason to keep going no matter the risks. It will also give readers a reason to care. High stakes make for high thrills.
Make it Tough
If the protagonist has an easy ride then there’s no tension. Making things tough is therefore fundamental to the thriller.
Present puzzles they can barely solve.
Push them until they’re exhausted and desperate for sleep.
Threaten them with villains so dangerous that the hero survives each fight by the skin of their teeth.
One way to make this happen is to present the protagonist as an underdog. Maybe he’s an ordinary working man facing an armed criminal gang. Perhaps she’s a lone government agent facing an enemy network while cut off from support.
Give the villains every advantage and then work out how your hero can just about win.
Keep Up the Pace
Thriller readers aren’t looking for reflection and long descriptions. They want a fast pace.
Use lots of short sentences and paragraphs. This keeps things moving and creates a sensation of speed.
Make dialogue snappy. Even if a scene calls for implication and exposition through speech, find ways to break this up.
Don’t include any scene that doesn’t move the plot on. Each one should bring a fresh danger or revelation. Use characters’ actions and reactions to explore who they are, instead of pausing for thought and reflection.
Avoid the Obvious
Plot twists should make sense but they shouldn’t be obvious. The reaction of readers to each new development should be “Wow!” not “Well, duh.”
Each time you’re considering what will happen next, reject your first idea. Reject a few more. Come up with a bunch of different ways to get a character into or out of a tight spot. Then pick one that fits the story but readers won’t see coming.
Sure, the villain behind it all could be another gang boss. But what if it turns out to be the hero’s sister, a friend he betrayed, or even someone whose life he saved in chapter one?
There May Be Trouble Ahead…
Tension comes from the expectation of trouble. So drop hints at problems to come. Foreshadow dangers, both directly and indirectly. Characters can laugh off the likelihood of a disaster before its arrival. They can talk about Russian spies in town long before the Russians turn out to be the villains. A crane can loom menacingly over the skyline before it’s revealed as the site of a nuclear bomb.
Thrillers are about action and tension. So make things difficult for your character. Show that there are difficulties ahead. Keep them moving relentlessly from one challenge to the next. And above all, avoid the obvious, because there are few things less thrilling than the twist we all saw coming on page one.