Read an essay from thriller author Kara Thomas!
5 TIPS FOR WRITING THE PERFECT THRILLER
5. Up the Personal Stakes
Everyone loves a life-or-death scenario, but in the most suspenseful stories, the character has more to lose than his or her life. There is a reason readers were so invested in Katniss’s survival in the Hunger Games. It wasn’t just her life at stake; the reader knows from the beginning that Katniss’s younger sister and mother will starve without Katniss to provide for them. Quite simply, give your reader as many reasons as possible to be emotionally invested in your character.
4. Use a Ticking Clock
I don’t mean a literal countdown; while it worked for the television show 24 to give the protagonist a disaster to avert by the end of the day, sometimes writers have to get a bit more creative in developing a sense of urgency, especially when the time period of a story stretches out over several days, weeks, or even months. A ticking clock can be as simple as the threat of being discovered; one of my favorite scenes to write in The Cheerleaders involves the main character Monica sneaking onto a computer at the police department. The reader and Monica know that she could be discovered at any minute, and if she’s caught, her entire investigation will be over. Even if the reader knows the main character will get out of a dangerous situation, the suspense is watching how it all unfolds.
3. Impossible Choices and Moral Dilemmas
One of my favorite suspenseful movie scenes is in The Dark Knight, when the Joker holds two ferry boats hostage. One is holding prisoners, and one is holding civilians, including children. There are bombs on both boats, and the passengers hold the detonators; if they don’t choose to blow up the other boat by midnight, the Joker will blow up both boats. The ferry scene is such a nail-biter because of how much is at stake and because there is no easy answer to the dilemma. I like to put my characters in similar Catch-22 situations that involve the readers by making them question what they would do when faced with an impossible choice.
2. Play with Point of View
A story can still be thrilling even if the reader knows early on who the villain is. Sometimes a story is more suspenseful when the audience knows something the protagonist doesn’t—for example, in the climax of The Silence of the Lambs, the viewer can see the killer pursuing FBI agent Clarice Starling, even though she doesn’t know he’s there. The suspense comes from waiting to see if Clarice will discover what we know before it’s too late.
1. Create as Many Questions as You Answer
The best compliment a reader can pay one of my books is, “I couldn’t stop turning the pages!” Keeping the reader hooked is also the most difficult thing for me to achieve while writing, however. Not every scene can be a life-or-death situation where the main character is pursued by a killer. So how do I keep suspense running through the story in those moments where everything isn’t at stake for my protagonist? One technique I use is to interrogate every scene; I ask, What new information is this giving the reader? For every question I answer, I pose a new one that the reader has to keep turning the pages to answer. A suspenseful mystery keeps offering pieces of the puzzle, but none big enough for the reader to figure out the resolution before it’s time!