I love reading thrillers.
When a friend recommends a book, saying that it’s a great thriller, I’m excited.
Most of the time these suggested books disappoint me a little. Not because they’re poorly written, or they aren’t a good story, but because they are not thrillers.
One friend told me her favorite section of the novel she recently read was the detective figuring out the solution to the crime. She said, “It was a wonderful thriller.”
From her description, however, the book was a mystery, not a thriller. I think she, and a lot of others often confuse the two types of novels.
Webster’s dictionary defines a mystery as “a piece of fiction dealing with the solution of a mysterious crime.”
The same dictionary talks about a thriller as being “a work of fiction or drama designed to hold interest by the use of a high degree of intrigue, adventure, or suspense.”
You can see that the two are quite different. I might add to the thriller definition by saying that they are fast-paced, and addictive. If it’s a good one, you just can’t stop reading it.
In a mystery, the main character is often in danger the closer she gets to solving the puzzle. However, in a thriller, the main character is in danger most of the story. Often these books start with the protagonist already in trouble.
Many of the current thrillers are of the ‘girl’ variety–Girl on a Train, Gone Girl, The Girl Before, etc. However, before this fad started there were thrillers of all types, and they are still being written today.
There are domestic thrillers, legal thrillers, medical thrillers, spy thrillers to name just a few.
Now that we know what a thriller actually is, the question is, how do we go about creating them?
Here is a list of some of the elements that I believe should be part of all thrillers.
1) A Thrilling Idea
A thriller must have an exciting concept at its core. I believe that it should thrill readers from the moment they see the title of the book until they read the last line of the story.
Many novels today are what I call, me-too thrillers. They deal with the same subjects as every other thriller–a serial killer, a missing child, etc.
While I’m not a fan of using these same types of ideas, they can work if you figure out a twist. You want a concept that makes people say, “This is different. I have to read this book.”
2) The Big Opening
A thriller should start with a bang. There should be ‘something’ in the first few lines that hook the reader.
I’ve read several books by well-known writers who open with description and delay the big opening. In my opinion, this is wrong.
Why take a chance on losing your reader right at the beginning of your story? If I’m in a book store and only read the first paragraph, where you describe a location, I will not get to the good stuff. I might conclude that this story isn’t for me, and put the book aside. Thrill your readers right from the start.
3) Forward Movement
Thrillers are mostly about plot. Yes, there must be intriguing characters and colorful descriptions, but you should always be moving the story forward.
Back story takes away from this forward movement. Think about it. You’re barreling along in the novel, then suddenly your character spends a page talking about the time she was at camp ten years ago. You are going to lose interest.
I believe that most of the time, there shouldn’t be any back story until you’ve established the characters, and where the story is heading. Later, when the reader is addicted to the book, any essential back story can be incorporated.
4) Explosive Chapter Endings
In my opinion, this is a key element. Each chapter ending must make the reader desperately want to read on in the book.
You want to finish the chapters with a situation that makes the reader worry or wonder. It should make her form a question in her mind. It might be a question such as, ‘how is the protagonist going to get out of this situation?’ or, ‘how did this strange event occur?’
The next chapter would answer the question and then ask another.
5) Fast Pace
Not only does a thriller need to move forward, it must do so at a quick pace. This is part of what makes your story a thriller.
There are many ways to ramp up the pace of your novel. One is to use shorter sentences. Another tactic is to increase the number of action scenes.
While this isn’t necessarily true of all thrillers, many also have shorter chapters. This not only quickens the pace but also increases the excitement level of the story.
6) Lean Description
We talked about not using description in the beginning of your book. However, you should also keep it to a minimum elsewhere in your story. Readers buy these books for the rollercoaster excitement, not to find out what the characters are wearing.
Anytime you stop the forward action of your book to give a detailed description of one of your characters you slow down the pace.
I recently saw a horror movie that had a great concept. However, there was too much time spent on the lives of the characters, and not enough on the horror aspect of the movie. This slowed the film down, making it less riveting.
A lot happens in a thriller, and it can get messy and confusing. Your job is to make sure everything is clear and easy to read.
You want the reader to be in the world of your story, feeling as if it’s actually happening. If the reader has to try and figure out what’s going on with the characters or situation, she will be pulled out of this world.
What adds to the clarity is making sure the story is structured in a simple and understandable way. Too many subplots will confuse the reader.
Some authors tell their stories from several different points of view. This can work. However, as with plots, if there are too many different P.O.V’s, it can be difficult for the reader to follow. This will, again, take the reader out of the story.
8) Hills and Valleys
Your protagonist must experience many ups and downs during your tale. If the story stays at one level, the reader will get bored. Once you’ve established the major problem for your main character, you need to keep adding new challenges, surprises, and conflicts.
In general, the protagonist’s life goes from unbalanced to balanced, and then to unbalanced again. She has a problem, then must figure out how to solve it. However, the solution causes more issues. She then has to solve these issues which leads to more problems.
These are just some of the elements that need to be included in a thriller. If you’d like to learn more of them as well as how to craft the thriller that grabs the reader and won’t let her go, then take my workshop, ‘Writing the Thriller’ which starts Monday.
Steve Shrott’s mystery short stories have been published in numerous print magazines and e-zines. His work has appeared in ten anthologies—two from Sisters-in-Crime (The Whole She-Bang, and Fishnets.) Steve’s humorous mystery, Audition For Death, has recently been published. His comedy material has been used by well-known performers of stage and screen and he has written a book on how to create humor. Some of his jokes are in The Smithsonian Institute.