Writing the Domestic Thriller by Steve Shrott

There are numerous types of thrillers that are written today such as those involving lawyers, doctors, and spies. Currently, however, the most popular is the domestic thriller.

Some examples include Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Stranger Inside, Before I go to Sleep.

Domestic thrillers are largely focused on interpersonal relationships. They might deal with a family member that goes missing or a divorced couple with secrets. One of the reasons these books are popular is because they use familiar situations.

Domestic thrillers are written in a slightly different fashion than the other subgenres. So below, I have assembled some suggestions to help you to write them.

1) Use Commonplace Locations

As I mentioned, domestic thrillers are all about familiarity, so you want to set your story in a place everyone knows. Perhaps a small town, or the suburban area of a big city. Some thrillers are placed in very specific locations. For example, Girl on the Train was set on a train. Stranger in a House, took place mostly in a house. These kinds of recognizable settings make the stories seem more real.

2) Relatable Characters

Just like the settings should be familiar, so should the characters. You might paint a picture of a typical family with kids and a dog. However, for it to be a thriller, that relationship might soon start to unravel in strange ways.

One way of creating your ‘domestic’ characters is to think about the people who are in your life. Because they are real, using them as the basis for your characters helps to make them more credible. Of course, you need to tinker so that they are totally different than the people you know.

3) Nobody’s Perfect

In a domestic thriller, the characters—especially the protagonist—needs one or more flaws. These might have already led her into trouble as the story begins, or else will lead her into that trouble later on. Flaws can include being obsessed, paranoid, jealous etc. In Peter Swanson’s Her Every Fear, his character, Kate has panic attacks. She struggles with these during the story but eventually must overcome them when she finds herself in a dire situation.

4) Unreliable Narrators

 Not every story has an unreliable narrator, but this does appear in many current thrillers. In S.J. Watson’s novel, Before I go to Sleep, the main character has lost her memory, and wakes up in a strange house next to a man she doesn’t recognize. The story is told through her eyes, and because of the memory issues, the reader isn’t quite sure if the situation is as she describes it. Unreliable narrators like this help to increase suspense in a story a great deal, and can lead to some wonderful plot twists.

5) Make it Possible

It’s important to make the things that happen to your characters believable. They should be events that could occur in real life. Stephen King’s Needful Things has many of the elements of a domestic thriller. It begins in a small town with various characters living the traditional small town life. The reader could think the book is a domestic thriller. However, when a man opens a store in town, and he turns out to be the devil, the reader realizes she’s not in domestic thriller territory anymore. So make sure the events in your story could actually happen.

6) Ask Questions

 During your story you want your main character to have struggles. So it might be helpful to ask yourself questions regarding what those struggles could be. I suggest writing a list of the worst possible events that could befall the main character. You want to think out of the box here, but still within the realm of possibility. Then choose the ones that seem to fit your story best.

7) Twist the Plot

You’ve created interesting but relatable characters, and have a setting that is familiar to the reader. Now you need to throw in some twists to keep the reader engaged. In my humble opinion, people’s attention spans are not what they were, even a few years ago. So when you insert numerous surprises in your story it keeps people reading. I suggest that if you’re outlining you create as many twists as possible in the outline.

On the other hand, if you’re a pantster, you should craft numerous surprises while working on the story. When you’re polishing, you can always eliminate some of them if they don’t work. This way you’ll still have quite a few left.

As well, if you’re making your story up as you go along, it’s a good idea, to know the ending. This way you won’t go too far off track. Harlan Cobin says he only knows two things when he starts his books—the idea and how they finish.

8) Spook the Reader

Domestic thrillers are not horror by any means. However, you still want to scare your readers at least a little. Build up situations so they anticipate something bad is going to happen, then add twists to keep the tension going. This will give your reader that adrenaline rush. To create these scenes, it’s helpful to think about what makes you frightened.

9) Give us Conflict

Your protagonist needs success but also failure as she strives to reach her goal. This up and down rollercoaster ride keeps thrillers exciting. Hank Philliphe Ryan suggests you think about your story this way–“Goal, motivation, obstacle, success, disaster, decision, success, disaster. And then again.”

10) Be Reasonable

The protagonist must take actions that make sense—actions that a normal person in the real world would take, if she were in the same circumstances as your main character. Now, at times, the protagonist might do something stupid, and that’s okay, as long as there is a reason behind it. Perhaps she’s in a stressful situation, and can’t think clearly. Maybe she’s been drugged. If you have a good explanation as to why the protagonist does these strange actions, the reader will go along with it.

11) Be Tough with your Protagonist

Generally, at the beginning of a thriller, the main character should be in trouble. This is not always true, but personally, I think it’s a good idea because the reader is already into the tension of the story. However, even if the character is not in ‘heavy’ trouble, they should at least be uncomfortable wherever they are, even if it’s on holidays.

You want to give the impression that something is not quite right.

In A Stranger in the House by Shari Lapena, the first line of the book uttered by the main charcter is “She doesn’t belong here.” Then she rushes out of a restaurant, and into her car. She’s not really aware of what she’s doing, and quickly drives away hitting a utility pole in the process. Within the first page, she’s already having issues.

12) Cut Back on Thoughts

Because domestic thrillers are supposed to be action stories, you need to keep the story moving. I can guarantee that even if you just gave your reader a big twist or there’s a scene where the protagonist’s home explodes, she will immediately ask “what’s going to happen next.” She doesn’t want the action to pause. So you need to always be providing the “what’s next.” This is why you don’t want to have much internal dialogue or back story to slow down your tale.

I hope you find these tips helpful in writing your book. If you’d like to learn more about writing any kind of thriller, join me for my workshop, Writing the Thriller.

Steve Shrott’s mystery short stories have been published in numerous print magazines and e-zines. His work has appeared in ten anthologies—two fro...