Heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat, unputdownable, and gripping are just a few of the phrases we associate with thrillers. Mystery/suspense/thrillers are the second highest most profitable genres in fiction, clocking in a healthy $730 million in annual sales. But what makes a thriller so compelling that it can leave readers gasping, stunned, falling off their seats or calling a friend to say, ‘you have got to read this book’? There are eight key ingredients every great thriller must have. We’ll tackle the first four in this blog post.
Heart-pounding Suspense Suspense has a simple premise—leave the reader wondering what will happen next by communicating fear, tension or intrigue on the page. Will the bomb squad defuse the bomb before it blows up an entire city? Will the police find the missing child before it’s too late? To ratchet up the suspense, your characters must have opposing goals, and the consequences of success or failure to achieve those goals must resonate throughout your story. Deception, mind games and withholding (information, secrets) are story devices commonly used in thrillers to build and maintain suspense. High Stakes What happens if your protagonist or other pivotal character fails to achieve his or her goal? That possibility should always exist. If the bomb squad shows up and diffuses the bomb in a few seconds, that would be a very short novel indeed. So how do you raise the stakes.? Pile on the complications and roadblocks. In other words, torture your characters. Ask yourself how you can make things worse for your characters. Nothing should come easy for them and if it does, a major roadblock or complication should be just around the corner.
Plot-driven or character-driven? Sooner or later, you’ll hear that phrase if you haven’t already. Because thrillers are high-concept in nature (describe the plot in two to three sentences), the answer would be plot driven, right? Not so fast. You can create a heart-stopping thriller with deftly drawn characters who possess depth and emotional resonance. Move beyond the vital stats (height, eye color, age, occupation), and consider how these characteristics could work for your story:
• Strong motivations and goals
• Complicated past or backstory
• Deep emotional wound
• Special gifts and talents
• Positive and negative traits
• Internal and external need/goal
• The lie they believe
• Huge obstacles/stakes
A compressed timeline puts additional pressure on your characters. In the TV series 24, starring Keifer Sutherland, counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer had 24 hours in every episode to avert disaster. If he failed, grave consequences would follow. Jack’s mission had life and death implications and the same applies to your novel.
Writing thrillers can be fun, exciting and educational. The genre continues to evolve and has sparked multiple sub-genres but one thing remains constant: your thriller must thrill.
Up next: Red herrings, foreshadowing, pacing and the killer twist , Your 8-Step Guide to Writing Gripping Thrillers [Part 2].