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Your 8-Step Guide to Writing Gripping Thrillers [Part 2]

This is the second post in a two-part series. You can read Your 8-Step Guide to Writing Gripping Thrillers [Part 1] here.

Red Herrings

Merriam Webster dictionary describes red herring as: [from the practice of drawing a red herring across a trail to confuse hunting dogs]: something that distracts attention from the real issue. This has been a highly effective device for mystery, thriller and suspense writers throughout history, including the queen of mysteries, Agatha Christie. Red herrings keep readers guessing, wondering if the story will follow the trail. It’s a way to sustain interest and keep readers turning the pages. Done correctly, a red herring can shock and delight readers.


While a red herring is meant to divert the reader’s attention by planting a false or misleading clue, foreshadowing is meant to do the opposite—provide clues or hints about what’s to come. Foreshadowing builds tension in the minds of readers via omens, symbolism, premonitions, or predictions. Bad weather is often used to great effect in thrillers. The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley uses bad weather in the Scottish Highlands to ratchet up the suspense. The appearance of magpies is a powerful symbol or omen in Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway. A person or object out of place can also be a powerful image of foreshadowing.

Flawless Pacing

Huh? This may seem like an odd one on the list but it’s critical. Pacing plays a major role in how your novel is executed. Do these reviewer comments sound familiar? Nothing much happened for the first half of the book; the story didn’t really pick up until two thirds of the way in; the first one hundred pages could have been cut and the book would have been fine. The problem readers are bemoaning is pacing. Use these tips to help master pacing in your thriller or suspense novel.

• Start with a bang and explain later

• Drop hints and clues

• Alternate between short chapters, scenes and paragraphs

• Switch back and forth between the action

• Switch up the POV

• End chapters on a cliffhanger

• Take advantage of foreshadowing and red herrings

Killer Twist or Climax

The ending to any novel is crucialto the overall story appeal (it can make or break your novel) and that’s especially true for thrillers. Some of the most popular thriller and suspense novels in recent years resonated with readers because of the twist at the end. So how do you spin a killer twist that will have readers picking up their collective jaws off the floor?

  • The Clever Twist and its Parts : Readers won’t see it coming but it somehow makes sense. The clever twist is a combination of revelations throughout the novel where nothing is as it seems, and in the end, the story is completely turned on its head. This can be accomplished with aforementioned literary devices such as foreshadowing, red herrings and misdirection. Without giving away spoilers, Shutter Island, The Silent Patient and Our Wicked Lies are just a few examples of novels lauded for their shocking climax or twist.

  • Throw Out the Obvious : It’s simple advice but not always easy to follow. Brainstorm multiple possible endings to your novel then throw them all out. Repeat. This exercise requires a balancing act between a twist that is so shocking yet the setup was right there all along. Avoid using cheap tricks such as a character brought in at the last minute to neatly tie up the story. Do use foreshadowing and misdirection to maximum effect, and do resolve the emotional journey and character arc of your main cast.

Of course, killer twists aren’t confined to novels. They can be just as effective in film and we can also learn from that medium . Some of my favorite movie twists include The Sixth Sense, Seven, The Usual Suspects and Get Out. The trouble with a killer twist or climax however, is that once the reader has that experiences, it’s a feeling that can be difficult to replicate so make sure your twist lands a gut punch. Let your readers go through conflicting emotions, but mostly stunned disbelief accompanied by an appreciative smile.

The Grip Lit blog is dedicated to providing real-world strategies and tactics on writing, publishing and marketing fiction for the aspiring thriller author.

Tagged: fiction writing, book publishing, thriller writing

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