Creating suspense: How to write a thrilling thriller

I’ve been reading a bunch of thriller indie novels lately that aren’t at all thrilling. This is because newbie authors frequently make the same mistakes when writing thrillers and fail to build up any suspense – hence, in this post I’m going to teach you how to build tension and keep readers immersed in your story.

1) Why should I care? Readers don’t care about your book or your characters. It’s your job to MAKE them care. It doesn’t matter how flashy and bangy your action or fight scenes are, if we don’t care who lives and dies. You need to show us first of all, which characters are good, and you have to make us like them. This has to happen as early as possible. Show us the characters needs, wants, personality. He or she should be kind, courageous and smart. He or she could have a pet, take care of the old neighbor next door, volunteer, give some money, help someone out…. just something that shows us he’s a good person. That way, when they are in danger, we’ll care about it.

2) A big enough problem. Your novel starts with the problem. It needs to be a huge problem, that totally spins the hero’s life out of control. It has to be something they cannot avoid or ignore. It is something that must be resolved immediately, and the protagonist can not just go back to normal life until it does.

3) Plotting Villains. You can’t just have bad shit happen to the good guy and call it a thriller (it won’t be -it will be an Action or Adventure novel). You build a thriller by showing what is going to happen first. You can do this by showing the readers things that the hero doesn’t know about – for example by showing the villains plan a trap. Readers then know the hero is walking into a deathly trap and will feel anxious for him. You can also have your main characters worry about and describe the worst that can happen or “what’s at risk”. You don’t make a thriller by with-holding all the critical, pivotal information until the very end and suddenly dumping it to explain the whole plot. Show what’s at stake first. The terrorists want to get their hands on a device that will destroy America? Show them plotting it. Show the total destruction and hell it will unleash. Let reader’s feel and taste it (maybe a little demonstration in the opening sequence, 10,000 dead, etc.?) Once we know what’s at stake, we will be invested in the outcome.

Don’t just have two guys meet, and one of them sticks the other guy suddenly with a knife. (Yes it’s a shocking surprise, and can be down well – but it does thrill or add suspense). For a real shock, show one character planning to kill the other, sharpening the knife or loading the gun. Explain why he wants to kill the other one. Now, through the lead up and the meeting, we are already on edge waiting to see how things will play out (hopefully, you’ll throw in a twist so that the expected murder is not actually what happens. Maybe the other one escapes.)

4) Make it hard for your protagonist.

I’ve read several books lately where the protagonist is smart, daring and has a hoard of amazing-hacker-nerd friends who can remotely operate anything, unlock any door, translate anything or find any information, or see through any security camera in any room. This means the hero just has to dial home and get everything he needs all the time. A real hero has to sweat. They have to do the work on their own. They have to figure things out by themselves. Sometimes the door will be locked, so they break a window. Sometimes there is no way in, so they have to wait or do something else. Presenting them with difficult problems gives you the opportunity to let them find creative solutions. They should get depressed sometimes – a good novel makes the hero lose, lose, and lose, failing again and again until the very end, when they change something and triumph. The action won’t hold our attention; but the suffering of the hero that you’ve made us care about will. Make them worried, scared, depressed, frustrated, etc. But have them keep going anyway, and finally triumph.

5) Less is more.

Bad writing is usually over the top with excessively descriptive blood and core. You want to describe what is happening, in detail, but without cliche’s. Focus on texture, action, and personality. It’s not all about action. (I was trying to write a “Bad” example, but came up with this instead, which is pretty good…”):

“He pulled the bloody edge of the rusty old blade across her throat. It didn’t cut easier, so grabbing her hair and pulling it back, he brought it back and forth like a saw. He felt like he was playing a cello. Eventually the skin burst open and a hot torrent of blood poured out onto the plush white carpet.”

The point I wanted to make was that you don’t actually have to say everything or show everything. Instead of the passage above, you could write “He raised his arm and swung the knife sharply down in a slashing crescent. She squeaked once and then lay still. The carpet was warm and sticky”.

I guess it depends on whether you want to be terse or verbose…which mainly depends on your writing style and main character.

What do you think – other ways to build suspense? 

 

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me

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