Ever wonder why so many suspense novels and thrillers top the best-seller lists and have millions of readers?
When I first started writing, I thought about that a lot. I knew I personally loved characters with whom I wanted to spend a lot of time, and stories that kept getting better and more intriguing as I turned the pages.
After a while, I began to see that most of the books with the greatest number readers and sales had those qualities not just for me, but for a lot of people. How was that achieved, I wondered?
RULE #1. It’s no secret — the greatest thrillers are not only pulse-pounding page-turners, they’re vested with the excitement of characters who breathe life on the page. If there are any rules, three-dimensional characters is the first one.
Heroes and heroines come in all sizes and shapes, and they don’t have to be superhuman. They can start as ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. As the story unfolds, they find unknown courage and strength and ultimately risk a great deal to act.
Many of us don’t see those qualities in ourselves, but the truth is that for some people, rising out of bed every day to face what seems to them a cold and unfriendly world is an act of bravery. A character like that could be enthralling as he or she steps forward to face a dangerous situation and resolve it.
RULE #2. At the same time, whether you’re writing about spies and politicians, as I do, or lawyers, scientists, or floral designers, the second rule is for you, the author, to be captivated by your subject. If you’re not, how can you expect your reader to be? There’s nothing duller than a novel about espionage when the author has no real interest in intelligence, or about art thieves when the writer has no emotional connection to art.
But if you’re curious about how a spymaster convinces an “asset” to work for him even though it’s against the asset’s best interests, or how a thief can identify a real Georgia O’Keeffe from a fake one, then you’re embarking on what could be a mesmerizing adventure — and readers will be excited to join you.
RULE #3. Among the traits that top thrillers share is a “high concept.” Unfortunately, that’s a term tarnished by Hollywood’s misunderstanding of it. A high concept is simply a wonderful, catchy idea that appeals to the imagination.
For instance: A young man returns home from college to find his uncle has killed his father and married his mother. I’m sure you recognize the famous story — William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Shakespeare was the king of high concept.
RULE #4. Another commonality you’ll want to consider is high stakes. If you’ve attended novel-writing classes, you’ve no doubt heard endlessly the admonition, “You must have conflict!” Indeed. But not just any conflict. Thrillers are writ large, with big ideas, and ultimately big characters. So the conflict must be both personal for the hero and heroine, and large, too — for a group.
In a thriller about art thieves, the high stakes could be a shipment of paintings that will bring down a city government if the leaders are revealed to have been profiting from it. Or perhaps an illegal arms shipment is about to secretly arrive at a dock in a troubled city and shift the balance in favor of terrorists. That’s a frightening thought, isn’t it? Conflict!
RULE #5. Thrillers also tend to be written in multiple viewpoint. In other words, through the eyes of each major character, almost as if you’re creating a separate novel about each. In your plot, the stories intersect at dramatic moments.
Multiple viewpoint gives a sense of sprawl, of momentousness, and it’s a tool to involve the reader deeply, because readers make an emotional commitment to characters when they’re inside the character’s mind, thinking and feeling along with the character.
Once you become skilled at multiple viewpoint, you’ll discover that when two characters have a confrontation, the reader will be invested in both. And when that happens, the reader is riveted, unconsciously rooting for both — even if one is the villain.
RULE #6. In all books, from so-called literary to the lowest of pulp novels, the character of the villain, the villain’s ultimate goal, and the lengths to which the villain will go to achieve it, drive your plot.
In other words, your villain puts your hero and a group in growing jeopardy — financial, moral, environmental, or some such — and the hero must respond each step of the way.
A tip…. If you don’t respect your villain, neither will your reader, and your hero will lose an opportunity to grow believably. Too often I read manuscripts in which the author unwittingly uses details that weaken the villain or even poke fun at him or her. Don’t let your villain act like a fool or be stupid. Make your villain smart, a more-than-worthy opponent — and not only will your hero thank you, you’ll be able to create a much stronger plot.
RULE #7. Thrillers are known for their exotic settings. All of us like to travel in our minds to other worlds, other experiences, and have an adventure. Thrillers by their nature guarantee that, and it’s one of the reasons readers love them. Still, you don’t have to place your novel in Timbuktu or Paris or ancient Constantinople, although you certainly may.
You can create an exotic atmosphere in what appears to be an ordinary setting — a zoo, a newspaper, a morgue, a hotel, a ghost town, a palace. Part of your job is to make that environment fresh, to give details that open your readers’ eyes so they feel the spine-tingling excitement of being on a journey of discovery.
Rule #8. Make your settings work for you. Use them to explore character and enhance suspense. For instance, if a villain is chasing and shooting at a character through a dark forest, the potential victim isn’t going to view the forest as lovely.
Instead, the victim will see shadows as worrisome, forbidding, and the noise of a squirrel rustling away as a warning that the hunter is closing in.
Rule #9. Perhaps the most critical tool in your thriller arsenal is suspense. I keep two words clipped to my bulletin board — “jeopardy” and “menace.” Simply put, your hero and heroine must be in jeopardy, and your villain must provide menace. But never use heavy-handed techniques such as “Had I but known….” Readers are far too sophisticated these days, thank goodness.
You’re learning to build suspense throughout your novel. You’ll feed it with your descriptions and choice of settings and the resulting atmosphere that reflects a character’s mood. Suspense increases as multiple viewpoints argue about what’s happening and what they can or can’t do. Suspense peaks periodically as more and more of the high stakes are revealed. Suspense becomes riveting as the villains and heroes become more deeply invested in succeeding.
By the book’s end, the suspense is intrinsic as both the antagonist and protagonist go head-to-head in the novel’s climax.
RULE #10. The idea that thrillers are empty-headed chase books is antiquated. Yes, there are always weak and even bad books in all fields, and the thriller genre is no exception. But at the same time there are also literary and important novels in all fields, too, including in ours.
Don’t be satisfied by a superficial story or mediocre writing. Learn your craft. A good book takes time to write, particularly in the beginning of your career. Another way to look at it … if writing well is important to you, invest all the time, attention, respect, and care you would in a great love affair.
AND FINALLY…. As you grow as a writer, the tools I’ve talked about here will become more and more natural to you, and you’ll need to focus less and less on them individually. That’s not to say that writing thrillers — or writing any book — is undemanding.
It’s true we can analyze and dissect endlessly, trying to understand precisely what goes into a thrilling suspense tale, and most of us will keep doing that our entire careers. Why? Because we always want to grow, to be better. That makes writing even more satisfying — and fun.
Are you writing a novel, dear Reader? Or contemplating one? Please tell us how it’s going!
Excellent, Gayle. Lots of good stuff here. I'll forward it along to my writers friends.
Thanks, Doug. So glad you like it!
EXCELLENT, Gayle!! You've hit the right points perfectly! The hardest part for me is making the stakes personal and dangerous to the protagonist. My books are essentially police procedurals, so she's investigating because it's her job…finding ever new ways to make it personal to her is so difficult!
This are fabulous tips! Thanks, Gayle.
Wonderful blog, Gayle. Great tips for anyone with a yen for writing fiction. Thanks!
Thank you so much, Lisa. But you succeed each time with her! She's complex, so her character grows with each novel, definitely not an easy challenge to meet, but you do it so beautifully!
Thank you, Chris. Glad you like them!
Thanks, Johnny. O, to have known then what I know now! 🙂
Great article. Good reminders as I dive into the next book. Thanks, Gayle!
I really appreciate your mentioning the significance of exotic settings and point-of-view shifts. People don't talk about that enough. Also, I'm glad you state that thrillers are not "empty-headed chase" books — maybe it's sad that that needs to be said, but it's good you are setting the record straight.
I'm so excited you're working on a new one, Robin! Can't wait to read!
Thanks, Wolf. We're definitely on the same wave length.