Monday, June 6, 2011

Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II

by Jodie Renner
Some key techniques for writing a compelling suspense-thriller…or any other page-turner.
In Part I of this series, I offered some tips for creating a killer opening; staging intriguing, complex characters; and engaging your reader quickly through an up-close point of view. Those techniques, used well, will set the stage and grab your readers early on, making them bond quickly with your hero and start worrying about his plight.
How to keep your readers involved right through to the end of the book? Plan for conflict, tension and suspense on every page, and deliver it with a tight, to-the-point writing style. Don’t allow your reader’s attention to wander for a moment!
Devise a riveting plot, with lots of conflict and tension.
Conflict drives all fiction. And more conflict and higher stakes are of course necessary for a successful thriller. Put your protagonist in hot water right away. Then up the stakes and create more problems for him. Then more.
As James N Frey says, “Have your characters in terrible trouble right from the beginning, and never let them get free of terrible trouble until the climax. Keep the clock ticking and the excitement mounting right to the climactic moment.”
Unlike some other genres, in a thriller, you need high stakes and an urgent mission, and you need to keep the plot moving along briskly. Don’t bog it down with explanations and digressions and backstory. Add those in in small doses, marbling them into your story only when needed. And color any exposition (internal monologue) with plenty of tension, anxiety, inner conflict, questions, all expressed with a distinctive voice and lots of attitude.
Jessica Page Morrell, in Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, has this advice for creating effective conflict:

~ Give characters opposing goals, agendas, and strong motivations.

~ Make sure the stakes for each character are high.

~ Stage confrontations as if they’re happening/unfolding in real time.

~ Embed dialogue with tension, subtext, and power exchanges.

~ Know your protagonist’s deepest fears.

Stir in lots of suspense.
As Morrell says, “Suspense forces a reader to stay engaged and is part anxiety, part curiosity. Suspense unsettles the reader, plunges him into nail-biting angst. … Suspense builds and satisfies when the reader desperately wants something to happen and it isn’t happening.”
Suspense is usually caused by threats, when the protagonist whose head we’re in is in danger, his life is about to become a living nightmare, and we have to keep reading to find out how it all turns out.
Some techniques to use to increase the suspense are subtle foreshadowing, delaying information, subterfuge, threats to the protagonist, time running out, inner conflicts, surprise twists, and cliff-hangers. All of these techniques involve delaying the resolution of the hero’s problems, piling on new challenges, and hinting of even worse dangers to come.

Use a tight writing style. Make every word count.
In a suspense-thriller (or any compelling fiction), it’s important to write economically. As Steve Berry says: “Shorter is always better. Write tight. It makes you use the best words in the right way.” Succinct, to-the-point writing produces the predominantly fast pace demanded by thrillers.
Don’t meander or ramble. Don’t wax eloquent. Don’t use highfalutin words that sound pompous and will send your readers to the dictionary. Direct, sensory, evocative words are much more powerful. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “Simple words are close to our hearts and easily understood.” Avoid the convoluted, erudite sentence structure popular in previous centuries. And don’t say the same thing three or four times in different ways – we got it the first time! Also, stay away from those stale clichés.
As Harlan Coben says about writing his thrillers, “I want it to be compulsive reading. So on every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word, I ask myself, ‘Is this compelling? Is this gripping? Is this moving the story forward?’ And if it’s not, I have to find a way to change it…. No word really should be wasted.”
See Part III for more tips on writing a riveting thriller, and Jodie's book, Writing a Killer Thriller.    
Steve Berry’s 8 Rules of Writing, Writer’s Digest, September 05, 2008
Harlan Coben, in an interview by Jessica Strawser published in Writer’s Digest, “Straight Talk with Harlan Coben,” November 29, 2010.
James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller – A Step-by-Step Guide for Novelists and Screenwriters.
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. Great advice as always, Jodie. It reminds me that during the rewrite of my futuristic thriller, I have to look at every page and every scene and assess the suspense factor.

  2. Donald Maass does a workshop on Microtension, and I think it's something to work on regardless of genre. Readers need to wonder what will happen next, and not just at the end of scenes or chapters. I did a 2 part blog on the topic with examples of how even the seemingly mundane scenes can have tension. All these examples you've given work for just about any writing. Tight, concise, moves the story forward.

    Terry's Place

  3. Thanks, LJ and Terry. Excellent point, Terry. All fiction is driven by conflict and tension - it's what makes us keep reading, to see if/how the problems are resolved. No tension = boring.

  4. I'm really enjoying this series, Jodie. As authors, there's always so much more we can learn about our craft, no matter which stage we are at. The process never really ends. Questions I always try to ask myself while writing/reading my manuscript: is every element on this page adding tension and building suspense? Would the story suffer if I remove them? If not, out it goes. This is what makes a story fluent, fast moving, and keeps the reader turning pages. Anything that slows them down or bumps them out of the story will prevent that.

  5. Thanks, Drew. None of us ever stop learning - that's what makes life interesting - to keep challenging ourselves to learn more and hone our craft, to be the best we can be. Type A's like us especially thrive on that! And that questioning, assessing attitude of yours is what makes you such an excellent writer, Drew - and the readers benefit!

  6. Great post, Jodie. Gave me lots of things to think about as I near the end of my first draft and get ready for the first round of edits. I know I need to work on writing tighter and adding suspense throughout. This is a great reference to have!

  7. Another post to print out and ready prior to beginning my edits. Thanks, Jodie!

    Terry, in the Maass workshop I attended he gave an example of creating microtension using a young girl and an older woman waiting at a bus stop. Very cool!

    L.J., I'm really looking forward to reading this book that has had you so excited!

  8. Thanks, all. Glad you find my tips on writing effective fiction useful. I enjoy researching and writing them! And maybe in some small way helping aspiring authors hone their craft, so we all benefit by increasing the number of good novels out there.

  9. This has been a fine series, Jodie. Congrats.


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