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Keeping Readers on Toes: Writing Thriller



Thrillers have been keeping people intrigued since time immemorial. Suspense in fairy tales has kept readers fascinated by introducing dreadful situations that keep readers wondering about the protagonist’s course of action. In the original version of Snow White, Snow White’s mother tries to kill her in a number of ways, but Snow White continues to escape death. When she finally poisons her, readers get excited to know whether she will manage to survive again or not. Even though it seems hopeless, readers get intrigued to find the outcome and whether the mother will get punished for her wrong deeds. Mysterious elements can be found even in the works of early playwrights such as Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. These playwrights widely used the suspenseful tropes and twists in the plays to leave the audience reeling.





In 18 century, Alexander Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo used mystery tropes to explore the life of Edmond Dantès, who undergoes perilous adventure in his quest for revenge and peace. In 20 century, Agatha Christie thrilled thousands of readers with her famous detective novel series featuring Hercule Poirot. Modern thrillers usually contain fast action-packed sequences which are inspired by the golden age of detective fiction, which consisted of murder mysterious “whodunits” and detectives who not only struggle to find the murderers but also fights the organized crimes and experiences gruesome works of violence. Examples of hard-boiled detective fiction are Raymond Williams’s The Big Sleep and Robert Ludlum’s Bourne book series. Writing a thriller comes with its own set of rules. Following are the ways which can help you refine your craft.


  • Have Readers Hooked From the Get-Go

The first few opening chapters are going to make or break your novel. If these chapters are intriguing enough, readers will want to know what happens next and might read through the few slow-paced chapters your novel might have. Starting with media res ( in the midst ) is a good idea that throws the readers in the middle of the action, and they slowly discover the life of the protagonist through flashbacks or dialogues in the novel. Make sure you have your set piece ready and well thought out before you venture into writing. The set-piece is the moment that creates the most conflict in your story, and the plot pivots around them. It is recommended to have few set pieces in the novel to keep the readers intrigued throughout the story, but these set pieces need to have a good plot connection between them.



  • Have Memorable Characters

Make your characters complex. There are no blacks and whites. People are complex. They are flawed and have their own hamartia. Make sure your protagonist is relatable and has some considerable flaws which will make the challenges they face even more impressive. Brainstorm background for your character before you write them. Try to figure out their weaknesses and strengths. Another character of interest is the villain of the story. Villains must have their motive for doing what they do. Even if what they do is unacceptable, readers should be able to understand why they are doing it. Dan Brown recommends carefully crafting the villain who has his own mortality and has believable reasons for doing what they do. The rivalry between the protagonist and the antagonist is essential for the story to move forward.


  • Add Red Herrings

Red Herring is the literary device used by authors to throw suspicion off the real villain of the story. Real Herrings are the distractions that make the real revelation of the villain much more surprising. Writers use red herrings usually in mysteries, thrillers, and detective fiction to distract readers which makes the suspense more intriguing. Agatha Christie is known to widely use red herrings in her detective fiction. Red herrings make her stories infinitely fascinating and the murderer almost impossible to guess. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Christie presents multiple characters with many secrets of their own which give them a reason to act suspicious and make them a possible suspect.


  • Make Things Hard for the Protagonist

Make your character go through a range of emotions. Make sure they suffer through the worst situations. The dangers and anxiety make the readers compassionate towards the protagonist and keep them hooked to see whether the characters are able to survive or not. The dangers in the book will keep the readers on the edge and in a state of constant fear which will make them keep coming back for more and will make the eventual triumph of the protagonist more satisfying. But make sure your character experiences inexplicable joys too, which would balance out the hardships they face, and it makes them more relatable. Another way to show the dreadful situation of the protagonist is to use the background. Locations allow you to set the mood of the story. Specific words for the location let you set the emotive framework of characters. Locations should also be incorporated into the story for your characters to engage with. According to Alfred Hitchcock, locations must never be used as just backgrounds and should be exploited by the characters.



  • Tie Up All the Ends

Your ending should give readers a sense of satisfaction. The ending should not necessarily be happily ever after, but it should tie up all the loose ends unless you are writing a series. The immediate rising action should be resolved so that readers get the satisfaction but still ask for more in the sequel of the story. You can have an open-ended story too, which leaves the ending to the reader’s perspective depending upon the style of the story.

Before venturing into writing your thriller, it is necessary that you are familiar with the work done before in this genre. It helps you grasp the genre better and gives you the understanding of cliches used before which will, in turn, help you in writing better stories.



Leap into time! Get tips for writing science fiction here.


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