Almost every reader will pick up a thriller at least once in their lifetime. That might be because of the numerous subgenres (one for every taste) or simply because it riles people up. So if you want to touch people, write a nail-biting thriller. Here is how you do it.
A good thriller consists of fascinating characters, a believable plot, and unexpected events that push the story forward. Keeping the reader in suspense evokes the need to read more, thus creating a page-turner. When writing a nail-biting thriller, these elements should be taken into consideration.
I never thought of myself as a thriller writer until others defined me as such. It was true. I thought my focus was horror or absurdity, but in reality, I was writing about the human psyche and suspense. It made me look at thrillers differently. There are not just Who-Dunn-its, but many more flavors. Yet the recipe is the same. Here are some key ingredients.
I can almost hear you think it. Well, duh! Yes, you are right. Every story needs a fascinating protagonist, but you’d be surprised how many books lack this. When it comes to thriller writing, people assume that the plot drives the story. It plays a part, yes. But the actions of the protagonist move the story along.
A good character has an internal motivation to drive them. Whether they know it or not. And external motivation pushes charters in certain directions. Look at Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, for example. It almost looks as if survival is her motivation, but she is driven by something far deeper than that. She needs to take care of her baby sister because their mum can’t. Keeping her sister safe is her internal motivation, surviving getting murdered by her external one. It forces her to make choices she would never have made.
Keep it close to the truth
The scariest stories are stories we can relate to. Stories that are layered. Even if you write about zombies or vampires, you need to put in your truth. What is it that you are writing? What is it that you fear?
If you look at Frankenstein, the young doctor is driven by the fear of death, which makes him create his monster. This resembles his inner turmoil that instead of embracing it, he tries to ignore it. The monster on his end feels rejected and misunderstood. No matter where he goes, he won’t get accepted. The whole story moves through emotion and fear. It is still relevant to this day because these fears are primal. They are close the everybody’s truth.
When writing a nail-biting thriller, you want people to feel that fear in their gut. Not a fear of getting hurt or chased by some ax-wielding psychopath, but something far deeper and primal than that. The fear of losing your loved ones, the fear of never being accepted, the fear of always being alone. Sit down and think about what scares you and why. Turn it into a metaphor.
Unexpected plot twists
You have a wicked protagonist and a primal fear that makes the hairs on your arm stand up, but it doesn’t stop there. Your story has to be exciting as well. Just like cooking, you have to mix the right ingredients to get a delicious result. Nothing is as bland as a story that you can predict the outcome of. Take your reader for a ride. Have them discover, have them explore, and right when they think they have figured it out, do a 180. Turn the story on them.
I love to push my plot twist or revelation to the back of the story as far as I can. Sometimes it is the last sentence that throws the reader. I like to hit them right when they aren’t expecting it. Sometimes it’s a bit sooner so that you can explain the situation or build on the twist.
The timing of a good plot twist depends on the story. However, putting a twist at beginning of a book would be a waste. Then you go right back to being predictable. Drive your readers to the edge of their seats and then kick the legs out from underneath them. Trust me. It’s fun.
You need to challenge yourself with this one. It’s easy to go with what comes up in you first. But that also makes for lame stories. You can practice this by asking yourself what is happening. Who enters the house via a chimney to eat cookies and leave presents behind? Santa.
Now stop and think about it. Why via the chimney, and how can he be so fat and jolly but still fit? What’s with the mystery? Why can’t you see him? Why does this man only move at night and live in solitude? Surely something must be very wrong with him. But what?
Writing is the most amazing craft in the world. Let that fun shine through. Humor lightens up the story, making the truly scary parts pop out even more. It is all about balance, isn’t it? So ice your cake with good-natured stuff and mainly just enjoy the whole process yourself. That’s what matters most. Write for yourself.
There you have it, the four key ingredients for writing a nail-biting thriller. Now go mix, stir and bake your masterpiece!