Putting the Thrill in Thriller Stories – Part 1
No novel is simple to write, but some genres, like crime and thrillers, have a different level of complexity that requires a lot of thought and planning to tell a complicated story, while engaging the reader and keeping them guessing what will happen next.
When we think about thrillers, we imagine a fast-paced novel full of action, danger, suspense, drama, lots of conflict and all manner of plot twists. They tend to rely heavily on plot, and most of the action is driven by escalating events, right up until the final page.
Thrillers are meant to thrill because, right from the start, every scene should push the story forward, it should be paced properly, the characters should be larger than life and stand out, and the stakes should be high.
But before you put any thrill into a thriller, you first need a tight, well thought out plot. This is the skeletal structure that will support everything that happens within the story, and because thrillers are generally more complex in nature – there tends to be more subplots, plot twists and key revelations – they are a fundamental driver for the story. If the plot isn’t right, the story won’t work.
Have some plot line in place before you begin to write anything, otherwise the story won’t go anywhere. All the elements within the story have to tie in with each other, all story strands need to make sense, all subplots need to be parallel with the main story, all plot twists need to relate directly with the story and important revelations have to make complete sense to the story and the reader.
In essence, everything must relate to the story.
As is often the case, a lot of plot development happens during writing, because writers might change things, add things, take out things, and so the natural course of the story might also change - an unplanned event or situation might occur, so it’s not unusual to shake things up a little. But any changes may mean writers have to keep a very close eye on the plotline. It’s like messing around with time – an event in chapter 10 could have a knock on effect in chapter 20, which had hitherto been unplanned in the plotline, but which may also affect what they’ve already written in chapter 2. This is how some plot holes occur.
Some plots can be complex and hard to get right – thriller stories require careful plotting. Be sure that the plot is tight, yet flexible enough to bend without creating too many plot flaws.
The other key ingredient in a good thriller is to have complex, yet lifelike characters that the reader can relate to. They need to be plausible and believable. Often they tend to be a little larger than life, yet likeable. They should also have flaws. This gives characters their backstories, and they in turn will provide motivations to why they do what they do in the story.
Characters are fallible, too; they will make mistakes and make poor decisions, and they will fail at certain things. Don’t make your protagonist a perfect superhero – no such thing exists, and your readers don’t want that. They want a character they can believe in, get behind and root for, even when things go wrong.
The main character should face ever increasing dangerous situations. How they act and react will have a direct impact on the story, so for example, a main character might make a mistake that produces a chain reaction of events that have dire consequences for other characters later in the story. This immediately creates conflict and tension and raises the stakes.
This dire situation scenario keeps the reader invested, because they need to know if the hero will save the day, come out on top or escape unscathed. Because of all this, thrillers tend to have strong characterisation, so make sure you focus on this. Remember, readers want to empathise and identify with your main character.
As with all stories, start in media res. This is important in every book, but the opening chapter needs to move things along right from the start, so ensure your first chapter shows your main character facing a pivotal moment in his/her life – a dilemma, a problem, a situation that sets the tone for the entire book and sets the scene to establish why the character is there. Don’t info dump – instead, get right into the action and show the reader whose story it is, why it’s happening and what’s at stake.
Once you have an opening chapter that grabs the reader’s attention, the rest of the story must live up to the promise. That means once the story and the main players are established, you must quickly introduce conflict, tension and emotion. Thriller writers do this by making things difficult for the protagonist at every step. They put them in danger and back them into corners. They place seemingly impossible obstacles in their way. They create knife-edge situations, and sometimes they rip everything away from them. All these things elevate the tension and drama with increasing pressure. It keeps the reader turning the page.
One of the classic ways to heighten all these emotions is to tip the odds in favour of the antagonist. Writers make it look like the bad guys are getting away with everything. They’re making your protagonist’s life a misery and they’re going unpunished. The reader is left thinking, “No, This is so unfair!”
But that’s how writers manipulate the reader, because then, somehow, the hero fights back, he / she gains the advantage and the tables are turned against the bad guys once again...until the next obstacle/problem/dilemma.
Another trick for creating tension is to introduce ever-increasing stakes. Something will always be at stake in thriller stories – a loved one, an object, a secret, a piece of information, knowledge, the world...anything that could push the story in one direction, or the other. Around this, the writer creates the notion that if the protagonist fails, everything could be lost, and that would be devastating. Again, this is how writers manipulate the reader’s emotions.
In part 2, we’ll look at how conflict, pace, plot twists, master manipulation, POV and more works to help put the thrill in thrillers.