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So You Want To Write A Thriller?

Crime writing advice

So you want to write a thriller – a psychological thriller, a crime thriller, a paranormal thriller, a romantic thriller – any kind of thriller at all, as long as it intrigues readers, entertains them, and glues them to the page. 

You could opt for shock as a device to grab readers’ attention. You could certainly catch the eye with a beheading here, a dismemberment there, and a blood-thirsty demon or two. But shock after shock soon loses its thrill value, and can, rather than delivering satisfaction, leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth. 

Or how about action? Action works its magic through successive movements – car chases, punches, scrambles to survive – at a relentless pace. Raymond Chandler advised that a man bursting through the door with a gun could liven up the dullest passages. Others have found that explosions and entrapments do the trick. 

But my favourite strategy, and the most flexible by far, is suspense. Suspense is less about action and more about anticipation – anticipation of things that might (or might not) happen, of decisions that may (or may not) be made.  (Will the hero tread on the deadly snake? Will the stowaway jump ship?  Will the beautiful stranger fall for the villain’s oily charm?) Think of those heart-thumping sequences in horror films where the child toddles through the darkened corridor; viewers are held spellbound not by the action on the screen, but in dread of what might lurk around the corner.  In the case of suspense, it is expectation and uncertainty, and the anxiety that accompanies them that keep us on our toes. 

Novelists start the ball of suspense rolling with the questions they pose at the outset:  how did Gone Girl disappear? Was her husband involved? If the opening questions are skillfully put forward, people will read on and on until they find answers.

But if you want to spice up readers’ experience – if you want them not merely to plod to THE END (the bitter end?) in search of answers, but to find the journey gripping – you need a liberal scattering of  suspense along the way. You need to raise secondary questions: why did the lover hide the diary? Confront your characters with unexpected obstacles: will the villains see through the protagonist’s disguise?  You need to pose tricky dilemmas (to shoot or not to shoot?) en route to the climax.  The unputdownable stories of writers from Edgar Allen Poe to Patricia Highsmith, from Lee Child to Sophie Hannah, are peppered with suspense points like these. Why not borrow freely from the tried-and-true techniques they use to ramp up suspense? You can… 

  • feed in necessary information about the characters or their world by dribs and drabs well before a suspenseful moment arrives --  and when it does, keep information to a minimum. Suspense stumbles beneath the weight of exposition. 
  • use foreshadowing to signal uneasy possibilities. Sometimes, you know that it’s dangerous to try, but you can’t help but do it anyway or I felt a chill, as if someone had walked over my grave.   In the classic courtroom thriller The Anatomy of a Murder, the writer Robert Traver several times describes features of the landscape with phrases like as treacherous as a spurned woman; this raises in readers’ minds the unsettling idea that the alleged victim whose rape was provocation for a murder could be lying. 
  • introduce will he/ won’t he situations: will the boy from the Indian slums be able to answer the quizmaster’s question, or will he fail? The more impressive the obstacles ranged against success – the slumdog’s lack of education, the quizmaster’s hostility, the covert threats – the more thrilling is the suspense. 
  • sprinkle a hint, for readers to pick up, of danger ahead (the shadow at the window, the unlocked door, the blinking answering machine) while your character, who is luxuriating in the bath, or playing video games,  remains oblivious. Alfred Hitchcock made expert use of this ‘Hitchcock effect’ in his films; equally in novels, scenes where readers are aware of an imminent threat that a character has overlooked are the ones that have us screaming: Stop, Stanley, stop!!!! Don’t drink from that open bottle! Don’t go into that dark alley! Don’t …!!!
  • set up two courses of action, where the neglect of either could have dire consequences; then force your character to choose between them. Should she rush to collect her child from pre-school, or make a dash to intercept a killer? Should the detective save his partner from imminent death, even though the resulting exposure could land himself back in prison, or should he get the hell out of there? Lose-lose choices plunge readers into an agony of uncertainty. Result? Rocketing suspense. 
  • at the same time, don’t overdo it. Recognize that suspense depends upon fluctuation in mood. It relies for its impact on contrast with more everyday moments that precede it. There’s nothing less exciting than non-stop excitement, says Guy Saville, author of The Africa Reich, and he’s right. 

A caution is in order.  Scatter these tried-and-true suspense techniques – judicious use of exposition, foreshadowing, the Hitchcock effect, and so on – as liberally as you like throughout a book. But be warned: they’ll deliver the page-turning impact you’re aiming for only if you have already fixed the three fundamental building-blocks of suspense firmly in place.

First, you must lead your readers to anticipate something, whether it be the lover sinking to his knees to propose or the murderer hurtling out of the closet. Expectation is vital.  Foreshadowing and the Hitchcock effect are merely stepping-stones towards this larger goal. 

Second, you must make readers understand that this outcome, or that, will have powerful consequences. That it matters: the spurned lover may kill herself, or she may marry the villainous aristocrat instead; the detective who is trapped on the fire escape may fail to save the child’s life. 

Third, and above all,  make readers care about the characters to whom these consequences may occur – about the girl who is jilted, the child who dies, the detective who fails. Knowing what is at stake for the characters – humiliation, imprisonment, the loss of a beloved child – will only be arousing if readers have already been made to care about the characters in question. The more the character interests readers, the more they identify with her and her struggles, the sharper the suspense will be when she is faced with a menacing situation or a difficult decision. 

It stands to reason that those who are looking for a simple formula for creating and sustaining suspense throughout a novel are on a hiding to nothing. Suspense depends on much the same qualities as does good writing in general: that is, on vivid characters with whom readers can empathize, on a keen sense of what those characters are aiming for, and on understanding the consequences if they fail to achieve their ends. 

When suspense works, readers are agitated by fear or fervent curiosity or palpable dread. Their hearts are thumping, their nerves are a-tingle. They’re powerfully invested in what happens next. 

And that’s the secret of page-turning. 

P.S. An example 

If you want to see suspense-making in action, look to writers like Shirley Jackson, whose The Haunting of Hill House is one of the finest paranormal thrillers ever written. A paranormal investigator persuades a group of people who appear to be ‘sensitive’ to spend time in Hill House, with the aim of investigating rumours of its haunting.  The house itself is said to be evil.  Indeed, the refusal of the caretaker to remain after dark, the knockings, creakings and scratchings, the grave-like smells and the sites where the temperature plummets all foreshadow (in ways that have since become clichéd) dreadful happenings. However, the soaring suspense in Hill House comes not from the spooky events themselves, but from the links that are forged between the house and the characters. 

The protagonist, Eleanor Vance, is a lonely woman, who sacrificed her independence to care for an ungrateful mother. She is desperate for acceptance, and longs for a real home. The house brings her inexplicable moments of happiness; on one occasion, she dances dreamily while the others recoil in fear. As a reader, it is hard not to become convinced that something terrible is going to happen to Eleanor. But what? 

Tensions between Eleanor and another woman, Theodora, find echoes in the growing menace from the house itself. In one terrifying scene, Eleanor and Theo tremble in adjoining beds, fingers interlaced, as appalling noises resound through the corridor outside their bedroom door.  The sense that something may burst through and attack is heart-stopping, but in fact a greater terror comes after the noises subside. Eleanor realises that Theo is asleep. The question that Eleanor rasps out -- Whose hand have I been holding?  -- has the power to stun. 

The circumstances of Eleanor’s departure in the concluding scene of the novel bring a surprising end to the events at Hill House, but also one that fits perfectly with what we know about the characters and the history of the house. Without any blood and gore, without the sighting of a single ghostly, ghastly form, Jackson leaves her readers gasping for breath.

Michelle Spring is the author of six crime thrillers, including In the Midnight Hour, which was named Best Novel by the Crime Writers of Canada in its year of publication. 

For more tips on suspense and all other aspects of writing, see Crime and Thriller Writing: a Writers’ and Artists’ Companion, by Michelle Spring and Laurie R. King. As well as detailed advice and examples, and reflections on the genre, this volume includes articles by 26 leading writers. Particularly relevant to suspense is Mark Billingham’s piece on that very topic, plus S J Bolton on the Gothic tradition, Tess Gerritsen on tension, Peter Robinson on exposition, and Guy Saville on thrillers that sell.  

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