I have written three psychological thriller novels and for the most part I’ve loved every moment, but it does make me wonder why I’m so interested in themes such as lies, murder, obsession, crime, and all the other gory bits that often come with this genre. (I may look all sweetness and light in the photo below but I have a pretty dark imagination!)
And apparently I’m not the only one – in 2021, thrillers made up nearly one in eight adult fiction print and e-books sold, according to The NPD Group. While I would never advise any aspiring author to write to market, if you love reading thrillers, chances are you'll enjoy writing one too.
What is a thriller?
Thriller is a genre type used to categorise literature. Within the genre, there are several sub-genres including (bit not limited to) psychological thrillers, crime, mystery, action, sci-fi. Many of these sub-genres overlap and share similar characteristics giving the reader a high level or suspense and tension. They are often dark and have high-stakes with a strong plot that contains unexpected twists.
Why do readers like thrillers?
The challenge for a thriller novelist is to create a high-level of suspense to keep readers turning the page. Here are a few reasons readers are drawn to this genre so keep these in mind when writing:
Reading a thriller is rarely a passive activity. As you move through the story, your brain is always trying to work out the puzzle and this is enjoyable for many readers. You become engaged with the story on a deeper level playing the role of detective. As an author though, creating that puzzle can be one of the most difficult parts of the writing process. You have to create enough suspense to be credible but not give anything away too early otherwise the reader may feel cheated.
The world can be a scary place and it’s been suggested that enjoyment of the thriller genre allows us to address some of our fears in a safe environment. Mel Campbell wrote in her article: “Basically, psychological thrillers let us feel fear in a controlled way, reeling us in slowly by deliberately building suspense. We go inside the heads of morally ambiguous characters as directors create moods of anxiety, fury and confusion. Like the characters, we struggle to figure out what’s really going on. And with a final shocking twist, the tension gives way to exhilaration.”
Whether it’s a film or a book, I would agree with this completely and as an author, I would also add that I have utilised some of my deepest fears in my writing.
We live in a busy world and living in the digital era, our attention spans have become shorter. The National Centre for Biotechnology Information claimed that the average human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds. We’re used to consuming our information quickly and instantly and a thriller can offer a fast-paced narrative with its page-turning plot and storyline. It’s a delicate balancing act – you can’t have a murder on every page so the challenge as a writer is to create engagement without losing the reader.
How do I write a thriller?
So with the above in mind, how do I write one? Designed to give readers a roller-coaster experience, the thriller genre is one of the most exciting to read but one of the hardest to write. There are various ways to approach writing a thriller but here are some tips to help:
1. Develop a strong plot
When I'm coming up with new book ideas, I will often start with the big twist and work backwards. You need to include plenty of reveals, turning points, and cliffhangers as well. Mapping these out in an outline is the only way I don't end up confusing myself! I often find with plot twists, that it's about surprising the reader, taking an assumption and turning it on it's head. For example, (spoiler alert coming up!) in The Good Mother, the main character Catherine first appears as an upstanding, caring citizen, looking after her family and volunteering for her various charities. It's only later that the reader learns Catherine is not as gentle as she first appeared.
2. Open with action
I would argue that more than any other genre, thrillers need to open with a compelling, intriguing, action-oriented beginning. While thrillers are very popular, it also means your book is competing with many other novels, so you need an opening that stands out for the reader and grabs their attention. Use language to create shock, awe, and intrigue; this is not the time for realms of back-story or lengthy scene-setting. In my second novel, The Home, it opens with a crime but while the perspective is told through a police officer, I've made it the officer's first murder scene to create more impact.
3. Identify the stakes
And the higher the better! To do this, ensure your main character has lots of challenges to overcome and the consequences are severe if the protagonist doesn't solve those challenges. Many thriller writers use time as a way to create urgency (a ticking time bomb for example), placing a time limit on the character. Ideally, you'll want to create both internal and external struggles for your main character to add depth to your writing and create more conflict.
4. Develop complex characters
It's never usually a case of the baddie versus the goodie but something more complex. No-one is hundred per cent good or evil so follow suit with your own characterisation. The question to ask here is: What is the motivation for my character's actions?
If your villain does something horrific, your reader is more likely to resonate and connect with them when they understand the motivation. Same for the protagonist - flawed, imperfect characters make for much more interesting stories.
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