British-Australian crime and thriller writer L.A. Larkin – who teaches the Australian Writers’ Centre’s popular Crime and Thriller Writing course – is an expert in the art of building suspense and high stakes in a thriller novel. Read on for her top 5 ways to turn your thriller into a bestseller.
1. Create a captivating central character.
Flawed heroes are characters we can relate to. They are also more interesting. The reader needs to care about the central character to experience the emotional roller-coaster ride: that is what thrillers are all about.
“People associate crime fiction, detective based crime fiction and thrillers with plot,” Larkin says. “They are very plot based because you want lots of mystery and drama and plot twists and surprises and puzzles to solve – but characters are what people fall in love with. In a discussion about thrillers people always say ‘oh, I love Jack Reacher’.”
To make your central character captivating, Larkin recommends giving them a nuanced backstory.
“A character with some kind of mystery about them, something a little bit different or something a little bit, perhaps even questionable about them, makes them interesting,” she says. “A lot of lead characters in thrillers these days carry quite a bit of baggage.”
2. Make the stakes high.
Your hero should be facing nearly-impossible odds, Larkin says, and you need to create urgency around the task they have to do.
“You could take what I would call more of a domestic thriller about the kidnapping of a child, and the child disappears, but for whatever reason the police won't help [the central character]. Maybe she's a drug addict or something, so they don't believe her. So she has to go and deal with this herself, and it's very high stakes, it’s the life of a child.
“It could also extend all the way through to a bomb going off or somebody releasing a virus that threatens the whole planet. There are grades of high stakes, but it has to be high stakes for the central character to put their life in danger, because that is generally what happens.”
3. Develop internal and external conflict.
Thrillers often begin with the central character being moved out of their comfort zone due to something going wrong, and then progressing on a journey with obstacles along the way.
“If you're a police officer or detective, it could be your boss getting in the way,” Larkin says. “It could be what I call a false ally, somebody who appears to be trying to help you, they're actually not and will try and send you in the wrong direction.
“There's also the internal conflict, and that's when I think a central character in a thriller gets really interesting, because they are conflicted. They might have an inner demon that haunts them and makes them freeze in a certain situation, or makes them capable of acting in a certain way, or a weakness.”
4. Suspense is paramount.
Without suspense, it’s not a thriller: you want to keep your audience on the edge of their seat. So how do you do this? Make sure you drip feed information and raise questions as you go, rather than giving things away too soon.
“It is tempting when you're first setting out writing a book, and I have to tell myself every time not to reveal too much too quickly,” Larkin says. “It’s like peeling off the petals of a flower very, very slowly to reveal what's what's in the center.
“You're gradually drip feeding mysteries, because then later on you can actually start tying it all together and give the answers to the various puzzles that you've set up throughout the book. You can use the things like plot twists and surprises that readers don't see coming, and cliffhangers at the end of the chapters – although I think you have to be careful not to overdo those.”
5. Start slow, finish strong.
You want your novel to gather pace and build to a dramatic peak where – usually – the hero will save the day, though often at terrible cost to themselves. Larkin quotes Kathy Reichs on the topic: “Engage the reader throughout, astonish them at the end.”
“It'll be a thrilling moment when your central character has gone through hell and back to get to this point, and they're finally facing the person who has done or is going to do this terrible thing,” Larkin says.
“You ideally want to find that your central character is going into this the most disadvantaged, the most likely not to win. And the adversary is the most likely to win, they have all the cards stacked in their favor.
You have that moment where you go, how can they? How can this person do this? Of course, you're the author, you've got to find a way that they can actually do what they need to do. At that point, further revelations or some other part of the puzzle that's finally revealed adds that extra bit of spice to the moment.”
If you’re looking for more tips on how to build suspense and tension in your thriller novel, sign up for our Crime and Thriller Writing course with L.A. Larkin for valuable insights on researching, writing and publishing.