British-Australian crime and thriller writer L.A. Larkin – who teaches the Australian Writers’ Centre’s popular Crime and Thriller Writing course is our go-to woman for crafting suspenseful, exciting literature.
Larkin’s latest thriller novel Prey was released in April 2020, published by Clan Destine Press in Australia and Bloodhound Books in the UK. It’s her fourth thriller, and Larkin says she’s learnt throughout her writing career that it doesn’t get easier – but there are things you can do to help you succeed.
“Even the most prolific authors sometimes have doubts about what they are writing, just like new authors,” she says. “Our inner critic is likely to be far worse than even the harshest editor. But with the right writing tools and a supportive network you can conquer your doubts and write wonderful stories.”
1.Explore the world around you
Good writers are constantly collecting little snippets of information and filing them away for later use. Think about the people around you – your colleagues, family, friends or people you know from a hobby will all be sharing bits about their lives which could grow into a fascinating story. As an imaginative writer, expand your general knowledge and engage with the world; you never know when, or where, you might hear something fascinating.
For her part, Larkin takes ideas from news stories, documentaries and travel, as well as stories she hears from friends. For example, Prey is set in the United Kingdom and South Africa, and she started forming the idea of writing a thriller featuring wildlife trafficking when she backpacked through eight African countries almost 20 years ago.
“I fell in love with the magnificent wildlife and was horrified to learn about the illegal trade in wildlife and their remains, like horns and tusks,” she says. “Years later, I was chatting to Lara James, the wife of UK bestselling crime fiction author, Peter James, and she was telling me about the criminal syndicates in Asia that run wildlife trafficking in South Africa. I saw the makings of a great thriller in which my hero, Olivia Wolfe, sets out to bring down such a criminal syndicate and, in so doing, finds herself hunted by a terrifying assassin.”
Larkin encourages aspiring crime and thriller writers to find a story theme which excites them, in the hopes that they will develop a passion which will keep them motivated through the writing process. Whether it’s knitting, tennis, or travelling the world, look at what you love and think about how it could become an exciting tale.
2. Location, location, location
Beyond plot inspiration, the location you choose helps create the tone of the novel you’re writing. Be it central Tokyo or the Sahara Desert, selecting an exciting and appropriate setting for your story can make all the difference to how compelling it ends up. Key elements to consider include the physical geography, the built environment, the weather and the way society functions.
Larkin’s previous thriller Devour is partly set in Antarctica, “and there is no doubt that the severity of the climate and the intense isolation of Antarctica adds to the sense of menace in the book,” she says.
3. Drip-feed information to build suspense
One of the reasons readers love crime and thriller novels is the suspense authors build – they’re not sure what’s coming next. You never want to give away the game in the first chapter, but nor do you want to leave it a total mystery right until the end; that way, you risk your reader becoming frustrated or bored.
Larkin suggests opening with a mystery, and says she employs a number of tactics to keep her readers guessing.
“Hints and clues are revealed gradually. Plot twists surprise the reader. Cliffhangers leave them gasping to know what happens next,” she says. “Switching the point of view in the following chapter can mean the reader has to wait to know if their favourite character lives or dies.”
4. Create rounded, deep characters your reader can engage with
While thrillers are very plot-focused, it’s the characters that keep people coming back for more. Your readers only care if a character lives or dies if they have some degree of emotional attachment to them – and to create that, the characters can’t be one-note.
As a writer, you have to get inside your characters’ skins and really know them inside out. Fleshing out their back stories – even if the readers never find out this level of detail – will help you build realistic characters, and thus add in the human element necessary to create tension.
Larkin runs through a list of questions to create a life history and a personality profile for her characters, and says this means that when she’s writing she has “a good idea how each character will react and what they are likely to say.”
5. Beware stereotypes of ‘goodies vs baddies’
While it can be tempting to think of crime novels as a simple story of good versus evil, a thriller will prove much more exciting for modern audiences if there are unexpected dimensions. Giving a darkness to your heroes – or some humanity to your villains – is one way to surprise and delight your audience, and leave them wanting more.
For a hero, that could mean they have an inner demon or a closely guarded secret, as well as human vulnerabilities and failures. Larkin looks to give her characters “various shades of grey”, and avoids creating antagonists who are wholly evil, or reverting to tired tropes.
“I try to avoid clichés such as teenage mugger in a hoodie, or a detective with a drinking problem – unless there is more to those characters which therefore makes them interesting,” she says.