The Dos and Don’ts of Writing Effective Suspense and Thriller Stories

When you’re writing a suspense or thriller novel, you want to make sure you keep your readers hooked and compelled to turn every page. But sustaining that level of devotion from a reader means that every word needs to count. And you need to ensure that your plot, characters and structure are working hard to keep them glued to your story. So here are the dos and don’ts of writing effective suspense and thriller stories.

The Dos

1. Do start with a bang
Hook your reader in from your opening page and start building tension. You want to grab your reader’s attention from the very first sentence. The opening of your story is also crucial in creating the right atmosphere for your story and establishing the stakes. That is, the stakes that are faced by your protagonist and other key characters in the story.

A strong opening can take many forms. You might start with a super dramatic action sequence or a very tense conversation or conflict between certain characters or particularly scary oy resetting. Your opening typically also introduces your reader to the protagonist and gives the reader a hint about the protagonist's character, the motivations and the situation hearing

This is where putting your protagonist in a high-stakes situation can be very effective. It immediately creates a situation where there is tension and suspense. and it gives the reader an idea of what is in store for them in the rest of the novel.

2. Do develop complex characters
You want to create characters who are complex and flawed – for both your heroes and your villains. You don’t want one-dimensional characters who just save the day – or, in the case of villains, are simply evil without any reason why they have turned out this way. A shallow stereotype who is a bit cartoonish isn’t likely to hold a reader’s interest for very long.

It’s important that the characters you create have depth and dimension. That means giving them motivations, fears, desires and weaknesses. One technique to create complex and flawed characters is to give them conflicting motivations. For example, your protagonist may want to save the world but they might also want to find true love – or protect their loved one. It’s this internal conflict that creates tension and also makes your character more relatable.

Another way to make your character more relatable is to give them weaknesses. These could be character weaknesses – like a penchant for gambling too much – or physical weaknesses such as a phobia. You want to create a character who's not perfect, who struggles with their weakness – and who isn't simply a superhero. This is the key to ensuring that readers care about your characters and feel invested in their journey.

3. Do build suspense through effective pacing and structure
Without a doubt, an essential skill for crime, suspense and thriller writers is to master the art of pacing and structure. You want to keep your readers on the edge of their seats. Or, at least, with their fingers poised to swipe on their Kindle or to turn the pages of your novel.

One way is to keep your pace fast. Think Matthew Reilly’s books. The protagonist is always taking action and, as a reader, your heart is beating fast to know what’s going to happen next. This means having short chapters, quick scene transitions, action sequences and, often, cliffhangers. However, your entire novel can’t be like this – because, quite frankly, this pace can be exhausting for a reader! So you need to Balance your fast-paced action sequences with scenes that are calm or reflective so that your reader can catch their breath and lower their heart rate

However, you don't always have to keep your pace fast to write an effective suspense or thriller story. You might prefer a slow-burning structure where you have longer chapters and slower scenes. In this kind of story, you want to keep your reader guessing. This is often used in psychological thrillers where the tension is built through the mind of the protagonist – or the point of view characters – and the reader.

The Don’ts

1. Don’t reveal too much too soon
This may seem obvious but rookie writers often reveal too much too soon. They fear they’re not planting enough clues or signposts in their story. But, while it’s certainly essential that you need clues to keep your readers guessing, you don’t want to insert too many so that they guess what’s going to happen too early.

So make sure you withhold information from your reader. And use foreshadowing wisely. You can also avoid giving everything away too soon by using red herrings. This means introducing false leads, false clues, and false suspects, in order to keep your reader guessing.

2. Don’t make the villain too predictable
Your villain – or the idea of who your villain might be – is a key driving force behind the suspense in your story. So you don’t want their actions to be predictable. It goes without saying that when your villain is predictable, your reader is going to be less engaged. So you want to create a villain who is unpredictable, complex – and yet believable. That's why it's so important for your villain to be multi-dimensional. Give your villain a backstory, a personality and motivations for why they are the way they are. At the same time, you want to ensure your villain acts unexpectedly – because this keeps your reader guessing as to what they might do next. But you also need to demonstrate that your villain has reasons for that unpredictable behaviour. It can’t just be a random reason.

3. Don’t make the plot too complicated
While it’s important to have a complex and intricate plot, it’s also important to ensure that readers understand what’s going on. If you’re new at this, don’t start by trying to write the next Tenet. If your plot is too complicated – or contains too many subplots for a reader to follow – this can not only alienate your reader, it can take away from the suspense and tension of the story.

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