Three Basic Tips For Making Your Thriller Story More Gripping

Well, since I’m reading a supernatural thriller novel (“Ghost Dance” by Rebecca Levene) and because the short story project I was writing at the time of writing this article has ended up including some thriller elements, I thought that I’d talk about a few basic techniques you can use to make your thriller story more gripping.

So, let’s get started…

1) Mini-cliffhangers: Whether your story just has one plot thread or a couple of interwoven plot threads, mini cliffhangers are one of the oldest and most important ways to make a thriller more compelling. They can include anything from ending a chapter in a suspenseful way to just having something mysterious happen in the middle of a chapter that isn’t fully explained or shown until later in the chapter.

This technique dates back to at least the 19th century, where novels would often be published as serials (in magazines, penny dreadfuls etc..). So, having a mysterious or suspenseful chapter ending meant that people had an incentive to buy the next chapter. But, although this was originally done for purely commercial reasons, it can really help to make a story gripping – especially if it is combined with the modern technique of using short chapters (which tempt the reader to read “just one more”).

But, mini cliffhangers aren’t just for the end of each chapter. In other words, don’t be afraid to include them in the middle or beginning of part of your story. Anything that makes your reader think “what will happen next?” or “what is that?” will make them want to read more of your story as quickly as possible. So, mini cliffhangers are really useful.

2) Brains, not brawn: Although thriller stories will often include dramatic fight scenes, don’t rely on them too heavily. When used occasionally, they can add some much-needed adrenaline to a thriller story. But, if used too often, then they can become really boring – especially if the main character comes across as being invulnerable (which, incidentally, is also why many modern superhero-style action movies aren’t very gripping or suspenseful).

So, if you want to make your thriller story really gripping, then make sure that your main character uses their brain more often than they use their fists. If your main character has to outsmart their enemies, then this usually means that the enemies in question are too powerful or dangerous to fight directly. This instantly adds a lot more suspense to your story.

Plus, if your put your main character in a dangerous situation that they can’t punch or shoot their way out of, then you also make the reader feel curious about how the main character is going to survive. And, as I mentioned earlier, curiosity makes people want to read more. So, strange as it might sound, scenes where your main character has to come up with a clever plan or strategy are often a lot more gripping than a simple fight scene.

3) Pacing: Although thrillers should be fast-paced, it is important to remember that this doesn’t meant that they should be fast-paced literally all of the time. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, having a few well-placed slower moments (with less actions, more descriptions, more dialogue etc..) will actually make the fast-paced scenes seem even more thrilling by contrast.

The thing to remember is that the slower moments need to do something. Whether they give the reader character information, describe an interesting location or help to build mystery or suspense, they have to be there for a good reason. Although you still need to include fast-paced scenes, you also need to make sure that there are a few of these slower moments between each of them.

If this still sounds strange, then think about a monster movie. In a monster movie, the monster will often only appear on screen for a relatively small amount of time whenever it appears. This is because showing the monster for too long makes it seem ordinary and less frightening. It also means that there’s less suspense between monster scenes too. And, well, the same is true for fast-paced scenes in thrillers. If there are too many of them too often, then they become ordinary and boring.

————

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Differences Between Thriller Fiction And Horror Fiction

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about some of the differences between thriller and horror fiction. This is mostly because I tried to read a thriller novel called “The Storm” by Clive Cussler & Graham Brown a few days after re-reading a horror novel called “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson.

Surprisingly, I ended up abandoning “The Storm” (despite really enjoying Cussler & Brown’s “Zero Hour) after about forty pages and started to read a gothic vampire novel instead. One reason for this was probably that my expectations had changed after I’d got back into reading horror novels occasionally.

This then made me think about the differences between thriller fiction and horror fiction. Since, on the surface, these two genres have a lot in common with each other – they revolve around creating suspense and evoking strong emotions. They rely on clever pacing and good plotting. They rely on being a little bit “larger than life” in different ways. Plus, thriller stories will often contain horror elements and vice versa. Yet, there are differences.

1) Characterisation: Simply put, horror fiction will often devote more time to characterisation than thriller fiction will. This allows the horrific events of a horror story to have more of an impact on the reader because they “know” the characters and can empathise with them more.

Even splatterpunk horror fiction, which will often feature lots of grisly background character deaths, will still give those background characters a moderate amount of characterisation because their fate is more shocking when the audience can empathise with them.

On the other hand, traditional-style thriller fiction will often sacrifice characterisation in order to place more emphasis on fast pacing, gripping events and thrilling action. Although this may sound bad, it is one of the things that gives thriller novels their characteristic speed and energy.

Because the main characters in thriller stories are often a variation on the traditional “action hero” character, the audience knows what to expect – so the writer can spend more time on describing their thrilling exploits. This focus on events rather than characters also means that the violent events of a thriller novel will often come across as “thrilling fast-paced action” rather than “horrific brutality“. So, there are good practical reasons for the slightly less detailed and more stylised characterisation in thriller novels.

2) Mystery: Although “solving a mystery” is the engine that drives many thriller and horror novels, this is used in subtly different ways in each genre.

In thriller fiction, it is used to propel the characters into action and, in horror fiction, it is used to create a sense of unease and dread. In thriller fiction, the mystery is a puzzle to be solved and, in horror fiction, the mystery is an unknown threat to the characters.

The difference between these two things can be seen perfectly when comparing the early parts of Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and Clive Cussler & Graham Brown’s “The Storm”. In both stories, the solution to the mystery is made obvious to the reader (either directly or indirectly) fairly early on. But the effects that this has on the story couldn’t be more different.

In “Erebus”, it’s obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie that the story’s mysterious chemical company probably has something to do with the horrific events that are happening in the local village. Yet, this doesn’t really lessen the horror elements of the story. After all, the focus of the story is on the effects that the chemical company’s actions have and the chilling fact that they can do things like this. The only real mystery is “could it be worse than I imagine it might be?“.

On the other hand, almost directly after a rather mysterious horror movie-style scene during the third (?) chapter of “The Storm”, there’s a chapter where the novel’s villains gather together and explain exactly what happened and why it happened. This completely sabotages any sense of thrilling suspense that the story has.

After all, the main attraction of a story like this is watching a highly-skilled protagonist uncover and prevent a nefarious plot. Since the novel is part of a series, we know that the protagonist will prevail. So, the only remaining attraction is watching him find the solution to the mystery. And this only works if the audience doesn’t already know the solution…

3) Narrative style: Although I’ve talked about this before, it’s worth repeating. The narration in horror stories, even “low-brow” splatterpunk stories, vampire novels etc.. has a surprising amount in common with the more complex narration found in more “high-brow” literary fiction.

Both will often use vivid descriptions, emotional descriptions and pithy observations. They will also use a reasonably varied and complex vocabulary too. This also usually means that the pace of the story will be slightly slower.

Thriller novels, especially streamlined ultra-thrilling modern ones, don’t do this. Their approach to narration is much more “matter of fact” and has more in common with the classic hardboiled pulp detective fiction of the 1920s-50s. This isn’t “better” or “worse” than horror fiction, it’s just different.

But, why are they so different? Simply put, it’s because they need to achieve different things.

For a horror story to work properly, it needs to build atmosphere and suspense. It needs to create vivid, disturbing images in the minds of the audience. It needs to immerse the audience in the story, so that they feel like the horror is happening to them. In a splatterpunk novel, the writer also has to contrast beautiful narration with ugly events for dramatic effect. To be able to do all of this well, you need to use fairly “high definition” writing that may be slower to read, but has a lot more depth to it.

On the other hand, a good thriller novel needs to focus on speed. It needs to be something where the reader is furiously turning the page to see what happens next. It needs to be something where the writing doesn’t get in the way of the action. It needs to be something that the reader can’t put down because it’s really easy to read another chapter. It’s kind of like an older computer game running on a more modern computer – yes, the “graphics” might not look as good, but the game will run ridiculously quickly and smoothly! And, in a thriller novel, this is what you want to achieve.

————

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How To Add Some Trickery To Your Thriller, Detective and/or Spy Story

...and a few household stationery supplies.

…and a few household stationery supplies.

Even though this is an article about writing thriller fiction, I’m going to start by talking about TV shows for a while. Trust me, there’s a reason for this.

Anyway, I was watching a TV series called “Burn Notice” on DVD recently and it made me realise something interesting about storytelling, particularly in thriller stories.

Although some of the stuff I’m going to talk about here is similar to an article about sci-fi/fantasy fiction I wrote last May, I’ll be looking at more “realistic” types of fiction in this article.

Anyway, “Burn Notice” is a show about an ex-spy who is trying to track down whoever mysteriously fired him from his job – he also solves crimes, helps people and/or outwits criminals in every episode too. It’s a really cool show, but this isn’t a review of it.

But, one of the interesting things about the show which could be useful to thriller writers is the fact that whenever the main character does something sneaky – he’ll usually explain what he’s doing in a voiceover. In other words, we get the illusion that we’re learning super cool secret spy tricks and this vicariously makes us feel like super-cool secret agents.

Sprinkling your story with cool-sounding “information” is a perfect way to keep your readers fascinated. But, since you’re probably not a spy or a detective, then how do you do do this?

For starters, you don’t actually need to talk to any real spies, detectives etc… about how they do their jobs and what tricks they use. Although if you somehow can do this, then this is probably a bonus.

Likewise, you should NOT look up information on the internet about exactly how people carry out activities that would be dangerous and/or illegal. Even though it might seem like an obvious way to do background research for your story, it is a really stupid idea! And, in some cases, it may even land you in legal trouble. So, don’t do this!

In other words, you don’t really have to know anything – since not knowing anything doesn’t mean that you can’t write about it in your story. The trick is to trick your readers into thinking that you know what you’re talking about. Still with me?

The best way to trick your readers into thinking that you know as much as a trained spy, detective etc… does is to start small. In other words, show your main character using a couple of small (non-illegal and non-dangerous) tricks that actually work in real life.

These can be spy/detective-related things (eg: like the main character finding a good place to hide a piece of paper). But they can also be totally random unrelated things that most people don’t know about (like how to extend the life of a marker pen).

As long as it isn’t illegal, violent or dangerous and it sounds like something that most people don’t know and would probably like to learn, then do your research and add it to your story.

A good place to start for researching cool obscure things is a site like Wikihow or, for more directly spy/detective-related things, then check out online articles about things like computer security, home security etc..

Showing you main character protecting himself or herself against the bad guys by using a realistic non-violent security technique that anyone can use is a great way to impress your readers.

For a good literary example, check out the first chapter of Lee Child’s “Gone Tomorrow” (an excerpt can be found here). In this chapter, the main character (an ex-military policeman) is able to spot a suicide bomber because he’s memorised a list of warning signs that tell him what to look out for.

Now, once your readers see these small realistic things, then they’ll probably assume that you know what you’re talking about. So, when it comes to the really dramatic stuff – you can just make it up or, even more sneakily, leave a few details tantalisingly vague. As long as it doesn’t sound blatantly unrealistic, most of your readers will probably believe you.

But what if they don’t? Well, this isn’t as much of an issue as you might think.

Chances are, any actual detectives, spies etc.. that read your story will probably be glad that you aren’t actually teaching the general public anything dangerous or secret.

Not only that, most people are smart enough not to imitate things that they read in thriller novels – so they’ll probably never check. At worst, if your story becomes extremely popular, then any films based on it might eventually appear in a segment of “Mythbusters” or something like that (and, let’s face it, having something based on your work appearing on a major TV show is hardly a bad thing).

So, remember, if you make sure that the small stuff is realistic, then you can just make the big stuff up and most of your readers will probably believe you.

———–

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Thriller Fiction Is A Smarter Genre Than You Might Think

2014 Artwork Smart Thriller Fiction sketch

If you haven’t really read many thriller novels, then it can be easy to assume that it’s a “dumb” genre. After all, it’s the genre with all of the gunfights, car chases and short chapters. So, obviously not that much of an intelligent genre, right?

Wrong.

Yes, thriller fiction isn’t exactly Albert Camus (although Camus’ “The Stranger” is written in the kind of minimalist style that thriller novels often use) or anything like that, but don’t be so quick to write it off as a “dumb” genre.

Yes, there are formulaic, militaristic “conservative” thriller novels out there but these don’t really represent the genre as a whole.

You see, thriller fiction actually developed as an offshoot of the detective genre – and this can be seen most clearly in early thriller novels like John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (where a man is framed for murder and has to find the real culprit, before the police find him).

But, even most modern thriller novels involve the narrator and/or protagonist having to solve a mystery of some kind or another. This is because coming up with a suitably intriguing mystery is one of the most effective ways to make your readers want to read more and read as quickly as possible.

Not only that, this also means that the main character of a thriller novel is usually a “detective” of some kind of another. In other words, they have to be someone who is smart enough to solve a crime or a mystery of some kind.

In other words, whilst action movies might do well with macho Arnold Schwarzenegger-like protagonists with an average IQ of 80, the average thriller novel protagonist is more likely to be slightly more of an “ordinary” kind of person, with a slightly higher-than-average IQ.

Yes, they might be ex-military (like in Lee Child’s thriller novels) or possibly have lots of academic qualifications (like in Dan Brown’s thriller novels), but they won’t usually be superhuman action heroes of any kind.

Usually, the main character of a thriller novel is pretty much alone too (or, at the very least, he or she only has a very small team of supporters) in order to increase the level of suspense in the novel too.

What this also means is that whilst the narrator might have to rely on their fists and/or their guns when faced with overwhelming adversity, they’re a lot more likely to rely on their wits and cunning to get out of tough situations.

So, yes, in most thriller novels, the protagonist’s brains are more important than their muscles.

And, yes, there are valid storytelling reasons for doing this. Whilst it might be dramatic and spectacular the first time that a thriller novel protagonist fights off a horde of bad guys with her fists and a large rifle, it gets kind of boring the fifth time that it happens.

However, showing the main character outwitting their enemies in lots of different ways adds a lot more variety to the story. Plus, it’s also a lot more satisfying because it sets up a “David and Goliath” kind of storyline, where the “underdog” always wins.

And, yes, at heart, a good thriller novel protagonist is an underdog – they’re a rebel, an outsider and an outcast. Not only is thriller fiction a more intelligent genre than you might think, it’s also a more subversive genre than you might think.

Even when the main character is a soldier, a cop or a spy – then they’re usually not completely liked or trusted by the “establishment” that they serve. They’re likely to break the rules in order to save the day and they might not even fully agree with everyone in the organisations that they work for.

And, let’s face it, people love an underdog. Why? Because there isn’t a person on this planet who hasn’t felt like they were an underdog at some point in their lives. And, well, underdogs are just more interesting than extremely conservative “ordinary” good guys too.

So, yes, the thriller genre is a surprisingly smart, and subversive, genre.

———-

Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂