Four Sneaky Tricks That Thriller Authors Use To Make Their Stories More Gripping

Well, since I’m reading a fast-paced thriller novel at the moment (“Area 7” by Matthew Reilly), I thought that I’d talk about some of the sneaky tricks that thriller authors use to make their stories more gripping. After all, just like how videogames will often have hidden mechanics/rules to increase the player’s enjoyment, there are a few sneaky tricks that thriller authors can use to make their stories feel more gripping.

You’ve probably seen these techniques before and may not even have consciously noticed them. So, what are they and why are they there?

1) Time limit trickery: Time limits are inherently suspenseful. After all, there is nothing more frightening than the feeling of time running out. It is evocative of impending doom, inevitable death and all sorts of other terrifying things. When there is a time limit, every moment suddenly matters a lot more. The ticking clock is constantly at the back of the reader’s mind as they wait for the other shoe to drop.

However, in books at least, these time limits are actually a really clever illusion. After all, unlike a ticking clock in a film or a videogame that moves at one second per second, time moves as quickly as the author wants it to in a novel.

What this means is that – when the ticking clock is a background thing and/or has a time limit of longer than a few minutes (eg: longer than the reader can directly keep track of) – you can cram in hours of story events whilst still making the reader feel like the characters only have tens of minutes left. Yes, you need to remind your reader of the time limit every now and then, and to show it decreasing in a way that feels just about realistic – but you have a lot of leeway when it comes to the actual passage of time in your story.

As long as the time limit feels convincing to the reader, then you can secretly disregard it and cram in slightly more story events than would realistically happen in that time period, whilst maintaining a high level of suspense. And, when the time limit gets a bit lower, you can ramp up the suspense even more by reminding the reader of it more frequently than you did earlier in the story. As long as all of this isn’t done in an obviously unrealistic way (eg: showing characters travelling across the world in less than five minutes etc…), then you’d be surprised at how many hours of suspenseful story events can happen in just one urgent hour of in-universe time.

2) Segmented chapters: Although short chapters are a very well-known technique for making thriller stories more gripping (since they allow for lots of mini-cliffhangers, they allow faster jumping between multiple plot threads and they also make the reader think “I’ll read just one more little chapter…”), there is a much cleverer and more subtle variant of this that you’ve probably seen in quite a few fast-paced thriller novels without even consciously noticing why it is there.

I am, of course, talking about segmented chapters. This is when a short chapter is actually two or three even shorter chapters. For example, a four-page chapter might begin with a 1-2 page scene set somewhere and then there will be a line break and then another 1-2 page scene set somewhere else.

But, of course, this can be used in even more creative ways. To give you another example, a single page of Matthew Reilly’s “Area 7” that I read shortly before writing this article contains two 4-7 line micro-chapters sandwiched between parts of two other 1-2 page mini-chapters. The whole chapter is just six pages long.

Yes, micro-chapters should only be used occasionally (since too many of them too often can be disorientating) and you should not to include too many mini-chapters per chapter, but this technique is basically a souped-up version of the traditional short chapters that you’ll find in a thriller, but less noticeable than traditional short chapters are. If short chapters make your reader think “Just one more chapter”, then segmented chapters help to propel the reader through that “one more chapter” and into the next one.

3) Injuries, invulnerability and empathy: Although the technique of showing the main character facing and surviving “impossible” situations (using strategy, trickery, knowledge etc… rather than just brute force) is such a well-known way to make a thriller story feel more complex and gripping that there are even entire TV shows (eg: “The A-Team”, “Burn Notice” etc…) based around this idea, I thought that I’d talk about something else that you’ve probably seen in thriller novels but might not know why it is there.

I am, of course, talking about the classic thriller novel thing where the main character has several broken bones, is bleeding profusely from several injuries and has a concussion and yet still somehow manages to outwit and defeat the villain. Although the reader knows that the main character will survive and win despite lots of injuries, this still makes the novel even more gripping – even though the equivalents in other mediums (eg: regenerating health/”infinite health” cheat codes in videogames, superhero characters in films/comics etc…) have the exact opposite effect. But, why?

Well, it is all to do with how books can tap into a reader’s feelings of empathy more deeply than any other mediums can. Although the main character in a thriller novel might secretly be invincible, the audience gets to feel their pain (via vivid descriptions) as they survive injuries that they realistically wouldn’t. This creates the sense that they are genuinely struggling against adversity or are so determined that not even incredible agony will stop them – and, because the audience actually feels how the characters feel, this is much more convincing than it is in visual mediums like games, films etc…

4) Technical details: If you’ve read a fast-paced thriller novel, you’ve probably seen something like this. You’re right in the middle of a dramatic part of the book, when the narrator and/or author suddenly stops and gives you an explanation of some piece of technology, science, transportation, weaponry etc… When done badly, this can break up the pacing of a scene and/or result in reader boredom. However, when done well, it can actually make a thriller story more gripping.

But, why? Well, it all comes down to knowledge. Not only do these segments make the reader feel like they’re being let in on some interesting secrets or insider knowledge (which makes them curious enough to read more), but it also creates the impression that either the writer and/or the main character are intelligent. This subtly hints to the reader that the rest of the story will be intriguingly unpredictable and/or that the main character will later come up with some kind of brilliantly clever plan that will be really fun to see.

And, even with clearly fictional things, these kind of technical descriptions/explanations also add a hint of realism to the story – which makes everything feel a bit more intense, grounded and logical. It shows the reader that there are rules and limits to a story’s “world”, which increases their feeling of immersion in the story.

However, these sections only “work” when they are as concise as possible, when they are directly relevant to the plot and – most crucially – when they are about something that is extraordinary/unusual in some way or another (eg: something “secret” or “high-tech”).


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Do Thriller Novels Have To Be Fast-Paced? – A Ramble

If there is one novel-related word that tends to get misunderstood, it is “thriller”. When you think of this, you’ll probably think of car chases, gunfights and, most importantly, writing so fast-paced that the book has to be a giant 400-600 page tome because it only takes as long to read as a typical 200-300 page novel does. Yet, the relatively slow-paced horror/detective novel that I reviewed yesterday includes the term “thriller” on the back cover blurb – and it is technically accurate.

Strange as it might sound, thriller stories can be either fast paced or slow paced and still fit into the same genre. Yes, they might differ in sub-genre (eg: action thriller, crime thriller, legal thriller, psychological thriller, tech thriller etc…) but even the slowest-paced thriller is still a thriller novel. But, why?

The essential elements of a thriller are suspense and mystery. Both of these things are well-suited to both fast and slow-paced stories. Whether suspense comes from lots of blisteringly fast danger-filled moments or is slowly built up over the course of several pages or chapters, it is still suspense. Likewise, an intriguing mystery is still an intriguing mystery regardless of whether there are any car chases or fight scenes.

To give you two contrasting examples, Matthew Reilly’s “Ice Station” is a really fast-paced action thriller novel that focuses on a group of US marines defending an Antarctic research base against several rival special forces groups, whilst also trying to understand the mysterious item that the researchers have found under the ice. This novel contains both suspense (eg: whenever the marines are endangered, outnumbered or outgunned) and mystery (what is under the ice and why is it there?). Ergo, it is a thriller novel.

Now take a look at Koji Suzuki’s “Ring“. This is a relatively slow-paced novel about a reporter who begins to investigate a series of strange deaths (mystery) and soon finds that he has been cursed to die within seven days unless he can figure out a way to save his life (suspense). Although this novel moves at a fairly slow pace when compared to “Ice Station”, it is focused on both mystery and suspense – and is therefore also a thriller novel.

So, the “thriller” description is less about pacing and more about the fact that a story will rely heavily on suspense and/or mystery in order to keep you – the reader – wanting to read more. In addition to this, it’ll also tell you to expect a story where the main focus is on the plot.

And because the plot matters so much in a thriller, it’ll usually be a relatively complex one filled with twists and turns – similar to what you’d expect from a detective story (since the two genres have a lot of common history), but not necessarily revolving around solving a murder. These types of complex, intricate plots can be found in both slow-paced and fast-paced thriller novels. So, if you see “thriller” on the back of a novel cover, then it is also about the type of plot that you can expect.

It means that the story isn’t a character-focused literary novel, a novel focused on a type of setting (eg: historical, futuristic etc..) or a more experimental plotless work. It is a story where the main attraction is a complex, well-planned plot. So, if you consider plot to be one of the most important parts of a novel, then seeing “thriller” on the cover of a book means that you’ll be more likely to enjoy it.

But, again, it has very little to do with the actual pacing of the novel.

If you want a fast-paced novel, then it’s often much better to do something like read the first few pages, read reviews and/or to do a bit of research into the author’s other books than it is to see whether or not the word “thriller” appears on the blurb. On the flip side, just because a book is described as a “thriller”, it doesn’t mean that it won’t tell a rich, substantial story that can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace.

The only thing that the term “thriller” will tell you is that the novel will include a complex plot and will use both suspense and mystery in order to keep you interested.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Sanitised Violence Ruins The Thriller Genre – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk about violence in the thriller genre today. This is mostly because I recently read a fairly enjoyable (and gloriously cheesy/over-the-top) action-thriller novel called “Ice Station” by Matthew Reilly and I’m also currently re-reading a horror thriller novel called “Necessary Evil” by Shaun Hutson (SPOILERS ahoy for both novels). Anyway, the reason that I mention both of these novels is because – unlike a lot of modern films or some more mainstream/well-known thriller novels – they don’t sanitise many of their scenes of violence.

But, why is this important? And why is this a good thing? Well, it lends these novels’ violent scenes a much greater level of suspense, impact and complexity. There are a number of reasons for this.

The first is that more unvarnished depictions of violence introduce a much-needed element of moral ambiguity into the story. By realistically presenting violence as something that has ugly, painful and/or lasting consequences, these stories make us question every scene of violence. By not glossing over the more “evil” aspects of violence, it not only makes us think more about the characters’ motivations for resorting to such drastic acts (eg: self-defence, anger, fear, revenge, greed, cruelty etc…) but it also means that even the “good” characters have a bit more depth and complexity to them than they would do if the story glossed over the immediate consequences of their actions.

For example, the main character in Reilly’s “Ice Station” is a typical “good guy” military action hero character in many respects. Yet, the fact that the novel actually shows us the grisly results of some of his battles means that we can’t think about him in these abstract terms. Because we actually get to see some of the injuries and/or suffering he inflicts on other characters, we have to question why he is prepared to act in this way. And, although his formal motivation is that he’s following military orders, he is only usually shown to resort to horrific acts of deadly violence in self-defence and/or to protect other people. So, he comes across as a sympathetic character in a much more vivid way than he would in a novel that shied away from the grisly consequences of his actions.

On the other hand, the main characters in the early parts of Hutson’s “Necessary Evil” are a gang of armed robbers, who find themselves under attack from a mysterious foe. Although the novel initially presents the gang in a glamourous, thrilling and fairly sympathetic way, the fact that their elaborate heist quickly degenerates into a bloody “Reservoir Dogs”-style mess shows the sordid, precarious nature of their lives in a way that a moral lecture never could.

By showing the horrifying consequences of the criminals’ actions and, more crucially, the way that they react to these events (eg: pointing guns at each other, leaving someone to die etc…), the novel also shows how hollow the glamour surrounding them during the earlier parts of the story actually is. It subtly points out that, although they may see themselves as “honest criminals” or “honourable criminals”, they are actually anything but. And this moral statement only works because the novel doesn’t flinch away from horrifying descriptions of injuries, death, pain etc…

Secondly, sanitised violence in thriller stories robs these stories of much-needed suspense and impact. When your story glosses over the immediate consequences of violence, you reduce the general feeling of danger. After all, even though the audience knows that the main character will probably survive, showing the audience just how badly things could go wrong for the characters will make them feel more uncertain about this. So, it adds instant suspense. It also makes the “world” of the story feel like a more brutal and dangerous place too.

A good contrasting example of this can be found in the first and fifth “Die Hard” films (SPOILERS ahoy again). The first one is a grisly, violent action movie where everything has consequences – so, when the main character accidentally injures his foot, this is presented in a painful and bloody way that not only makes the audience empathise more with him, but it also shows them that he is in danger. Since he’s also vastly outnumbered by the villains, this injury and the immediate realistic consequences of it (eg: limping, pain etc..) stack the odds against him even more and make his eventual victory even more compelling and satisfying.

On the other hand, in the fifth “Die Hard” film – a violent, but very sanitised “12A”/”PG-13” rated film – he is presented as an invincible superhero. He can jump off of buildings and crouch next to explosions and, aside from a small scratch or two, is completely unharmed by them. Because the film is unwilling to realistically portray injuries and/or the realistic consequences of violence, the level of suspense in the film is greatly reduced. Everything that happens not only has less impact, but also feels less significant and less realistic too.

Finally, sanitised violence is a bad thing in the thriller genre because it trivialises violence. It turns it into little more than an elaborately-choreographed dance or a harmless consequence-free videogame level. It goes from being serious, suspenseful, life and death drama that also forces the reader to ponder complex moral questions to being little more than empty spectacle. And, more than all of this, “clean” violence also makes violence look “cool” too.

Yes, this might sound like a good thing in a thriller story, but it actually puts a wall between you and your audience. After all, good compelling storytelling relies on empathy. On your audience empathising with the characters and with the “world” of your story. When violence is presented in a “clean”, unrealistic and “cool-looking” way, it reduces the amount of empathy your audience feels towards the characters involved. This makes your thriller story feel less immersive and also turns it from a tense, suspenseful story of survival against impossible odds to just being a hollow series of meaningless gunfights, explosions etc…

So, yes, sanitised violence is something that you should try to avoid in your thriller stories. Yes, “clean” fictional violence might be more “commercial” (via lower film ratings, bestseller status, the YA genre etc..), but it not only reduces your audience’s feelings of empathy and the level of suspense in your story, it also means that your characters will have slightly less depth and complexity too (since the audience has less reason to question or think about their actions).


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four More Tips For Making Your Thriller Story More Gripping

Well, I’ve probably talked about this topic before, but I thought that I’d look at some more techniques that thriller stories use to remain gripping. Even if you aren’t writing a traditional thriller novel, these techniques can still come in handy if you want to make your story faster-paced or a little bit more compelling. So, let’s get started.

1) Outcast protagonists: One of the easiest and most common ways to add a bit more tension and suspense to your thriller novel is simply to make your main character an “outcast” in some way or another. For example, the sci-fi thriller novel I’m reading at the moment (Daniel Suarez’s 2017 novel “Change Agent”) suddenly becomes a lot more compelling when the main character (a family man, an expert programmer, an Interpol agent etc..) is framed for a series of crimes and has to go on the run.

Thriller novels tend to be at their most gripping when the main character is alone against the world, where nothing can be trusted, where almost everyone around them is a potential source of danger or hostility and where they need to find some way to feel safe again. This adds instant suspense to your story whilst also tapping into your reader’s curiosity by making them wonder how one person could survive against such terrible odds.

This also taps into something that I’ve probably mentioned in previous articles about the thriller genre – brains, rather than brawn, make thriller stories gripping. In other words, it’s a lot more compelling to see one “ordinary” person quickly come up with a clever plan to deal with several powerful adversaries than it is to see a muscular, heavily-armed protagonist mindlessly fighting hordes of henchmen. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, a gripping thriller novel scene is more about puzzle-solving than action and, by making your main character an outcast, you provide a good set up for lots of challenging “puzzles” for this character to solve.

And, yes, many thriller novels will add some kind of moral dimension to this in order to make the reader feel better. This is why the whole “framed for a crime” thing turns up so often in the thriller genre (instead of just using an actual criminal protagonist), but this sort of thing is optional. It depends a lot on whether you want to write a safe, commercial mass-market thriller or a much grittier and more morally-ambiguous tale.

2) Escapism and emotions: Following on from the point that I made earlier, escapism can often be an important part of what makes a thriller story gripping. Interesting settings, a “larger than life” story and/or a “feel good” ending can all be ways to add some extra escapism to a thriller story.

But, thrillers are about more than just escapism. If you want your thriller to be gripping, then you have to pay close attention to how you want your reader to feel. After all, books are amazing things when you consider that just a few printed symbols can make a person feel excited, afraid, happy, miserable etc… Writing is a powerful thing and, if you want your thriller to be gripping, then you need to use it to it’s fullest potential.

I’m talking about things like building suspense through lots of descriptions, keeping your writing “matter of fact” during thrillingly fast-paced moments, deciding which parts of your characters to show the reader, contrasting two sub-plots, knowing how to begin and end a chapter well, knowing when to focus on large or small-scale stuff etc…. A good thriller story is compelling when the author knows what emotion to evoke in the reader at the right time.

And, although there are detailed guides (both in print and online) about all of the techniques needed to do these things, I’d also recommend reading as many thriller novels as you can. After all, how can you know how a piece of writing will affect the reader if you aren’t a reader yourself and don’t have direct recent experience of seeing these techniques in action?

3) The premise: This one is really simple, so I’ll keep it short. If you want your thriller story to be gripping, then the idea behind it has to be gripping. In other words, you need an interesting premise. The kind of premise that your reader will want to know more about, to see how it can be turned into a story.

To give a non-thriller example, in 2009 someone spoiled part of the ending of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” to me. I was amazed. I found and read a copy of that book within the space of a single day. Why? Because I was really, really curious about how the ending happened.

So, yes, a gripping premise can work wonders for your story. An idea that makes the reader feel fascinated or curious before they’ve even read the first page not only gets people to take a look at your story but, if you handle it well, will keep them reading it.

4) Timelessness and topicality: This one is a bit of a double-edged sword. The more topical your thriller novel is, the more believable it will feel and the more it will tap into your reader’s curiosity about the modern world. On the downside, thrillers that focus on very topical stuff can not only lose some of their escapist elements but can also age badly too.

Going back to Daniel Suarez’s “Change Agent”, this novel feels like a resolutely modern sci-fi thriller. The kind of sci-fi that is at least a few years ahead of anything that Hollywood can do. Yet, although it mentions, explores and/or name-checks a lot of interesting current technologies (eg: CRISPR, drones, big data, self-driving cars, augmented reality, 3D printing, cryptocurrencies, urban farming etc…), these parts of the story probably won’t age all that well. After all, in fifty to a hundred years’ time, all of this stuff will probably seem as quaint as the telegram, the phonograph etc…

So, there’s a case to be made for making your thriller story at least slightly “timeless”. To make a thriller timeless, you need to focus on things that will still be gripping decades or centuries later. In other words, things like character-based drama, atmosphere, perilous situations, instincts, ingenuity etc… tend to age fairly well and will keep your story interesting even when the more modern parts seem amusingly old-fashioned to your future readers.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Are Thriller Novels So Long?

Well, since I seem to be going through a phase of reading thriller novels, I thought that I’d look at one thing that these novels seem to have in common – their length. Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man” is 524 pages long, Tess Gerritsen’s “The Sinner” is 416 pages long and the novel I’m currently reading, “Origin” by Dan Brown, is 538 pages in length.

Long thriller novels are hardly a new thing, with – for example – Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy novels from the 1970s-90s often being fairly weighty tomes. But, if you go back to the precursors to the modern thriller genre – early 20th century British adventure novels like John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps“, Sapper’s “Bulldog Drummond” etc… and hardboiled US crime novels by authors like Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett, brevity seemed to be the order of the day.

So, why are thriller novels so long? Well, I’ve got a few theories.

The first is the idea of “value for money”, that a larger book means that the reader gets more “bang for their buck”. And, although longer thriller novels often focus on quality as well as quantity, there seems to be more of an emphasis on quantity these days. In the past, this was probably because of how these novels were seen as “airport novels” – long stories intended to pass long journeys. These days, of course, they also have to compete with both physical and digital TV boxsets.

You can even see this trend in cinemas with, for example, films that would have been lean and efficient 90 minute things in the 1980s/90s often bloating to two hours or more these days. If even something like a superhero movie can regularly pass the two-hour mark these days, then it shows that length is popular.

Secondly, thriller novels might be slightly longer in order to compensate for their pacing. Modern thriller novels are usually written in the kind of fast-paced, ultra gripping way that allows the reader to blaze through the story at the kind of speed that other genres can only dream of. Because the reader will be reading more quickly, the book will seem shorter than it actually is. And, since we live in an age where “short” seems to equal “bad”, this is a way of making sure that the reader has what they consider to be a “full-length” experience, even though a 400-500 page modern thriller might only take them as long to read as a 200-350 page novel in another genre.

Thirdly, longer thriller novels allow for more complex plots, multiple plot threads and other features of the modern thriller genre. For example, Tess Gerritsen’s “The Sinner” contains at least two or three sub-plots in addition to the main plot – which itself consists of the detective solving more than one murder case. Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man” starts with two plot threads and also includes an intricately-orchestrated series of plot twists too.

In addition to making thriller stories more gripping, all of these more modern techniques are also useful in making a thriller novel stand out from the crowd. After all, there are only so many variations on “the main character saves the world” or ” the detective solves a crime” that writers can use. So, thriller novels need to make these familiar old tropes interesting – and this is usually done through things like more complex plots, multiple story threads etc… which all add length to the story when compared to the more streamlined stories of older thrillers, adventure novels etc…

Fourthly, changes in publishing probably have something to do with it too. One of the reasons why older novels were often shorter was because it was apparently difficult or expensive to print longer novels back then. Add to this the fact that novels were sometimes printed in magazines and/or had to contend with things like WW2-era paper rationing and shorter novels tended to be preferable in the past.

Of course, with modern printing techniques, it is a lot easier for long novels to be printed cheaply. Likewise, the popularisation of e-books over the past decade or two has meant that length has become less of an issue for publishers. E-books don’t take up expensive shelf space in shops and they also avoid the “oh god, I’ll never finish that!” reaction that people can often get when seeing a particularly hefty novel in a bookshop.

Finally, following on from this, attitudes towards typesetting have changed. In other words, font sizes are often larger these days – so there are fewer words on each page. Back when I was a teenager, I remember finding and reading an old second-hand 1970s edition of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”. It seemed like a substantial, but not ultra-long, novel that was maybe three centimetres thick. Then, sometime later, I happened to see a more “modern” early-mid 2000s reprint of it. This book, telling exactly the same story as the one I’d read, was at least a couple of centimetres thicker due to the print not being the kind of microscopic 10-point font used in the 1970s edition.

Add to this the fact that thriller novels are often first published in hardback, which often has a lower page count due to the larger pages, and it’s easy to see why the average modern paperback thriller novel tends to be a little bit on the bulky side of things.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

How Scale Progression Makes Thriller Stories Gripping

Well, I thought that I’d talk about one interesting technique in the thriller genre that might be overlooked by people who are new to the genre. I am, of course, talking about scale progression. This is where the size of the crisis, drama etc… increases throughout the story.

This was something I ended up thinking about whilst reading Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man” (mild-moderate SPOILERS ahoy!) the night before writing this article. One of the interesting things about this novel is that at least the first third of it seems a little understated. Out of the two plot threads at the start of the novel, one is a police procedural detective story and the other involves a character being stuck in a car with three people that he doesn’t quite trust.

These aren’t action-movie style scenes filled with explosions and derring-do. They’re small-scale scenes that focus heavily on intriguing mystery and tense, claustrophobic suspense. Of course, as the novel progresses a little bit, the scale of the drama starts to increase gradually and things start to get a bit more action-packed and dramatic. And this gradual change meant that, every time I sat down to read some of it, I ended up reading twice as many pages as I’d planned to read.

So, yes, scale progression can be a way to make your thriller story a lot more gripping. There are two contradictory reasons for this. One is that it provides variation for your readers. It’s a bit like how, if a horror novel only contains one type of horror, then the reader will get used to it and it’ll become less scary. By including a mixture of small-scale drama, large-scale drama, suspense, mystery and action, you’ll be able to keep your reader interested. If they can’t predict what is coming next, then they’re going to want to keep reading.

The other reason is that, by progressing from small to large scale drama, you give the reader the sense that the story is becoming more and more dramatic. That, if they read “just a few more pages“, they’ll be rewarded with something even more gripping, dramatic, intriguing and/or suspenseful than what they’ve just read. Of course, once they’ve done this, then they’ll want to read “just another few pages” because they know that it will be worth their while to do so.

In other words, scale progression makes your thriller story both predictable and unpredictable at the same time. When done well, this provides all of the reassuring familiary of a predictable story and all of the edge-of-your seat intrigue of an unpredictable story. But, there is one important thing that you must remember if you are going to do this.

Using this technique means that you have to pay a lot more attention to the beginning of your story. If you have to start small and work upwards, then writing a beginning that subtly tells the reader “if you keep reading, then you won’t regret it” is even more important than ever. After all, if your reader is expecting a thriller story, then they might be a little bit puzzled or surprised when the opening chapters aren’t as epic, spectacular and/or action-packed as they might expect.

So, you need to use all of the techniques of the thriller genre in subtle, precise ways. Going back to Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man”, the very first chapter is split up into two short 1- 4 page segments that each focus on a different plot thread. This is like a distilled version of the “alternating chapters” technique used in many thriller novels. Even though the drama is fairly small-scale, the fact that an intense version of this technique is used in the first chapter tells the reader that this is a thriller novel.

Likewise, the narrative voice is the kind of fast-paced, matter-of-fact one that readers associate with thriller novels. Even though relatively little has happened, this writing style tells the reader that this is a thriller novel.

Then, there’s the fact that lots of intriguing mysteries and details (eg: an incomplete account of what could be a murder, a description of a scary-looking hitchhiker with a broken nose, a car stopping for said hitchhiker etc..) are thrown at the reader without a full explanation – giving the hint that they’ll need to read more in order to find out more. Needless to say, this also tells the reader that this is a thriller novel.

So, yes, although a careful progression from small-scale to large-scale drama can be one of the best ways to make your thriller story gripping, you need to pay extra attention to the beginning of your story. If the small-scale parts aren’t intriguing, suspenseful or compelling enough then your reader isn’t going to hang around for the more spectacular stuff later in the story.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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 🙂