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 🙂