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.

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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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

One Quick Tip For Writing Ultra-Gripping Action Scenes In Thriller Stories

Well, since I seem to be going through a phase of reading thriller novels at the moment, I thought that I’d talk about one of the ways that these stories sometimes make their action-based scenes especially gripping and/or compelling.

In short, a truly gripping action scene is like watching someone solve a challenging puzzle. Allow me to explain…

The best action scenes will often begin with the main character in a situation where they are outnumbered, outgunned and/or faced with seemingly inevitable doom. They then have to come up with a clever strategy or a cunning plan in order to even the odds and/or to survive. The important thing in these types of scenes is that the main character can only get out of the dangerous situation by using their brains, rather than just their fists or guns.

But, why are these types of scenes so gripping? There are several reasons for this. The first is the dramatic sense of suspense that comes from placing the main character in a seemingly “impossible” situation. The second is the audience’s curiosity about how they are going to survive. The third is the exhilarating feeling of satisfaction that comes from watching the main character outwit, outfox and outsmart whoever or whatever is threatening them.

This progression from suspense, to curiosity to satisfaction is one of the best ways to keep your audience gripped during action scenes.

A good cinematic example of this is probably the first “Die Hard” movie. In this film, a policeman is trapped inside a tower that has been seized by dangerous criminals – he’s outnumbered, outgunned and in serious danger (as shown in a scene where he injures his foot). This movie is utterly gripping because he has to use tactics, strategy and planning in order to fight and defeat the criminals. He can’t just mindlessly charge through the building shooting wildly at the bad guys, because he wouldn’t survive. So, he’s faced with a challenging puzzle and the audience get to watch him solve it.

By contrast, the fifth “Die Hard” film is considerably less thrilling because it doesn’t really contain these elements. The main character is clearly shown to be immune to danger (eg: he can fall through several layers of scaffolding, crouch next to explosions etc… with barely a scratch). Likewise, whenever he is faced with adversity, he often just mindlessly shoots his way out of it, with very little in the way of strategy or planning. It really isn’t a very gripping film, even though the action scenes are designed to look “spectacular”.

So, a truly gripping action scene in a thriller story needs to be like a dangerous, difficult puzzle. It needs to be a challenge that the main character can’t solve by just mindlessly shooting or punching their way out of it. They actually need to use their brain in order to escape a dangerous situation.

Although the action/thriller genre has a reputation for being “mindless” or “stupid”, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A truly compelling action scene is much more about intelligent puzzle solving than about explosions, car chases etc… It is about watching the main character find some clever way out of a dangerous situation that can’t be resolved with mindless brute force alone.

So, think of the action scenes in your thriller story as puzzles for your main character to solve, and you’ll end up with a much more gripping story.

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Sorry for the short and repetitive article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂

Never Underestimate The Value Of Subtle Suspense In The Suspense Genre.

2017-artwork-subtle-suspense-article-sketch

Well, whilst I was watching the first season of a “this is hilariously silly, but I’ll watch just one more episode…” American TV series called “Nikita” on DVD, I realised something about the suspense genre – subtle suspense is important.

The interesting thing about this show is that the earlier episodes of the first season of “Nikita” focus on two main plot threads involving a rogue government agency who takes prisoners from death row in order to turn then into assassins.

One plot threat is about an escaped assassin called Nikita who has advanced training and is waging war on the rogue agency. Needless to say, she gets involved in a lot of dramatic gunfights, fist fights, car chases etc…

The other plot thread is about a nineteen year old character called Alex who has teamed up with Nikita. By staging a botched robbery, she has been able to gain admission to the agency’s harsh training program in order to spy on the agency for Nikita. Apart from the occasional boxing bout, she doesn’t really do that much fighting – instead, she has to sneak around the base occasionally to spy for Nikita, she has to communicate with Nikita secretly and she has to try to deflect any suspicions from her fellow trainees (and, occasionally, her evil instructors).

On paper the first plot thread sounds like it would be the most suspenseful and dramatic of the two. But, in reality, the second one is mostly likely to have you on the edge of your seat, biting your nails and almost afraid to watch more.

Why? Because, despite the contrived premise of the story, Alex’s storyline still seems marginally more “realistic”. It seems at least a tiny bit closer to the suspenseful situations that we’ve all been in throughout our lives.

Whether it was blagging your way into a horror movie at the cinema when you were underage, whether it was trying to think of an excuse for something or whether it was finding a way out of an awkward social situation, we’ve all had suspenseful moments in our lives. And they don’t involve things like car chases, gun fights etc…

Although melodramatic suspense can be extremely fun to watch or read, it’s often highly unrealistic. Not to mention that the characters involved in it often seem more superhuman than anything else. Ironically, there’s actually less suspense because we know that these characters will always know what to do in any situation and that they will (probably) survive and win.

Subtle, realistic suspense on the other hand may not look as good but it tends to have a lot more dramatic power for the simple reason that it’s easier for the audience to relate to.

Of course, many things in the suspense genre tend to include a blend of both melodramatic suspense and subtle suspense. The presence of one helps to make the other one seem more exciting, dangerous and/or nerve-wracking, and vice versa.

Still, if you’re making something in the suspense and/or thriller genre, then never underestimate how important or useful subtle suspense can be.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it 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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂