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 🙂