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 🙂

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 🙂

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.


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

Six Basic Tips For Writing Thriller Stories

2013 Artwork Thriller Story Sketch

Ah, thriller novels. Yes, many of them may not be “serious literature”, but they’re not supposed to be. They’re meant to be fun. They’re meant to be the kind of book that you start reading and just can’t put down until you reach the last page, despite the fact that you’ve got other things to do. Yes, thriller novels are amazing. However, they are apparently surprisingly difficult to write well.

Although I’ve only really dabbled in writing thriller fiction (usually combined with sci-fi and/or horror elements) and only really feel qualified to offer very basic advice, I thought that I’d give you a few tips which might be useful if you’re new to this genre.

1) Read a lot of thriller novels: This is probably the most important thing to do if you’re planning to write a thriller story. Not only will a good amount of background reading help you to avoid things which have been pretty much done to death, but it will also show you fairly clearly what does and doesn’t work in a thriller novel. In addition to this, it will give you a chance to look at several different writing styles and to see what elements they have in common with each other and what elements you with to incorporate into your own writing.

If you’re totally new to this genre, I would recommend reading anything by Dan Brown (especially “Deception Point” and “Digital Fortress”), literally anything by Lee Child, “Seven Ancient Wonders” by Matthew Reilly (more on this book later) and some of Shaun Hutson’s non-horror fiction (eg: “White Ghost”, “Exit Wounds” and “Knife Edge”).

2) Plot reigns supreme: The most important thing about a thriller story isn’t the characters or even the quality of the writing, it is the plot.

A thriller story can have two-dimensional characters and a writing style which almost makes you want to throw the book into the bin in disgust, but it can still be the kind of thing you just can’t put down purely because the story is so fascinating.

Whilst this shouldn’t be used as an excuse for bad writing, it means that the writing in thriller stories doesn’t always have to be as “perfect” as other types of stories in order to be both publishable and very readable (in fact, your writing should be relatively simple, concise and “matter of fact”). As long as your thriller story has a very strong and compelling plot, then everything else doesn’t matter quite as much.

A perfect example of this is probably a novel called “Seven Ancient Wonders” by Matthew Reilly. Go and read the first hundred pages of it. Take note of the gratingly annoying way that Reilly uses line breaks for “suspense”, take note of some of the more ludicrous set pieces and the relatively small amount of characterisation. Now put the book down.

Go on, stop reading it.

Still reading? I thought as much. You see, Matthew Reilly’s novels are the perfect example of just how important good plotting is to thriller novels. Everything else about his books is absolutely terrible but, because the plots are so interesting and dramatic, they are still extremely readable and compelling.

So, how do you come up with a good plot for a thriller novel?

3) Thriller novels are basically detective novels on steroids: If you’ve read even a small number of thriller novels, then you’ll have probably realised that the plots almost inevitably revolve around either solving a mystery of some kind or finding something before someone else does. Once you strip away all of the car chases, explosions, gunfights etc… a thriller novel is nothing more than a souped-up detective novel.

The main reason for this is because mysteries are inherently fascinating and they make people feel curious. If people are curious, then they are going to want to keep reading until they no longer feel curious (eg: until the end of your story). As such, this type of plot tends to be used in most thriller novels because it works astonishingly well.

Unlike an action movie, which can basically just fascinate and entertain people with lots of special effects and well-choreographed combat, a thriller novel needs to back all of that kind of stuff up with an even more fascinating story.

4) Opening lines: A strong beginning is essential to any story, but it is even more essential to thriller stories. If the first few lines of your story don’t grab the reader’s attention and make them want to see what happens next, then the rest of your story doesn’t matter.

It can be the most thrilling thriller novel ever written, but if it starts with something like: ‘I woke up early and looked out of the window as the rosy fingers of dawn played their way across the idyllic Cornish countryside surrounding our house. My husband was still sleeping as I walked downstairs and picked up the morning paper from the doormat. The headline mentioned some celebrity scandal that I didn’t really care about. I threw the paper onto the table before putting the kettle on and making a cup of tea…’ Most people will stop reading out of boredom.

When it comes to the very beginning of your story, assume that your readers have an incredibly short attention span and need something shocking, fascinating and/or dramatic in order to keep reading.

To give you an example of a good beginning to a thriller novel, check out the opening sentences to Lee Child’s “Gone Tomorrow”: ‘Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all kinds of tell-tale signs. Mostly because they’re nervous. By definition they’re all first-timers.’

See what Lee Child does here? The first sentence contains something dramatic (eg: suicide bombers) as well as something intriguing (eg: Why does the narrator know that they’re easy to spot?). This is followed up by some additional descriptions which keep both the reader interested and make the reader even more curious about why exactly the narrator knows all of this stuff.

Because suicide bombers are mentioned in the very first sentence, more astute readers will realise that they’ll probably show up in the story fairly soon. So, of course, the reader knows that the narrator may encounter a suicide bomber in the near future, but they don’t know how, where or when. Of course, the only way to find out is to keep reading….

5) Pacing and structure: If you’ve read a few modern thriller novels (eg: anything written since, say, the mid-1990s) then you’ll probably notice that the chapters are usually fairly short.

This structure is useful because, not only does it allow the reader to feel that they’re moving through the story more quickly than they actually are (eg: “I read the first seven chapters in twenty minutes” sounds like a lot more than “I read the first thirty five pages in twenty minutes”), it also makes the story more appealing to readers who don’t have the time to read the book from cover to cover, since there are plenty of points where they can stop reading.

In addition to this, short chapters force the writer to ensure that every word matters and to make sure that something significant happens in every chapter. If you’re writing a thriller novel and one of your chapters doesn’t either add a lot to the reader’s understanding of the characters, contain something dramatic or move the story forward, then leave that chapter out of your story. Your readers won’t miss it.

However, at the same time, your story should also have a fair number of “quieter” moments and less eventful scenes in order to make the action-based parts of your story more dramatic by comparison.

For a lot more information (and a lot more detailed information) about pacing in thriller stories, check out an excellent book called “How To Write A Thriller Novel” By Scott Mariani

6) Research: If you’re going to write a “realistic” thriller story, then you are going to have to do a lot of research – especially if your story involves firearms, the military, the police, technology etc… Whilst you can obviously take a few creative liberties in some parts of your story (since absolute realism doesn’t always make for extremely dramatic stories), there will probably be people who will probably gladly point out any large errors in the “realistic”/technical parts your story.

One way to sidestep doing a large amount of research is to make your thriller story clearly fantastical (this is one reason why the few thriller stories I’ve written have been sci-fi ones).

But, if you want to write something realistic, then be sure to do as much research as you can. This can include talking to people with experience of the subjects in question, reading books about the subject, reading online articles (eg: Wikipedia), watching documentaries, visiting locations you plan to use in your story etc…. But, remember, realism should never get in the way of telling a fascinating story.


Sorry that this article ended up being so long, but I hope that it was useful 🙂