Thriller stories are one of my favourite genres to write. It’s a great opportunity to create suspense, scare the reader, and delve into a world of dark happenings and monstrous creatures. Thriller stories have some of the most gripping stories and likeable protagonists as the readers love to root for a character in a dark situation.
Today, I will give you my 10 tips for writing a thriller story!
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1. Keep Your Reader Guessing
Personally, this rule is a must no matter what scenario.
I typically write thriller and horror stories. Even when writing a lighter novel I still find myself going back to the dark void for inspiration. It usually suggests I make an unknown threat and make it scary. Yet, when I write suspenseful scenes, I don’t give the reader any hints. Only I know what goes bump in the dark in my story, yet they are better off, or should I say worse off, not knowing.
The human mind can think up something far worse than anything you come up with when feeling inspired. Of course, that doesn’t mean they will. This is why when writing a suspenseful scene, I put the reader to work by giving them reasons to be scared of something, even if they are not sure what that something is.
I let the reader know there is a threat, an invisible danger. I create distrust, I create fear, but I hold off on who or what the threat may be. In other words, I keep them guessing. I have the darkness of the reader’s mind pondering what could be so evil, so dangerous.
Maybe the monster I have in mind is scarier, which makes me happy. However, maybe my monster is not so terrifying, but I still garnished the reader’s fear, their sense of absolute dread, by not revealing what the monster was until later in the story.
Of course, it doesn’t always have to be a monster. A dangerous human can be just as suspenseful, especially if you don’t know who or where they are.
2. Don’t Force Suspense
The next tip is simple in concept but difficult in practice.
When writing any scene, be it suspenseful or not, you should never force yourself. However, it goes doubly so for suspense scenes. With other scenes, you might mess up a description or create a hollow dialogue. Unless it is a major part of your story, it’s no big deal and could even be rectified if it is too glaring of a problem.
However, with a suspense scene, every detail goes a long way toward establishing the right ambience, and the right emotional states of the characters. All this is to get the reader feeling the fear. Unlike previous examples, if a suspense scene falls flat, you can’t fix it, you can only rewrite it.
If you don’t feel like writing that scene or it feels a little difficult to write, taking a break or writing another scene is advised. It’s okay to wait until you are in the right mindset or are suddenly hit with inspiration to write that scene.
3. Give Your Reader Breaks
Now, you might have some great suspenseful scenes going. Some might have you looking over your shoulder! However, everything grows tiresome if you experience it long enough. Just like listening to a song on repeat, constant suspense soon loses its edge, its power.
The solution; give the reader breaks.
It’s a simple rule, but an important one. Even if your plot is centred around a character stuck in a haunted house, from beginning to end, there needs to be moments of respite. Moments where the character can take a breath, where the reader can take a breath.
Every great plot has these moments and they are there for a reason. If your character never feels safe, not even for a moment, then it is like a never-ending chase scene. It eventually grows tiresome.
4. Use Anti-climax
While many suspense scenes end with the reveal of danger or the main threat to kick the suspense up into an action scene, it pays to have the suspense scene end anticlimactically. Think of it like a red-herring for the reader’s anxiety.
Is that the monster? The killer? Is this where the character gets hurt, or worse, dies? Or is…
Yes, it was a cat which popped out of nowhere and ran off. A surprise to be sure, but certainly not an axe-wielding psychopath bent on carving a bloody path through the protagonists. These moments add to the mystery and insecurity. It will make the moment when the danger reveals itself all the more surprising.
It also gives you an excuse to introduce a thrilling ambience without having to use your best cards.
5. Slow Suspense Before Sudden Suspense
The next tip is to make your suspense scenes slow before you make them fast.
Great writers and even great directors understand that the character isn’t immediately in danger when they enter the creepy cave or the horror house. Instead, there is a gradual build-up, some time to investigate, reflect and learn.
Once this is done, some indications of danger make themselves known. Fear starts to grow and the characters decide to leave, so they do or at least try to. The characters can’t escape this feeling though. Slow suspense, but real and relatable.
I mentioned directors, so let’s mention movies. At no point in a good thriller does a character just wander happily into an area and the intense Psycho music starts playing without build-up. Remember this and suspenseful scenes will flow much better with your story.
6. Make an Interesting Antagonist
The most captivating of thrillers had some iconic antagonists. It’s easy enough to create a simple threat, a realistic one, such as a criminal breaking into a house or a wild animal pursuing the protagonist in a forest. However, an interesting antagonist makes the story more thrilling.
One makes the antagonist interesting by giving them an advantage or a unique way of doing things.
The advantage could be anything and it can be backed by anything. You could have an incredibly cunning antagonist or a strong antagonist. It could be the antagonist is so elusive because of their intelligence or some supernatural force. The advantage over the protagonist will make the antagonist appear as a greater threat.
As for the unique way of doing things, your antagonist could be a monster that targets people based on a specific characteristic, or they could be a killer that leaves a calling card behind that lets people know who committed the crime. There are many scary ways to make an antagonist unique, from the way they speak and think to the way they act when they commit crimes. Cursed objects and other supernatural elements are a fun and easy way to make an interesting antagonist, but there are plenty of ways to make even a human interesting.
7. Plan Your Plot Twists
A great way to surprise your reader is to hit them with a plot twist. It could be that the antagonist was closer than they thought, or the protagonist was the killer all along or even the smaller twists along the way that helped pass the suspicions around.
Plot twists are fun to write and they can have an impact on the reader when done right.
However, the more convoluted the twist, or the more twists you have, can lead to contradictions or no impact at all. Plot twits require you to keep certain facts hidden, to subtly hide clues, which requires careful planning.
Luckily, it’s not necessary for there to be a plot twist in your thriller. If you don’t want one, that’s perfectly fine and you can tell a suspenseful story just fine. However, if you do want a plot twits, plot it carefully. Take note of the way you are writing.
There will always be some that figure out the plot twist before its reveal, but if you plan well enough, you can hide it from most of your readers.
8. Be Clear About the Stakes
A protagonist doesn’t conflict with the antagonist in the thriller just for peace of mind.
There need to be stakes when it comes to thriller stories. The most popular is the protagonist just trying to stay alive. When you have a dangerous killer or monster hunting the protagonist, their primary concern is to escape or defeat the antagonist. Of course, there are other examples where the protagonists want justice, or they want to take something from the antagonist’s home, or the conflict escalated from something small to something big and scary.
It’s never just conflict for nothing.
Figure out what is at stake for the protagonist and convey they to the reader. Once done, keep those stakes at the forefront of their mind. You do this with ‘close-calls’, where the protagonist almost loses.
For example, a protagonist trying to survive cannot make it to the end unscathed. You need to remind the reader of the stakes, and remind them of the character’s mortality. You can do this by the antagonist injuring the protagonist, or the protagonist injuring themselves to escape for a moment.
Handicaps and close-calls make the action scenes more thrilling, but more importantly, the remind the reader that the protagonist isn’t untouchable.
9. Include Plenty of ‘Action’
This tip can be taken two ways and it depends on the kind of writer you are.
It could mean you need to include more action scenes or you need fewer relaxed scenes. A lot of authors can break the suspense by lingering too much on the scenes that break the ambience. If there are too many happy moments throughout the story, it is easy to tone down the fear and suspense that you are trying to create in your thriller novel.
The best way to figure out if you have too many relaxed scenes or too few action scenes is to check the pacing of your novel. Does it feel like scary scenes are dulled by the scenes that transpire before or after them? If so, you might want to break it up a little with more action scenes or cut some of the relaxed scenes out.
One great way to break a long sequence of relaxed scenes is to include dark moments or nightmares. It could be something disturbing that happens while they are awake, but not so disturbing that they fear for their life. Or, they can simply have a nightmare, a surreal mess of dark thoughts that put them, and the reader, on edge when they are getting too relaxed.
10. Write a Strong Protagonist
Many qualities can make your character a strong protagonist. Essentially, you want to give them the traits that the reader finds compelling, that help them survive the events of the story.
You can make your character likeable from the beginning to make them compelling, or have them develop throughout the story into a strong protagonist, which is compelling in itself.
You can also give them skills and abilities if they are dealing with a threat that requires some sort of speciality. For example, your antagonist could be an animal-like monster and your protagonist could be a hunter or zookeeper. The protagonist uses their experience with animals to help them survive this unusual threat.
Is this a suspenseful adventure that only they can survive? Does this thrilling story help them become a better person? Overcome some great obstacle in their life or within themself?
Even a character with a strength of will is compelling. If you are unsure of what trait to give your protagonist, look at the antagonist or the situations they need to endure. What would trait would help them, or at the very least make them more interesting to the reader?
Thriller stories come any many forms.
Some thriller stories are about a character surviving a physical threat, about monstrous creatures or monstrous people. With the antagonist so clear, and so present, the story is made thrilling by the struggles the characters go through.
Then you have the psychological thrillers, which can also include a physical threat, but that threat is so clear and present that you know when and how it is going to strike. It is this unknowing that adds to dread. Of course, psychological thrillers can also address more psychological threats, be it a terrifying form of madness or surreal, nightmarish situations brought about by some mental or chemical influence.
I have always found the psychological thrillers disturbingly captivating, as they are a lot more personal in regards to the protagonist. You are watching them develop throughout the story, how they are challenged by a threat you cannot fight off with your fists.
Yet, even the cliches, such as a big creepy mansion with a hidden threat, can still send a shiver down my spine. That’s why I like to dabble with all sorts of ideas when I write my stories.
I would like to hear what kind of thriller stories you like to read or write. If you are experienced with the genre, what tips would you give for writing thriller stories? let me know in the comments!
Thank you for reading and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!
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