We all want to write a thriller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats, leaving them guessing until the end. This means we need the reader to feel like something terrible is about to happen, and that the stakes are high for the characters. This post discusses why this is so important and explores different techniques for building that sense of dread and urgency.
Let’s dive in!
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Building Tension in Your Thriller Story
Tension is the feeling of uncertainty or anxiety. It’s the feeling you get when the character is all alone in a thriller story. There isn’t an absolute sense of safety. Even though all the sounds are in our heads when we’re reading, it feels like it is a little too quiet. It is an essential element in every thriller novel and the key is to build up to it, not simply drop the danger right on the reader.
With that said, here are a few techniques for building tension:
In the beginning, you are aiming to establish a sense of unease. You do this by introducing an unsettling situation or a character with a mysterious past. There is a possibility of a threat, but there isn’t any evidence to suggest the threat is present. It is simply an uneasy situation.
In the middle, tension starts to build. The reader has gone from feeling uneasy to pure dread; something terrible is going to happen. You increase the sense of danger with more risky situations and possibly new characters the main character and reader are unfamiliar with.
Finally, the ending segment, where the tension is at its peak. It’s normally at this point in the story that a little more is learned about the threat and there is a final confrontation or a twist ending.
Creating Stakes for Your Characters
The stakes in your story are the consequences of a character’s actions and decisions. These are the reasons why the reader should care about what happens to the characters. Stakes create a sense of urgency if there is a time constraint.
For example, they are being pursued by a threat and they reach a fork in the road. One way leads away from the character’s friends and the other path leads toward them. Should the character lead the threat away and attempt to fight or lose the threat on their own? Or should the character run towards the friends and put them at risk as well?
Now, if you’re still unsure of what stakes to establish in your story, here is a simplified list for you to pick and choose which best fits your story.
Another important factor in establishing these stakes is to make them high and personal to the reader, and you do this by making them clear and relatable. It’s a fantastic way to get the reader invested in the story.
Developing that Danger
Now, we have the reader feeling a sense of danger, but we haven’t talked about developing that danger into something a bit more tangible and threatening. Yes, a sense of danger is important, but there is only so far you can carry that before the reader starts losing that feeling.
The long dark hallway is terrifying to walk down a few times, after that the imposing feeling starts to dwindle and it becomes an average hallway. It’s at this point you need to start developing that danger, otherwise, the concept of danger loses its impact and all that build-up is lost.
Here are 3 techniques for making the threat more real:
The most important aspects of any story should be developed as the story progresses. The reader learns more about the characters, the world space, and the threat. If it feels like a balancing act, that’s because it is. You can only build suspense as far as the reader is willing to go, because everything grows tiresome if there isn’t a sense of change or progress.
Of the hundreds of stories I have written, many of them were thrillers. I even started a series of thriller books, Dread, which was a collection of thriller short stories. After years of working with genre and teaching it, the primary element that concerns me, and my students, is that creeping feeling.
I have found that cliche scenes always work.
A reader will always feel tense when the protagonist finds themself all alone and there is danger in the darkness. Whether they are wandering through an unfamiliar place, a forest, or their own home. When given a sense of danger and barely any hints as to what the threat is, the reader’s imagination kicks into overdrive, while the protagonist’s mind is in fight-or-flight mode.
Danger and urgency, a wonderful combination to keep the reader invested and turning pages. I hope you found these tips helpful! If you are experienced with the thriller genre, be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below. What advice would you give to establish that tension in one’s story?
Thank you for reading and as always,
Good day, goodnight, and happy writing!