Steven James is the national bestselling author of The Pawn, Opening Moves and The King. Publishers Weekly has called him a “master storyteller at the peak of his game.” John Raab, the editor, of Suspense Magazine raves, “Steven James sets the new standard in suspense writing.” Steven lives near The Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, three daughters, two lazy cats and a python named Buddy.
Crafting Killer Thrillers
by Steven James
If a thriller does not thrill, if it doesn’t give readers an adrenaline rush, it’s not a thriller. As you craft suspense novels, it’s vital to remember the essentials of storytelling and the secrets to creating reader interest and intrigue.
Here are three keys to writing high-octane thrillers that will grab readers’ attention and keep them flipping pages late into the night.
Key #1 – Include less action and more promises.
At its heart, a story is about tension, and tension is created by unfulfilled desire. So the secret to writing a story that draws readers in and keeps them turning pages is to create more and more tension, not to make more and more things happen.
So plotting stories is not a process of asking what should happen next, but what would tighten the tension.
This shift in perspective will forever change how you shape and tell the stories that you write, whatever the genre.
Romance stories are not about romance, they are about romantic tension. As soon as the actual romance happens, it is the end of the story.
Action stories are not about action, they are about resolving problems. Once the conflict is resolved, the story is over. One exciting event happening after another does not make an intriguing action story. In fact, it gets boring unless the reader can see what is at stake, unless he can understand and identify with the unfulfilled desire of the main character.
Thrillers are not stories about scary things happening, they are about the promise of pain. Suspense happens between the promise of something dreadful happening and the actual event itself. So when writing suspense, the key is to include less action and more promises.
And then, as the story rises in escalation, to keep all the promises you’ve made.
So what this means is as you write a story, you’ll save time and write better stories if you stop asking yourself, “What should happen?” and start asking, “How can I make things worse?” It also means that stories, at their essence, are neither character-driven or plot-driven. All stories are tension-driven.
For example, you can write a fascinating description of a character or have thirty chase scenes in your novel, but after a while readers will grow tired of hearing about what the character is thinking or eating or wearing or doing if we do not know what their unfulfilled desire is. And we will get bored of seeing car chases unless we know what the people chasing (or being chased) want.
Readers need to know what the character wants.
Readers need to know where the action is leading.
Key #2 – Always give the reader what he wants or something better.
Thrillers fail when they don’t deliver both believability and surprises. Every time a character does something unbelievable the reader begins to lose trust in the storyteller. And yet, if the story does not contain satisfying twists, the reader will end up dissatisfied. So, your goal when writing thrillers is to write stories that end in ways that are both unexpected and inevitable.
If they are not both, they will fail on an essential level.
Key #3 – Include both internal and external struggles.
Typically, the strongest stories will be centered on a protagonist who has both an internal struggle and an external struggle.
The internal struggle is a question that needs to be answered; an external struggle is a problem that needs to be solved.
Whether a story is considered character-driven or plot-driven, historical romance, cozy mystery, techno-thriller or literary fiction, this dual focus on the internal and external struggles of the main character will help snag readers’ interest and keep it. Genre will dictate which struggle takes precedent in the story, but all commercial fiction today needs both internal and external struggle.
Thrillers, despite the danger, action and suspense, will typically include a satisfying internal struggle so the reader will be deeply drawn into the emotion of the story.
When I work on shaping one of my thrillers I’m constantly asking myself how I can make things worse within the context of the character’s primary struggle. So, if the character’s struggle is despair, I have to lead them to the very edge of depression, the deepest and most hopeless situation imaginable. If her struggle is loneliness, I need to sharpen that loneliness to its most extreme limits.
To summarize, stop asking what should happen and focus instead on tightening the tension—making things worse. Typically the worse you can make things for your protagonist (within the contexts of these two types of struggles), the better the story will be for your readers.
Put these three keys into practice and you will see your stories begin to improve immediately. And your readers will keep coming back for more.