The best advice - stay one step ahead of the readers. Always keep them guessing. In Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs, specific details such as Clarice’s lack of knowing the plan she was involved in when retrieving information about Buffalo Bill from Hannibal Lecter kept the readers side by side with main character. The crazy genius, Hannibal Lecter, and the crazy suspense from Buffalo Bill made the thrill worth the read.
Also, you must give your readers something to relate to in your characters. Make them fall in love, or at least care if something happens to your protagonist. Conflict is going to come. Your protagonist will face turmoil and conflict – maybe even near-death experiences – so readers must feel something for them. The protagonist(s) should be your reader’s new best friend(s).
Uncertainty and Time are Your Best Friends – both uncertainty and pressure are the two biggest elements for suspense. Keep the good guys on a clock, keep the odds even for the good and the bad side, then you’ll keep your readers wondering and hungry for the next chapter.
As explained in my previous article, Stephen King – Behind the Pen, hook the readers right in the beginning. If you don’t catch them early, they won’t keep reading. Like in Stephen King's novel, Cujo, a huge rabid dog that traps Donna and Tad in their broken down Ford Pinto, King keeps the readers guessing what's going to happen next and keeps the upper hand in the dog's favor, as it waits for the heat to drive them out of the car so he can attack. Also, time is a major ally for the dog when the heat causes Tad to get heatstroke. The suspense started very early on. Just like a fish in the ocean, if readers don’t find your hook appealing after a few seconds, they swim away.
Know your protagonist better than anyone. Know his or her ins and outs – the fears, the wants, the best and the worst. It’s okay to play on the protagonist’s fears or let the story take place during his or her worst time in life. Sometimes, that adds to a juicier and more realistic story. Their faults give the reader a sense of reality for the character.
Show what happens – don’t just tell the reader. I can’t emphasize this point enough. As an editor, I have come across so many stories that just tell you what happens. By the middle of the story, I’m bored and ready to be done with the project. It’s important to keep the reader in the moment of the protagonist’s issues, situations and choices. Sweat beads rolling down the face, bulging eyes and heavy breathing paint a better picture than simply saying “He was afraid.” Those images help readers get into the action and fears of the story. Thrillers need this extra layer of action and suspense to succeed.
Thrillers can be a fun genre to use. Using it right can make a difference. Keep it real, keep it consistent and keep it interesting!
Harris, Thoms. The Silence of the Lambs. Center Point Pub., 2201.
“10 Basic Ingredients of a Successful Thriller.” Writer's Digest, 12 July 2011, www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-conferencesevents/qp7-migration-maui/10-basic-ingredients-of-a-successful-thriller.
King, Stephen. Cujo. Sperling & Kupfer, 2014.