Originally appeared at Joyce Strand’s blog.
Imagine a giant ticking clock hovering overhead as you race down a darkened tunnel. Four minutes to save your life or die trying. Your heart’s hammering so fast the beats are nearly continuous, your hands are numb from being clenched into fists, and your lungs burn from the rapid intake of air. Thundering behind you is a force so terrifying you don’t want to look back, and yet, you must. Look, gasp, run harder, and look again.
That’s a thriller. A plot so intricate and chocked with twists and turns you not only can’t put it down, but you’re physically altered while reading it. Remember the books that have you looking around the corner, leaving the light on, or staring at complete strangers as though they might morph into a kidnapping psychopath right before your eyes? There’s a reason they stick with us.
I love every kind of thriller, but my personal favorites are psychological suspense thrillers, with The Silence of The Lambs being the standard. To this day, no villain has terrified or enthralled me more than Hannibal Lecter. Author Thomas Harris makes Lecter crawl into our minds from the moment he steps onto the page. When Hannibal calls Clarice Starling at the end of the novel, even though the main story line is all tied up and Buffalo Bill is dead, our hearts still pound at what the good doctor might say. That’s the essence of a thriller – the ride doesn’t stop until the very end.
So what do you need to write a great thriller? There’s no formula, but there are some must have elements.
1) Hook readers on the first page. An action scene can be a great way to snag a reader, but there are any number of books that start off more subtle, with the initial hook tapping into a reader’s deepest fear. Harlan Coban is a master of hooks that dig into our psyche and compel us to read on.
2) Unforgettable hero/heroine. Readers love characters with flaws, ones that push themselves to the edge. Lisa Gardner’s heroine in Say Goodbye is a great example of this: she’s pregnant, but she’s lured to a case that might get her and her baby killed. Married less than a year, she’s also attracted to her partner, and yet she loves her husband. She moves through the book with a mixture of guilt and determination–a state most of us can relate to.
3) Most importantly, an all-powerful villain. In Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, Robert Langdon is up against the powerful and secretive Illuminati as he tries to thwart their efforts to destroy the Catholic Church. These guys are willing to sacrifice themselves – and each other – for their cause.
4) Put your characters through hell and make it personal. What do you fear? Spiders? The dark? Abandonment? Death? Losing a loved one? Whatever it is, make it happen to your characters. Torture your characters until the end, but give them the strength to persevere.
5) Balance. Keep the rollercoaster moving. Lull your readers into a sense of calm by making your characters get what they want–and then drop them to their knees one last time.
6) Thrillers thrill; it’s that simple. What’s your favorite thriller? What books have kept you up at night lately?