Right now, I’m preparing the groundwork to start my twelfth romantic thriller, and I like to think I know what I’m doing, but most of the time it doesn’t feel that way. When I’m trudging through the messy middle of a book and pulling my hair out because I’m convinced it’s the most boring book in the world, I double check my list of must-haves to punch up the pace, make the reader care about the characters, and then hope the reader immediately reaches for my next book.
This guest post is by Kendra Elliot, author of A Merciful Truth. With over 3.5 million sales, Elliot has hit the Wall Street Journal top 10 bestseller list five times and is a three-time winner of the Daphne du Maurier award for Romantic Suspense. She is also an International Thriller Writers’ finalist and a Romantic Times finalist. She writes the Bone Secrets series, Callahan & McLane series, and the Mercy Kilpatrick series. She grew up in the lush Pacific Northwest and still lives there with her husband, three daughters, two cats, and two Pomeranians. She’s always been fascinated with forensics, refuses to eat anything green, and hopes to wear flip flops every day in the near future.
1. Character emotion
Write a character your reader will will root for. Expose their vulnerabilities, show what is important to them, and show what makes them tick. Readers want to see a character grow and be challenged. You can write the most action-packed, suspenseful story in the world, but if your characters are perfect and have nothing to improve within themselves, your reader won’t be emotionally invested in the story. If your hero is a loner who refuses to rely on anyone, break him down and make him face his worst fear and overcome it by asking for help. In VANISHED, I showed the reader what was important to my main character and then I took it all away: his job, his family, his pride. And then I watched how his character grew and handled it.
2. Ticking clock.
Nothing maintains the pace in a thriller like a ticking clock. Give the main characters a deadly deadline, a threat that hangs over their heads the entire story. Have them believe someone will die if they’re not found and given their medication in three days. Perhaps the villain has announced that a bomb will go off on a certain date. Have a hostage situation where the bad guy gives a countdown. Put your characters in a survival situation with no food and little water. These elements raise the stakes and keep the reader turning the pages faster and faster.
3. Personal connection to crime.
Give one of the main characters a personal connection to the crime. In HIDDEN, my forensic odontologist finds the skeletal remains of her missing college roommate. In CHILLED, my hero’s brother was murdered by the serial killer he’s tracking in a snowstorm. In VANISHED, a child relative of Mason’s has been kidnapped. This brings a layer of grit and deep emotion to your character, and will make your reader feel personally involved.
4. How can I make things worse?
When I’m stuck, I ask, “What is the worst possible thing that can happen to my character at this moment?” I also refer to a permanent sticky note on my plot board that says: Give them sucky and suckier choices. This ties back to #1. You must know what’s important to your characters to truly create a horrible situation to make the reader’s stomach churn. In A MERCIFUL SECRET, I destroy something critical to my heroine. I’d spent the first two books of the series developing this vital element. It was heart-wrenching to write and I know my readers will feel the same.
5. Throw in the unexpected.
Easier to say than to do. I’ve found that if I choose my first solution to a problem, it will probably be the first solution in the reader’s mind, meaning it’s predictable. Make a list of 5-10 solutions to your problem. Write anything that comes to mind no matter how ridiculous. Your brain will surprise you when it has permission to think outside the box. Have your characters zig when the reader expects them to zag. Long lost relatives, avalanches, someone who was believed to be dead, floods, plane crashes, fires, and car accidents. I’ve done it all.
6. The icing: little extras that add up.
Weather: I love to write weather like a character. Rain storms, snowstorms, heat waves. They add an extra layer to the story and can add to the suspense.
Profession of characters: give them a fascinating job and use it to educate your reader. I love to learn as I read. This calls for solid research and interviews. Don’t get all your facts from Wikipedia; talk to a real person.
Science: Readers eat this up but have your facts checked and double checked.
Secondary characters: be colorful! Use them to do and say all the things you’re uncomfortable having your main characters do.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.