For readers, nothing spells escape like a good thriller. As a writer, how do you keep the thrills coming? Luckily, the avenues for creating tension are endless.
1. Make the most of POVs
Consider using multiple points of view and shifting among them at crucial moments. When a villain knows something that the heroine doesn't, then use his POV. This lets your readers know or suspect more than the heroine. They will grow more and more tense, praying she won't fall into traps.
2. Keep chapters short
Chapters that run under 10 pages tempt readers to read "just one more," and before they know it, it's 2 a.m. If you have a long chapter with more than one point of view, pick up the book's pace by starting a new chapter every time the POV shifts.
3. Employ cliffhangers
Leave readers in suspense by stopping at a tense moment, then switching to another part of the story. To give a simplistic example: Mary answers a knock on her door. She is expecting a friend, but instead it's a stranger pointing a gun. The chapter ends. The next chapter begins from the point of view of the friend, wondering why Mary doesn't answer her door. Readers will wait breathlessly to see if Mary survived.
4. Limit description
Don't Kill the Thrill
Keep these pointers in mind as you build the thrill in your novel. Use restraint. Don't bog the reader down with pages and pages of description. Action is the key to keeping readers turning those pages! Create characters readers care about. All the action in the world means nothing if the reader doesn't connect with the characters. Who cares if the car gets blown up if no one is in it? Put a villain readers hate in the driver's seat, and they'll love to see him die. Put one of the characters readers love in the driver's seat, and they'll cry when she dies and hate the villain even more! Reveal only at the end. Don't give readers too much information too fast. You want them to turn each page like detectives on the hunt for clues. Make them read to the final line of the last page—and only then reveal how all the pieces come together.
Don't spend time on lush description in the middle of an action sequence. The last chapter of my thriller, Learning to Fly, is pretty bare-bones: one woman, two men, a lonely cabin, gunshots and a sudden fire. As it went through the editorial process, I kept waiting for someone to tell me to expand the chapter. Instead, one of the proofreaders told me the tension made her snap her pencil while reading it.
5. Get violent
Make one of the characters especially violent. If he has a hair-trigger temper, readers will worry something bad might erupt every time he walks into a room.
6. Disclose judiciously
Don't tell everything upfront. In fact, don't tell anything until you have to! Give information in pieces. One of the most common mistakes people make when writing a thriller is telling too much too soon, because they are terrified readers won't understand the complexities of the story. Trust your readers to hang in there.
7. Spring surprises
The more unexpected twists your thriller has, the better. In the TV show 24, Terri learns from a cell phone call that the body of a murder victim has been identified as someone named Allen York. But the man beside her, the man who has offered to help Terri find her missing daughter and is now driving Terri's car, has introduced himself as Allen York.
The kindly neighbor, the friendly co-worker, the adoring husband—are they really who they seem to be? In William Goldman's Marathon Man, Tom "Babe" Levy is rescued from torture by a policeman named Janeway. When he tells Babe to call him Janey, the reader realizes with a shock that this is Babe's brother's boyfriend—not a woman, as the reader has been led to believe. A very clever surprise. When Babe honestly tells Janeway he doesn't have the information he's looking for, the cop sighs in exasperation—and returns Babe to his torturer.
8. Repeat history
A defining moment from a heroine's past can motivate her to relive or avoid a replay. Torment your character with guilt for having failed: the cop who didn't react fast enough to save his partner, the mother who let her attention wander just long enough for her child to be kidnapped. Show the moment in flashback, but not before dropping hints—"he woke up panting from the dream again, the one about the fire"—and upping the tension. Then write its echo at the climax. Give your main character a chance to rise above the paralyzing fear and rewrite history.
9. Unleash nature
Life is complicated enough when the Mafia and the CIA want you dead, but what if you're also trapped by a snowstorm in an isolated farmhouse without power? Use a tornado, ice storm, flood or earthquake to make matters more complicated for your characters—and more interesting for your readers.
10. Drop hints
Mention the locked gun cabinet or even the razor-sharp Wüsthof knives, and readers will eagerly wait for a character to put the object into play.
11. Play to phobias
Whether it's a fear of enclosed spaces, snakes or heights, forcing your hero to confront his phobia (preferably while dodging bullets or saving another character or both) is a great way to heighten tension. Use flashbacks to provide a frame of reference for the current sense of vulnerability. Build the tension even more by picking a phobia that personally gives you, the author, a bad case of the willies. In this case, "write what you feel" is even better than "write what you know."
12. Frustrate your hero
A hero whose sanity, morals or judgment has been called into question can find his truths fall on deaf ears. The hero—and the reader—feels an escalating sense of panic as he tries to find someone who will listen before it's too late. Sometimes even the reader doesn't know whom to believe. In Peter Moore Smith's Raveling, the main character has just been released from a mental hospital and believes he can read others' minds. He also "knows" his brother is a killer—but is he right?
13. Hurt a main character
It was going to be difficult enough to escape. But now that your heroine has a blinding migraine, a bullet wound or a dislocated shoulder, how will she pull it off? Ask yourself what is the worst that could happen to someone, and then write it. Make your main characters suffer and readers will thank you for it. In Greg Iles' 24 Hours, a child manages to escape her kidnappers and hide in the woods, but she has diabetes and will go into a coma if she doesn't get insulin soon.
14. Kill someone likeable
Otherwise, readers might start believing that you would never let anything bad happen to your main characters. Show readers that you can do it and that you will do it. From that point on, readers will be jumpy at the first sign of a threat against one of the remaining characters.
15. Limit timeFury heads each chapter with the number of days in a countdown, starting with six. Simply reading the start of each chapter heightens the tension.
Given 22 weeks to solve a problem, we all might be able to do it, but what happens to the tension if it's just 22 minutes or 22 seconds? When time grows short, the characters and the reader grow more agitated. In Learning to Fly, Free is told by Roy that he will kill her if Roy's wife doesn't show up by 9 p.m. But Free knows the wife is dead, so she's got to come up with an alternative plan before the clock strikes 9.
16. Limit space
No matter how bad things get, don't give your characters the option of running away. Force them to be resourceful. In the movie Dead Calm, the heroine and villain are trapped together on a boat. Every space and sound is fraught with menace.
17. Give it one last twist
Your hero is finally out of danger, and readers can let out a sigh of relief. Or can they? Now's the time for one final twist. It may be a cliche to have the supposedly dead villain pose one last threat, but sometimes cliches work. Don't let your main character win too easily. The more hopeless things seem, the more readers will be engaged.
The number of suspenseful techniques you use is up to you. All 17 may be too many for your novel. Select the ones that work best for you, and you'll have some happy—and sleep-deprived—readers.
This article appeared in the July 2003 issue of Writer's Digest.