Masters of Suspense: Thriller Agents on Querying & the Best Books in the Genre

Our panel of thriller agents provide their thoughts on the state of the thriller and suspense subgenres and share their own favorite thrillers and what makes them work, along with some crucial advice for querying.
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In the October 2018 Writer’s Digest, our panel of agents provided their thoughts on the state of the thriller subgenres. In this web exclusive, thriller agents share their own favorite thrillers and what makes them work, along with some crucial advice for querying.

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Our panel of agents provided their thoughts on the state of the thriller subgenres. In this web exclusive, they share their own favorite thrillers and what makes them work, along with some crucial advice for querying.

What’s the best thriller you’ve read recently? What made it stand out from the rest?

Jess Dallow:Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage. It [came out] out in July and it was everything I wanted in a book. It was dark and scared me, which books tend not to do. There aren’t as many books that focus on psychopathic children and the psychology of that is incredibly fascinating to me. I also recently read Caroline Kepnes’ You (a little delayed, I know), which was so creepy. I loved being in the mindset of a stalker and psychopath who thought he was being a protector. Can’t wait for the show [on Lifetime] in September!

Carlisle Webber: I enjoyed The Couple Next Door by Shari LaPena. It’s centered around a kidnapping and has a small cast of characters. I had a feeling that someone close to the main character was responsible, because it didn’t make sense for the author to suddenly bring in an unknown kidnapper at the end. What really got me turning pages was wondering about the characters’ motivations, things that were hinted at but not fully revealed toward the end.

Bernadette Baker-Baughman: Karin Slaughter’s The Good Daughter has stuck with me since I read it 18 months ago. I’m not just saying that because she is a client of the agency. It is incredibly vivid and experimental and brilliantly written. It is so exciting when you find a book like that, that just grabs you by the wrist and won’t let you go. I only wish that every book I pick up could give me such a rush.

Sandy Lu:You by Caroline Kepnes. It turns Gone Girl on its head with a dark, twisted sense of humor. It’s a sharp, chilling and creepy tale that features one of the most original unreliable narrators, who makes me laugh out loud and root for him despite how wrong it feels. What an un-put-down-able, unforgettable book!

Tess Callero: I really loved The Woman in the Window. It was a bit more upmarket than what I was used to reading in that category, and I was totally hooked.

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What are the most common weaknesses in your thriller submissions pile?

Baker-Baughman: Ideas that don’t feel fresh enough or that don’t feel like they’ve been developed to their full potential. So often we get a query and are like, “Wow, that is a really good idea.” But then the execution falls flat. Also, sustaining tension. It is really difficult to do but when done well, oh man, that’s a winner.

Dallow: I don’t think I’ve seen a specific pattern in the ones I come across, but there are times a manuscript can start out a bit too dramatic. For example, if it’s giving a little preview of what happened before going back into the past, there can be a lot of exclamation points, a lot of dialogue that doesn’t necessarily feel natural. It’s a dramatic moment, a scary moment, but your characters shouldn’t be overdramatic. It’s a fine balance, but it does matter. You also want to make sure it doesn’t start out slow. You don’t have to get into the thriller aspect right away, but you also don’t want it to take too long to get there.

Webber: The most common weakness I see is too much backstory at the beginning of a work. Thrillers should not begin with two characters sitting at a table and talking. The other big weakness is an opening scene with a lot of action but not enough character development to make it work investing in emotionally as a reader.

Lu: A cliché plot and derivative characters.

Callero: This isn’t necessarily a weakness, but I love seeing comps in my queries.

To read more of these agents’ takes on thrillers, check out “Seeking Thrills” in the October 2018 Writer’s Digest. And subscribe to get WD all year long.

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