When I set out to write my second thriller, The Perfect Escape, I was constantly balancing the core of the idea and the personalities of my characters with everything I knew from years of reading mysteries and thrillers, and watching Hitchcock movies and noirs. I never like to follow a formula, but I know that readers (like myself) are going to expect a number of twists, turns, and surprises when they pick up a new thriller.
While I don’t think there is any one way to write a domestic thriller, here are a few things I always try to keep in mind:
Spook out your setting
No, you don’t have to have a haunted house. Some of my favorite thrillers are set in all kinds of locations, from glorious mansions to cramped apartments, far-flung locales to suburban neighborhoods. But still, the best thrillers have an element of spookiness in their settings, what I like to call the “creep factor.” It might be the creaking sound of wooden beams settling in an old attic, the roadkill smell of rot on a country road, or the eeriness of traversing a neighborhood where every single home looks exactly the same. No matter where you choose to set your domestic thriller, make sure to include details in every scene that evoke a certain eerie je ne sais quoi.
Keep it close
Unlike action-packed political or legal thrillers, a domestic thriller can truly focus on the nuances of what happens behind closed doors among a few people, be they romantic partners, family members, or close friends. My greatest advice in writing a domestic thriller is that you don’t have to include too many characters. I love a tight, close-knit setting, which offers plenty of opportunity to unpack each character’s unique motivations, drives, and, of course, secrets. You’ll certainly want a cast of captivating side characters, but there’s no need to create an elaborate ensemble—you can accomplish a lot by keeping it small.
My rule of thumb is if a twist, reveal, or answer to a mystery is the first thing that came to your head, there’s a good chance it’s the first thing that will come to your reader’s head as well. With that in mind, don’t always rely on your first idea to get you through the twists and turns. Through writing and rewriting, find opportunities to surprise yourself and change up some plot points you thought were set in stone. Your mystery will be much stronger and complex for it.
Remember the relationships
To me, what makes something a domestic thriller is the unique relationships between the key characters. They don’t have to be romantic. They can be friendships, familial ties, even colleagues. I think the most important part is that you create a web of characters who both fight for (and fight with) each other, and whose decisions dramatically affect each other’s. I believe a perfect twist doesn’t just affect the outcome of one of your characters, but through a well-crafted patchwork of relationships, has repercussions for every key character in your book.
Nail the landing
I think there are plenty of books where the ending is not as important as the build-up and main arc, but in thrillers, most readers are craving an ending that sends chills up their spines and finds a way to deliver one final surprise. My advice on endings is to keep the surprises coming through the very last page. While your biggest reveal will usually arrive at the climax, there’s no reason not to keep a few cards up your sleeve to slowly reveal with each chapter of your denouement.