Writing the Suspense/Thriller Novel

Writing the Suspense/Thriller Novel


Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music.

ASK THE AUTHOR: From Caleb Walton via Facebook: How much of the content of your novels is outlined beforehand and how much is done spontaneously as you write?

AARON: Another great question. I think the answer will be different for each of us. For me, I outline very little. I’ll have what I call a “macro-outline” (I just started calling it that right now, by the way. Hope you like it). That is, I have most of the major plot points, the big-picture ideas mapped out. I know basically where I want to begin and roughly where I want to end, but I don’t know much beyond that. And more often than not, those main points will change. So, the short answer to your question is very little. Though, the more I write, the more I find myself outlining, especially when the story becomes unruly.

POPS: There is no percentage, Caleb. Most intuitive writers do very little outlining, maybe a handful of scenes at at time, assuming the scenes pop into their heads. Outliners usually outline the whole book (or at least most of it) from the start–of course, allowing for changes. I tend to outline when on a deadline. It never hurts to outline.

Molly: None. I’ve tried writing outlines, but they just just don’t flow for me. I do however have another method. I scribble copious notes on scrap paper, and as I write the scene, I toss the notes. Not the greatest way to stay on track, but I’m a discovery writer.

Firsts in Fiction

Writing the Suspense/Thriller Novel

Reading a suspense novel can be a real thrill, but writing it can be a real challenge. Here are our tips and tricks to writing a great suspense novel or thriller.


One of things I’ve noticed when teaching about suspense and thrillers is that many new writers don’t know the difference between those genres. So it is always good to define our terms so we’re all on the same page.

There are three related genres but which are still very different: mysteries, suspense, and thrillers. Let’s start with the big picture, then drill down to those three.

  1. Let’s talk genre
  2. Western (Louis L’amour)
  3. Historical (James Michener)
  4. Mystery (Sue Grafton)
    1. Cozy mysteries
    2. Police procedurals
    3. Romantic mysteries
    4. Straight mysteries/Private eye
  5. Suspense (Dean Koontz)
    1. Horror (S. King)
    2. Supernatural (Alton Gansky 🙂 )
    3. Spy tales
  6. Thrillers
    1. Police/crime
    2. Medical (Robin Cook)
    3. Techno (Michael Crichton)
    4. Futuristic/Fantasy (Ray Bradbury, J.K. Rowling. Aaron Gansky)
  7. General market (Danielle Steele)
  8. Chick-lit
  9. Humor
  10. Romance (Nora Roberts)
  11. Action-adventure (Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy. Alton Gansky)

The problem with genre is that the borders keep moving. Some books are a cocktail of genre. [Stephen King’s DREAMCATCHER is a horror story, based on a science fiction premises that involves a coming of age story that segues into a male-midlife crisis affair that is mysterious in nature and paced like action-adventure.]


Mysteries vs. Thrillers/Suspense Generalities


Mystery Suspense Thriller
Puzzle Fear Nightmare
“Solver” based Victim based “Hero” based
Identify with detective Identify with victim Identify with both hero and victim
Protag. has skills Victim must acquire skills Protag has action skills
Thinking centered Emotion centered (fear, etc) Action centered
Crucial action often happens off stage Crucial action is front and center More than one stage
Smaller world stage Larger world stage Can be global
Clues based Surprise based Action based
Information withheld Information revealed Information revealed
Reader is a step behind the protag. Reader is current with protag Reader sometimes ahead
Often done in series Often done as stand alone Stand alone
Who done it? How to survive it? How many will suffer if protag fails
Solve a crime or tragedy Prevent additional crime or tragedy; avoid becoming a victim. Failure to act means doom
Suspects Betrayal/danger Conspiracy
Red herrings Setbacks and obstacles Repeated danger
Ending satisfies the mind Ending provides release of tension. Ending provides relief.
“Ah ha!” “Oh my!” “Whew!”

POPS–Can you give us a few exemplar novels that we can look at that best exemplify each of these genres?

  • MYSTERIES: Father Brown mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton
  • SUSPENSE: Dean Koontz
  • THRILLERS: Steven James
  1. Hallmarks of a thriller… (much of this applies to suspense)
    1. Sympathetic hero
    2. An impossible to ignore and pressing danger
    3. An evil that is far greater than the hero
    4. Setback after setback
    5. Certain doom/impossible odds
    6. Unusual setting (Look for the unusual in the common–serial killer on a cruise ship)
    7. Sometimes a hero who “tumbles” into danger
    8. A pressing need to survive
    9. Action and more action (action can be implied and subtle as well as overt)
    10. Escalating tension
  2. Making a thriller
    1. Start with the above ingredients
    2. Write in three acts
      1. Act 1: Meet the characters and encounter the problem (25% of book)
        1. Fast start (usually)
        2. Drag the reader into the story.
        3. Plot point 1: Something forces the hero to act. There is no turning back.
      2. Act 2: Hero is fully involved in solving the problem and facing bigger and bigger challenges.
        1. Plot point 2: Force hero to do something extremely difficult
      3. Act 3: Hero charges toward solution against all odds.
      4. Resolution: Hero wins! Yippee!
    3. Keep up the pace
    4. Shorter chapters
    5. Leave the reader hanging.
    6. Let environment be character
    7. Use sensory rich language and use more than one sense.
    8. Write for the eye, then for the heart
    9. Most POV should be from the hero
    10. Make the situation so bad YOU’RE not sure your hero will survive.
    11. Surprise yourself.

Start Fast: People like novels that begin with the proverbial bang. However, yours doesn’t have to start with an actual gunshot. That’s a pretty cliche way to begin. However, you do want to get some conflict started early on. Usually, in a suspense novel, or a thriller, you might establish the norm before it gets messed up. But even in this “normalcy,” there should be conflict. Your character has lost his job, or her husband is ill, or his son was kicked out of school, or her sister has gone back to an abusive boyfriend. Whatever it is, there should be something more than “Bob couldn’t sleep.”

In Harrison Sawyer I begin with a gentle murder in the prologue, and then begin with a funeral in Chapter One. The norm has already been upset, and Marshall’s life will never be the same.

The Ticking Clock: Suspense novels and thrillers both have a ticking clock. That is to say, if your character does not accomplish his or her goal, something disastrous will happen. Usually this has something to do with dead bodies, but not always.

In The Bargain, the ticking clock is the threat of a coming storm, something that will destroy an entire town if Connor can’t find five righteous people.

The Villain: Your villain must strike fear into the heart of the reader. But remember, they shouldn’t be “evil for evil’s sake.” Generally, they have a motive beyond simply torturing the protagonist. But they must have an ability set that makes them formidable, even more capable than your protagonist.

High Stakes: It’s easy to write a suspense about life-or-death, or a terrorist threat. But sometimes the high stakes can be personal–the life of a family member, a reputation, a bloodless coup. Whatever is on the line must have a profound impact, must mean something of great importance to your protagonist.

Let your character win, right before they lose: Your plot should be complex enough that your character can win a victory or two, a battle here and there, but still be behind. With every win should come a complication that sets the character back even farther, or result in him or her realizing the scope of the challenge before them–and it’s larger than they imagined.

Mix it up: Don’t be predictable. If you outline, remember to throw in some red herrings. Give them some trails to explore that lead to dead ends. If they don’t find a dead end, there is no reason for them to turn back and explore other roads. However, some roads aren’t dead ends, they just lead to cliffs for climbing, or cliffs for plummeting off.

1 thought on “Writing the Suspense/Thriller Novel”

  • Thank you so much for these tips, now I have the main sources of making a horror suspense novel. I didn’t really know how to make a villain properly scary at first, I usually make a predictable bad guy with a plan everybody can see right from the beginning and have a twist. That same goes for the High stakes, I knew I had to go deeper and cause more pain and suffering for making a complete horror/suspense genre.

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