1. A good story
First and foremost, there has to be a strong sense of “dread” in any thriller. This is usually accomplished through the quest to prevent disaster from striking. There should be a high-concept plot with a shocking climax; the reader won’t get this through a story about someone who is trying to “find themselves”, but will if it’s about saving a person/a nation/the planet. Every scene should contain conflict and tension of some kind. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park springs to mind here.
2. An action-packed opening chapter
The introduction of a good thriller always sets the pace for the rest of the book; it should be tense and compelling, not a chance for the author to cram in a load of information about the characters’ backgrounds (this should come – subtly – later). Very early on in the book, it should be clear what the protagonist wants and what he or she fears.
3. A likeable protagonist
The reader should warm to the main character quickly and be able to identify with him or her. If they don’t feel any connection or sympathy towards the hero or heroine then, quite frankly, they won’t care what happens to them! The character should develop as the plot continues; they don’t have to be perfect – in fact, flaws in a personality are much more realistic – but the reader should become emotionally attached to them. A character who has a solid moral code and who has been hurt in the past will always help achieve this.
4. Multiple points-of-view
This isn’t the case with all thrillers – Steve Martini’s books are exceptions to this rule – but the majority of thrillers are written in the third person, with shifting points-of-view. This adds interest and complexity to the novel and allows the reader to see the story from different angles. It also increases the feeling of the aforementioned “dread”, as they have a better sense of the overall picture.
Each chapter should end with the ultimate cliffhanger, leaving the reader crying out: “Just one more!”. There’s nothing like a stunning shock, confession or unforeseen twist to encourage the reader to keep turning the pages. When the hero lands in deep trouble before the end of a section or chapter – stretching their determination, bravery and physical abilities to the max – the reader will want to see if they come out on top.
6. Ticking clock
Thrillers often have a race-against-time aspect to them – something that adds to the suspense and fuels the reader’s adrenaline rush. Whether it is a (literal) ticking time bomb or a criminal who will be sentenced to death in 48 hours if not proven innocent, this really adds to the pace of the book.
7. A world-class nasty villain
The antagonist needs to be as determined and clever as the protagonist, but also utterly immoral, terrifying and nasty at the same time. It helps if the reader can watch the villain in action and can see the crimes taking place; this makes us despise the antagonist even more and adds to the excitement.
8. Character growth
A thriller is always made better if the main character becomes mentally stronger as the story unfolds, showing some sort of victory against his or her personal demons. For example, in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice becomes stronger and tougher at the end, and is finally seen as a professional FBI agent in what was a male-dominated profession.
9. Teach us something
While we’re not looking for an information overload with this kind of book, a good thriller should always teach the reader something so they can go away feeling more informed on a subject – whether that subject is a social issue or a medical treatment. Sometimes, a story peppered with facts and accurate details can make the plot more believable.
10. An epic ending
A good thriller always has an epic ending that will blow your mind; an ending that will stay with you for days, if not weeks, after reading the final page. Sometimes, the ending will come as a surprise, even changing the entire meaning of the story and forcing you to rethink everything you thought was “real”. In fact, you may find you’ll have to read the book again to actually understand it. Without revealing any spoilers, Harlan Coben’s Tell No One, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl are examples of thrillers with truly spectacular endings. Unhappy or unresolved endings should be saved for literary fiction; in a thriller, the protagonist should overcome the antagonist – but only by an inch.
So, these are what we believe to be the main elements of an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Would you add any extra points to the list? And what are your most memorable pieces of thriller fiction? We’d love to hear from you in the comments box below.
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