How to Write an Effective Edge-of-the-Seat Thriller

I was recently at a writing seminar where a popular author shared his tips for churning out nail-biting thrillers. I was happy to note that most of the things he said were in accordance with my own ideas, and which I have already followed in my book Maya’s New Husband. Now, people who know me will corroborate with this — if I stumble upon something interesting, I want to share it with others. In this case, I decided to share these writing tricks, tips or whatever you might want to call it, with my fellow authors and aspiring writers.

Starting Out

Decide the length of your story first. A good length for a thriller would be between 70,000 and 90,000 words. Apart from your readers, publishers love that length too.

Plan out your characters. Focus on your 3-4 main characters. This works for any story. Even if you are writing an epic, at a time, you are focussing on not more than 3-4 characters per chapter. You need to know, most importantly, how your characters would react to situations. This would decide how credible your story sounds to the reader.

Breaking Down Your Story

I’ll get down to business right away here. Considering your story is around 90,000 words, this is how you must break your story down:-

  1. Within first 1000 words: A taste of things

Give your readers a taste of the things to come in the first 1000 words itself. If you are writing a horror story, for example, let a haunting take place within the first 1000 words. If you are writing a crime story, let some blood flow. People have short attention spans; start giving them the goodies right away.

  1. Within first 5000 words: A major happening

Something important and highly relevant to the story must happen within the first 5000 words. For detective fiction, for instance, the body must be mentioned within the first 5000 words. And yes, there must be a body! Readers of detective fiction will feel cheated if you don’t give them a body to investigate on.

  1. Within first 30,000 words: The establishment

Within this range, your main characters must get established. Readers must have a fair idea of their characters and how they would react to situations. They should have an idea of where the story is heading. The main plotline must be underway by now. If you are writing spy fiction, for instance, the spy must be at least on the way to the enemy camp by now. And, when you are coming close to this limit, shock your readers with a twist. Don’t have second thoughts about that — a well-written twist will earn your book the ‘unputdownable’ tag.

  1. Within first 45,000 words: The radical shift

By this time, your story should have built up to such a tempo that the reader does not want to put it down. This is your midway point. Your reader has come up to here. Now is the time to make your protagonist work towards the resolution of the story. If you are writing an investigation thriller, this is the time a vital clue must be unearthed. This is when the reader should begin to see the red herrings and start envisioning their own endings to your story.

  1. Within first 60,000 words: Point-of-no-return

Your protagonist is on an irreversible journey in quest of their purpose now. There is no coming back. Write a chapter or at least a scene that outlines the consequences of what happens if they turn back now. The reader must be biting their nails by now, even probably feeling sorry for the protagonist. The sorrier they feel, the better for you. Hence, build a situation out of which your protagonists cannot come out of. Yes, it must happen before this limit. Call this point the crisis peak, if you will.

  1. From 75,000 words onwards: The climax

Devote the last one-sixth of your story to the climax. Don’t rush it, but don’t stretch it either. Keep a huge revelation for the end. Do not lay all the cards on the table until you reach this point. Keep your climax full of action, drama and, most importantly, purpose.

  1. A Cliffhanger

Every story doesn’t have a scope for a cliffhanger, I agree, but it is amazing to make your readers keep thinking when they close your book at the end of the story. Plant the idea surreptitiously, when they are least expecting, when they are thinking the story is done. Thrillers and horror stories work best with cliffhangers, but you cannot use them in every story.

So, here it is, the formula that can make your story a truly edge-of-the-seat thriller. Most books in the genre follow this format; and if you can pull it off nicely, you could have the next big thing in your hands too!

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