Thriller stories are action-packed page-turners that keep readers on the edge of their seats, hearts racing, palms sweaty (knees weak, arms heavy). They’re full of anxiety, tension, and fear, and are driven by twists and turns that keep your audience captivated, holding their breath, and dying to know what comes next.
But writing a thriller is complex, so we’ve put together a list of essential tips—no cliffhangers, don’t worry—on crafting an epic thriller story full of suspense, intrigue, and unexpected twists.
1. Understand the Three Act Structure
If you’re writing a mystery or thriller, then you’re writing contemporary fiction where certain literary rules apply. You can have the best characters, setting, and story idea, but if you lose your structure, you might lose your audience, too. If you don’t know where to start, try following a three act structure:
This is where you introduce your characters and setting, and where your plot is launched, usually including an inciting incident (the reason your story exists) and the key incident (in which your protagonist gets pulled into the action). This is your hook.
This is where you develop your plot and show how your main character is struggling with what you throw at them. Show little wins, major losses, and all of the reactions in between. In this act, you need a pinch point, during which your protagonist is lost in some way and facing opposition from the antagonist. This is also where you need a turning point—a point in which something happens that lights a lightbulb over your character's head and shifts the plot.
This is where the plot pops off. The race is on and you’re getting closer to the climax scene where all is revealed and everything comes together. In most thrillers, this is often where a black moment comes in, where your protagonist thinks all is lost. Until it isn’t. Finally, your protagonist wrestles down their opposition, solves the mystery, and then your plot arc is complete.
This is where you wrap up loose ends, answer questions, a soft place for your readers to land and feel satisfied by the story. Some writers prefer to write their endings first as something to write towards.
2. Start with a jaw-dropping hook
Your first task as a thriller writer is to hook your readers from the very beginning. Think of your opening scene as a tantalizing bait that lures them into your story. Create a moment of tension, mystery, or shock that makes your readers gasp and say, "I need to know more!".
3. Develop compelling characters
Thrillers thrive on characters who are complex, relatable, and flawed. Craft protagonists and antagonists that readers can connect with on a personal level. Give them strengths, weaknesses, and motivations that drive the plot forward. Readers should care about what happens to these characters.
4. Build suspense gradually
Effective suspense is the heartbeat of a thriller. Slowly escalate the tension, raising the stakes with each passing chapter. Drop subtle hints and clues to keep your readers guessing, but don't reveal your hand too soon. Make them crave answers.
5. Create a well-defined setting
The setting of your thriller is more than just a backdrop; it's a character in itself. Whether it's a dark, eerie forest, a bustling city, or a remote, isolated mansion, make sure your setting contributes to the atmosphere and enhances the sense of danger.
6. Plot twists are your friends
Thriller enthusiasts love nothing more than a shocking plot twist that turns their assumptions upside down. Plan your twists carefully, foreshadowing just enough to keep readers guessing but not enough to give it all away. The more unexpected, the better.
7. Use multiple points of view
To add depth and complexity to your story, consider using multiple points of view. This allows readers to see different perspectives and adds layers of intrigue as they piece together the puzzle alongside the characters.
8. Tighten the pacing
Thrillers are all about pacing. Keep the story moving at a brisk, heart-pounding tempo. Short, snappy story parts and well-placed cliffhangers can be your best allies. Your readers should feel like they can't swipe away.
9. Drop red herrings strategically
Red herrings are false clues designed to mislead both the characters and the readers—a distraction from what’s really going on. Introduce them strategically to keep everyone guessing. Just be sure to tie up loose ends and explain any false leads by the end of the story.
10. Create high-stakes consequences
Make sure your characters have a lot to lose. The higher the stakes, the more invested your readers will be in the outcome. Whether it's a life-or-death situation, a career on the line, or a devastating secret at risk of exposure, make it matter.
11. Nail the climax and resolution
The climax is where everything comes to a head, and the resolution is where loose ends are tied up. Ensure that your climax is a rollercoaster of emotions and that your resolution provides satisfying closure while still leaving room for some lingering questions.
12. Revise and edit ruthlessly
Once you've penned (or typed) your thriller, don't forget to revise and edit with a keen eye. Polish your prose, eliminate inconsistencies, and fine-tune your pacing. Make sure everything lines up. A well-edited thriller is a compelling one.
Writing a thriller story is all about the art of suspense and surprise. Engage your readers from the first page, develop memorable characters, and keep them guessing until the very end.
Get into the zone this scary season with our Into the Dark: Creator Toolkit.