Five Elements of Thriller Writing… Creating Suspense and Tension in Thrillers

Since I am working on the sequel to Timber Point, I have to outdo myself in the original.  So I decided to research tips about creating intense suspense, twists and turns.  If who haven’t checked out my earlier posts on sequel writing, you can review them here:  Your Inner Author… Sequel Writing v. Series Writing and Book Two in a Series, Sequel Writing

For those of you who write thrillers, I read an incredible article by Writers Digest about the important five elements of thriller writing.  Even if you don’t writer thrillers you can still find these tips helpful to create suspense and tension to your writing.  I’ll be quoting some of the article, just to give the proper credit to Brian A. Klems, the online editor for Writers Digest.  I’ll be adding the techniques I use to the elements.

I didn’t see that coming!

Here are the top five essentials…

1.  COMPLEX CHARACTERIZATIONS— Basically the author recommends using complex characters.  Don’t have a protagonist who’s perfect. That’s boring.  I actually wrote a post on this.  You can find it here:  Creating Characters in Fiction

2.  CONFRONTATION— This is the main action of the thriller.  Where the antagonist and protagonist face off, battle over the stakes the thriller demands.  The best confrontations come from an antagonist who thinks they are justified in their actions.  Just as you do with your protagonist, create a complete back story for your antagonist.  Was he/she harmed in the past and that’s why he/she believes he’s/she’s justified in their actions?  What hopes and dreams did he have?  How were they dashed?  What inciting incident pushed him over the edge?  Was he betrayed by someone he loved?  Now, no one is saying you need to make him sympathetic.  However, he should believe his actions are fair after what the abusers (or whatever) did to him.

When you think back to the best antagonists all of them have a way of thinking that you can ALMOST relate to.  You probably wouldn’t go on a killing spree because of it, but that’s what makes them the bad guy.  A lot of serial killers were horribly abused as children.  The stories of what they experienced are shockingly terrifying, like being locked in a box under a bed, or dumped in a basement.  By showing these horrendous experiences your antagonist went through readers can understand where they’re coming from.  Just don’t overdo it, or the reader will feel manipulated.  Like everything in fiction– there’s a fine line between believable and far-fetched.

3.  CAREENING–  There is nothing like a stunning twist or shock to keep your reader on edge.  And, more importantly, keep them turning the pages.  To quote Brian A. Klems, “Part of the fun for readers is thinking a story is going one way, and getting taken completely  by surprise.”

Do the unexpected with your plot.  Ask yourself at the beginning of a scene, “What would a reader expect to happen?”  Then do the opposite!



4.  CORONARY–  The best thrillers stab at your heart.  How do we do that?  By letting them FEEL the story.  The easiest way to do this, and I think the most believable way to do this, is to recall a moment in your life that’s similar to what your writing about.  Most of us haven’t been abducted (I hope) or chased by a killer (God, I hope not), but you can still draw from your own experiences.  For instance, when you were a teenager, did you ever get chased by the cops because you shouldn’t have partied in public (or at all for that matter)?  BTW, I’m not saying this has ever happened to me *wink wink*.  (My granddaughter might read this someday.  She’s only seven months now.)  Anyway, remember what it felt like to be chased.  The adrenaline pumping through your veins, the fear of getting caught, the chaos of everyone running in different direction with the cops yelling for you to stop.  Use these emotions, substituting a killer for the cops.  You’ll end up with a realistic scene that others can relate to, and a scene that the reader can feel, sitting up straight, their eyes glued to the page.

5.  COMMUNICATION–  The original storytellers spun thrillers where the hero ran into the night and fought monsters, demons, and the like.  The tribe hung back and vicariously lived the tale.  But there was something more– they learned how to fight, act courageously, survive.

Readers still expect this on some level.  So you need to ask yourself what your thriller is really about.  Does it offer hope for justice?  Or is justice denied in the end?  What will the reader take away from the story?  And, by the way, a lot of agents ask you to answer this question in your query letter.  You better know how to respond so you don’t look like an amateur.

A lot of aspiring writers miss this point.  They think action, action, action, and leave it at that.  But your story WILL say something, you might as well control what that is instead of allowing the reader to imagine the underlying message.

My next post will be about Seven Ways to Create a Killer Opening.  Check back to find out how.

If any of you want your query, first chapter and/or synopsis critiqued, Unicorn Bell is critiquing this week only for free!

You can find the submission guidelines here:

I’m doing it.  Mine is being reviewed on Thursday.  They post the critiques on the blog for all to learn from your mistakes, or from the things you did correctly.  It should be very informative, I can’t wait.  I just hope they don’t rip me apart 🙂  No, they are professional and give kind helpful advice, so don’t worry about being humiliated.

I hope this post helps someone as much as the article helped me.

What are some of your tips to create tension and suspense?  I’d love to hear about the techniques other writers use.



9 thoughts on “Five Elements of Thriller Writing… Creating Suspense and Tension in Thrillers

  1. Pingback: 5 Tips for a Killer Ending | Murder Blog

    • Thank you so much! *blush* If there’s anything you need help with– let me know and I’ll write a post about it. Good luck! You must be doing it write (right) if you’re having fun 🙂 I love crime writing. Only crime writers can murder people daily and get away with it!


      • Mine is trying to solve a cold case on a woman who was murdered ten years ago…lots of complications though…on the case, not the writing.

        I was writing historical fiction, but this is contemporary. I was trying to find out if there is a standard way in which texting is written. I changed the font, used quotes, and used text script. There are half a dozen ways shown online. Anything else I should know?


        • Your book sounds interesting, very cool. If I have a lot of different clues in a story I jot them down in my writers notebook so I don’t forget to show their meaning, or where they lead, later on. You don’t want to leave plot holes.

          Personally I would use a blocky font and use texting terms like lol and the like, with each texter having a separate paragraph as you would in dialogue. The reader will catch on, especially if two people are having a conversation through texting. Just make sure you say something to SHOW that they are texting. I don’t think you need quotation marks in that case. I think when it comes to something like that it’s a style preference and not a rule. Trust your gut. No agent is going to reject the project over something so minor.


          • Thanks. I saw some agent suggestions in a forum and what you are saying sounds on par. They suggested using names and a semi colon before the text ONLY if more than two people are in the text dialogue at one time. Like one person trying to maintain more than one text conversation at one time. Otherwise, placing names before texts is distracting. This is ALL new to me, so I will be meandering my way through some of your old posts from time to time. So very glad I have found someone who specifically writes on psycho thrillers, crime novels, murder mysteries and the like. I have always loved reading them.


            • That’s sounds about right. That way you’ll know who’s texting. But you’re right, the names would be distracting if it’s only two people. If I were you I’d limit it to one conversation at a time between two people if you can. I’m so glad I could help. Anytime you have a question I’d be more than happy to help you if I can. Good luck.


  2. Great post… I sometimes struggle with the big reveal in the end or crazy twist in the end but I try to show and not tell to involve readers emotionally through depth of story and multi layered characters. Characters always stay with me long after I forget about the story line but you won’t share the journey with a character without a great story line…. I feel a chicken or egg debate here (o:


    • You really need both. You can have a great character, but if you don’t have an equally great storyline– what good are they, right? There’s a lot of pressure on authors to create a kick-ass ending– it’s not easy, I agree. Let me see if I can find tips on endings for you (and the rest of us).


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