What Makes a Thriller?

As mentioned in the last post, my new novel is a contemporary thriller featuring identical twins where one disappears and the other takes over her life.

What is it about thrillers that make them so compelling? Well, I asked a bunch of people as the manuscript evolved. Here’s what they said:

  • the unexpected, devious twists
  • an edge-of-the-seat feeling
  • suspense from beginning to end
  • skillfully paced plot, fast pacing
  • page-turning tension
  • strong characters
  • disturbing secrets
  • shocking surprises
  • high stakes
  • readers also said not too much graphic violence or language

One of the sites I browsed spoke of the three Cs of thrillers: Conflict, Crucible, Clock.

On MasterClass.com I found this advice: Make sure your opening scene has plenty of action. “When writing thrillers, the opening scene is particularly important. Readers should be on the edge of their seats from the very first page. The opening scene of a thriller novel should introduce the crime, conflict, or stakes as quickly as possible.”

Make your main character compelling. “Good thrillers often feature protagonists that are flawed and complex. On the one hand, your protagonist should be strong or skilled enough to overcome the obstacles they’ll inevitably face. On the other hand, readers relate to imperfect heroes. A “main character with flaws will increase the tension and stakes of your story.”

Create an interesting villain. This character should “not simply be pure evil. Even if their actions are unforgivable, their motivations should be rooted in a relatable desire or emotion. In other words, they should be motivated by their own twisted, internal logic.”

Put your character in harms way. “Your main character should experience heartbreak, trauma, and anxiety throughout the book … This will ensure that readers are constantly rooting for your protagonist and will continue to flip the pages to see how the hero wriggles out of danger.”

Add plenty of plot twists and turning points. See above for reasons readers enjoy thrillers. “Plot twists will ensure that your thriller is a page-turner and make it impossible for your reader to put it down.”

Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? You have no idea how many times I added more twists nor how many times I adjusted the timeline to keep the pacing fast and taut.

Hopefully, That Was Then, will do justice to the genre.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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6 Responses

  1. All good points, Mary. But regarding opening with action, one of the best I’ve ever read is Lee Child’s “Gone Tomorrow”, which is all internal monologue that goes on for pages, but is full of tension. Check it out. And good luck with That Was Then!

    1. Thanks, Harald. I did check out ‘Gone Tomorrow’ and can certainly see what you mean. The sample on Amazon gave me at least the first five chapters! All best wishes,

    1. Many thanks, Elise. I find it personally helpful to write posts like these (makes me focus) and always hope they will be useful to others.

  2. Two of the best thrillers I’ve read in the last 12 months, and from completely unexpected sources because one is from a historical fiction/fantasy writer and one from an actor – are Giles Kristian’s Where Blood Runs Cold (it was unputdownable) and Richard Armitage’s Geneva (edge of seat). Reading their journies in writing these narratives is a lesson. Five stars and highly recommended.

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