Tips for Plotting a Thriller
For some people, the term thriller might conjure up thoughts of a fast-paced, heart-pounding, action-packed plot. For others, a thriller might be twisty, ominous, and full of quiet menace. There are so many different types of thrillers, from the action-heavy plots to the unsettling psychological thrillers. And I’m a fan of them all.
For me, a thriller needs to have that sense of danger, whether real or implied, to keep readers on the edge of their seats—or just on edge.
Here are three elements I think about when developing a thriller:
Whether developing a big plot or a smaller scene, I often ask myself: What’s the worst that can happen?
In Hysteria, I had the idea for a character who committed a crime in self-defense, and therefore couldn’t be charged. To find the bigger story, I asked myself: What’s the worst that can happen, for this character, in this situation. I came up with this list:
- She’s framed for another crime
- The family of the victim wants revenge
- She doesn’t know if she’s guilty
Each of these answers helped turn the premise into the bigger pitch for the book, which was: A girl who can’t be charged for a killing she does commit is then framed for one she doesn’t commit, all the while being haunted by something that may or may not be real.
But this is also a tool you can use within a scene itself to find the mini-cliffhangers that keep a reader unable to put the book down at the end of each chapter.
In the opening scenes of Soulprint, a girl is on the verge of escaping from a lifetime of captivity. She’s been held on an island her entire life, and she’s planned for this day for years. She successfully reaches the cliffs at the edge of the island—all she has to do now is jump.
What’s the worst that can happen?
She doesn’t know how to swim.
Tension is the thing that keeps me turning pages as a reader, that makes me unable to put a book down. According to the dictionary, tension is a state caused when two forces act in opposition to each other.
I try to find as many of these opposing forces as I can in my story to create more tension and conflict. In Fracture, one character wants to stop death, while another wants to speed it up. Their goals are at complete odds. This is the pivot point for the book, and the place from which the story grows.
But there are many opportunities to add tension in smaller moments as well: What does a character fear, and what must they face in light of that fear? Are their internal goals at odds with their external goals?
See if you can find those elements already in your story. If you don’t have them, see if you can create some more by complicating relationships, or putting motivations at odds.
FIND THE MOMENTS OF SURPRISE
As a reader, I love to be surprised.
There are books that have a big twist—maybe a character is not who you thought they were, or maybe you suddenly realize nothing is as it seems—but there are also plenty of opportunities to use a smaller twist mid-scene, something that surprises the reader and keeps them on the edge of his or her seat. That moment when the danger jumps out at us, or, possibly, when the danger hidden in plain sight is finally revealed.
- For your pitch, or a character, or a scene, ask yourself: What’s the worst that can happen?
- Make a chart of opposing forces in your story. Can you add even more tension?
- Find your moments of surprise to keep the reader hooked
And happy thriller writing!
Megan Miranda is the author of the young adult novels Fracture, Hysteria, Vengeance, and Soulprint (all from Bloomsbury). Her debut adult suspense novel, Disappear, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2016. Megan has a degree in Biology from MIT and currently lives near Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband and two children. You can read more about Megan online or over at Twitter / Facebook / Instagram
Megan is giving away signed copies of FRACTURE and HYSTERIA. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!
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