3 Key Tips to Writing a Thriller from Crime Writer Kathy Bennett

3 Key Tips to Writing a Thriller

Guest post by Kathy Bennett

If you like mystery, suspense or thriller books, there is nothing better than to feel like you’re running down a dark alley with your favorite protagonist in pursuit of that dastardly bad guy who needs to be put away — one way or another.

But as a writer, how do you make sure your readers are experiencing and feeling the excitement of that run down the alley? I feel there are three key elements drawing the reader in and helping them become part of the story.

1. Take care creating your characters.

Some writers tend to make their characters all good or all bad. But the truth is, that almost everyone has good and bad traits, even the bad guy…unless he or she is a sociopath.

What if you had a villain who loved playing with little kids, but was disgusted by the elderly, and worse yet, your villain worked as a nurse in a retirement community? What if the hero in your story is a cop who isn’t the best shot with their firearm or gets nauseous at the sight of blood?

The traits you use for your characters need to make sense considering the character’s background and life experiences. With the villain I described, what if he was the oldest of his siblings and because his parents were aged and sickly, the villain had to shoulder the responsibility of raising his siblings?

What if your hero was a poor marksman because he/she was suffering from carpel tunnel but they didn’t tell anyone because they were about to get a coveted assignment? The cop wanted to secure the promotion, and then he’d take care of the carpel tunnel. These facts are called background, but you don’t want to dump it all the first time the reader meets your character. Sprinkle it around judiciously, but plant the seeds for upcoming disaster. What would happen if your injured cop, prior to getting his injury fixed, confronted a gunman at a bank?

Another key thing to remember about every character in your book is that they think they are the star of the story. Be sure your major characters have enough substance that your readers can identify with your hero or villain – good or bad.

2. Motivation is key

You’ve got your cast of characters. Maybe you have a killer plot (see how I snuck that in ☺). But, if the people in your book are being forced into situations because you, the author, need them to do X and Y to have Z happen, you’re short-changing your readers, and the writing is going to seem stilted.

Motivation is key in a mystery, suspense or thriller novel. Most people don’t want to run afoul of the law unless there is a good reason. In fact, when I’m creating my character list for my book I write down their primary goal and their motivation for wanting to complete that objective. I will often provide goals and motivation for each character when I’m outlining several scenes ahead. I find it keeps the story and characters realistic and takes me out of the picture as a puppet master.

Be sure not to forget your villain. In their mind they have good motivation for doing the bad things they’re doing. Let’s say your villain who works at Shady Pines as a nurse is smothering some of the residents ‘because they were so out of it, their life wasn’t worth living.’ Your villain thinks he’s doing the victims a favor.

3. Keep the Story Moving

You’ve got your characters, and they’re highly motivated to get the story going. That’s where pacing your thriller comes in.

Starting your book too slowly isn’t going to keep the reader involved in the story…unless there is suspense built into that slow opener. In my book, A Deadly Denial, I start with a sergeant receiving a residential burglar alarm call. The reader sees the sergeant check the status of his officers to see if any of his patrol officers are ducking the call. We see him drive to the remote location, we watch as he takes in the details of the neighborhood as he arrives at the house. Written here, none of that is very interesting. However, anyone who reads that opening scene knows something is going to happen with, or to, the sergeant, and the reader keeps reading to find out what that something is.

Sometimes it makes sense to start with a big action scene to get the ball rolling. Think of the opening credits of a James Bond movie — bombs, babes, and bad guys. Just know that if you start with an epic opening scene, it’s going to be difficult to keep that same adrenaline rush and sustain it to your climactic ending.

Remember to provide your reader some ‘down time’ where they can relax for a bit. Of course, the reader knows the breather is only until some other disaster strikes. Even when you’re giving your reader a breather, keep your pacing tight.

It’s great if you can end every chapter on a hook, but if you can’t, try to have the point of view character facing a new question, mystery, or problem involving the plot or another character.

By focusing on these three key elements in writing a thriller, when your reader is running down that long dark alley, they’ll know who they’re running with and why the guy is running. And when the chase is over, they know they’ll have time for a glass of wine to relax before the next big thrill.


Kathy Bennett A Deadly BeautyA Deadly Beauty

Two women. Two very different deaths. One beauty pageant in common.

LAPD Detective Maddie Divine must search for the truth amid secrets, lies and the scams of Hollywood. Her investigation intensifies when news breaks that two oung pageant contestants have vanished. When Maddie uncovers a shocking secret it’s clear she’s searching for two different killers, not one. In a desperate race against time, Maddie leads an urgent manhunt to save each young beauty before it’s too late.

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About the Author

Scott Mullins is a freelance writer and digital content manager. When he’s not finding ways to distract himself from writing his novel he writes killer copy for companies all over the world. Connect with Scott on Twitter @ScottMullins86 or LinkedIn. He’s always looking to connect with other writers.