How to Keep a Thriller Thrilling by Nagwa Malik

Nagwa Malik How to Keep a Thriller Thrilling

Guest post by Nagwa Malik

Writing a thriller, any thriller, is actually much easier than writing a mystery, for example. The thrill is basically the emotion one feels when one’s in suspense, when one’s heart beats faster – or not at all. It is a state of agitation, a state of nerves. Any little thing can cause such a state and that makes it easier to write a thriller. Consider it as a beat, technically. One does not have to be heavy-handed or lay it on thick in order to make the reader feel this particular emotion. Mostly, one doesn’t have to work hard at all.

To me, writing a thriller is more similar to script-writing in pace and style than any other genre. It is because of that that you see writers opting for a sudden change in tense in narration. They suddenly shift from past to present, and often critics think of it as a mistake. 

It is not.

It is deliberate.

This shift in tense adds to the thrill of the reader. It makes it vivid, like one watching it happen. And that is how we write scripts to cause drama and suspense and tension: scripts are tight, graphic and to the point which adds pace to the scene or the situation.

When writing novels in the thriller genre, I believe we have the chance to mix both techniques and get away from the regular rules that are imposed in novel-writing. My teacher in Scriptwriting class at University used to say,

“Learn the rules so that you know which ones to break and when to break them”.

This is my rule for writing a thriller. The more tight the description, the more vivid the picture, and the more the pace and the more the thrill. So, you see, thrill is not necessarily caused by suspense. Any build-up of tension is thrill. This is why, perhaps, political themes, historical themes and current affairs are the most popular ones in writing a thriller. They have a natural heightened suspense/tension, and every little thing has the ability to make one wonder, to question and to jump. You know exactly what is going on, but you still feel that agitation.

There is no doubt that in order to write a good thriller, when stepping on to unknown territory, one must have thoroughly researched the subject one is writing on: especially espionage and political. The more you know about your theme, the less hard you need to work on it and on building suspense, because it does it for you.

For example in my book, THE MIST, all the information used is accurate – all I had to do was garnish it with characters and weave it into a connecting story. The world itself is real. So, I merged fictitious people into a real world, and let the world create its own tensions, in its own naturally grey and fast-paced environment. Because I write spontaneously, and I let my fingers do their own thinking, my stories lead me rather than the other way round – so it is even more important that I at least know enough of the world I am writing about. (And I researched this world for years.)

And when you are well researched on your subject, you can create new worlds, too, because you know the logic that world revolves around. The way I see it, you have the two skills to use in this genre: the novelist romantic writing with lots of description and the tight narrative technique of the script. When you merge the two, you get the perfect format for a thriller. You just need to know how to merge them, when to use which craft, and when to build up tension and when to hold back to create more tension.

For example, suspense may be built up on your protagonist hiding under the table and having a spider crawl up their hand. Or needing to sneeze suddenly and trying to hold it. A very small incident- but it brings out big suspense and tension.

Another example of using the short, tight narrative:

“They sat in silence”.

This small statement gives the reader a vivid sense of agitation. Or

“She ran, weaving through the streets of Piccadilly Circus”

– which would lead to a lengthier, more novelist narrative of a chase all the way to the end of who catches whom, or a total escape. That is an obvious thrill – or an obvious build-up of tension. There, it is up to you on whether to choose the script-form of narration or the novelistic. Most go for the latter. So it is interesting when one opts for the former.

Usually we tend to use the present tense in the epilogue of the story- or the last paragraph. This is a signal to the reader that the story may have ended, but there is still something going on, which may be continued in the way of a series. It is a good way of building up anticipation which again is a form of thrill. (At least I thought so when I did that with the first volume of my book. Imagine my face when someone said he/she thought it was a mistake that most writers made! I doubt if any writer would make such a big mistake!)

In my series THE MIST, I preferred the script-form more than the long descriptive narrative typical to the novel-writing format. To me, personally, long narratives tend to destroy agitation or thrill in a story. It creates a lag in pace which is the very anti-thesis of a typical thriller.

Of course, unless you are dealing with Psychological thrillers or romantic thrillers. Then the format changes a great deal: you can work on the typical novelistic form of narrative and still keep the agitation – but again, that is more the form of building up suspense than anything else. And constantly building up suspense gets tricky- we tend to over do it in fear of letting the story lag and have the reader lose interest. Here we have to work on our narration more than any action.

Monologues of sorts are helpful: like “Metamorphosis”: describing the thoughts of the person, the feelings, the ideas, the inner debates. That builds up suspense in a nice way. The movies have also followed that very form and pace, like the current “Mr. Robot” or the old classic “Don’t Look Now”…excellent examples of the novelistic form of narration and pacing.

I think in order to write better thrillers, I would watch as many thriller movies as I can. To me, personally, they help: because the film-world, in general, is all about pace and tension. So what better research, technically, than watching your favourite thrillers? And then, when we have novels adapted into movies, that is a double treat, like the Jason Bourne series. “Fatal Attraction” stuck to the typical “vivid, graphic, action” norm. “Memento” is an excellent example of using tight, short, vivid to create suspense.

“Don’t look Now” may be said to have retained the novelistic pace, because it was adapted from the short story by Daphne du Maurier. The same could be said of “Silence of the Lambs”. See what I’ve just done? I just sounded so smart and technical when all I did was recognise my genre in these movies and my experience as a book-reader and put two and two together – like we all do! And I ended up sounding so smart when all I really came away with was that the theme sets the pace of the thriller we wish to write.

But to be honest, I think what helped me more than research and movies, was perhaps the fact that I was already quite versed in current affairs and politics (I hate politics, by the way) and that I lived in various parts of the world (thus the use of various English dialects in my series). And then I am of the generation that grew up when the internet wasn’t there, then it was there – when the world changed from being technologically constrained to a full-blown global village – and I noticed that, ironically, it didn’t change the world. If anything, the world seemed more ignorant than before.

In the days when we didn’t have the internet, people seemed more inclined to travel around and see the world for themselves, but now everyone is just saying whatever comes into their heads, people are relying on whatever others write about on the net, and public manipulation is even easier today than it was when we had just the national television and a couple of cable networks.

So, I saw first hand, how the world changed.

I saw how ignorance was plastered all over the net and I saw how stereotypes became the norm – even if false. So, yes, that helped me writing my books: Knowing even the background of the world you write about, helps a lot. And too much research can make your head spin: you want to put it all in, but that would do you no good.

So, what did I do?

With my own knowledge and so much research thrown into the mix, it boiled down to one simple factor: I was here to tell a story.

What was that story going to be?

How am I going to fit everything in without disrupting the story?

And each bit was a story of danger and intrigue on its own – so I joined them together just as I imagined they were joined together in real life and I threw my spy Tanya into the mix, together with the other people in her world, et voilà! The recipe for a hardcore political-spy/conspiracy thriller!

I wonder if anything I wrote here made sense!


The Mist Stage Two: The Culmination by Nagwa Malik Book Excerpt The Mist

In the second of the two-part series, as Burke and Tanya continue to disentangle the web, they only find themselves going back and forth like a ping-pong ball. Where Tanya finds she is stagnating, Burke finds instead of moving forward with the new information and dissembling the conspiracy behind accidents, inter-racial deaths and terror-plots, he is pulled back to the past which he’d thought was done with. It seems in order to move forward to present incidents, he must once more go back to the past incident that triggered it all.

Tanya feels she isn’t accomplishing anything. She feels the break she’d promised her brain is getting overdue and if she doesn’t complete the mission and get to that break on time, her brain will revolt and shut down, away from her control. Tracking down terrorists that seem to pour in from India and Afghanistan, and stopping plots of terrorism on Pakistan soil by Blackwater is the ultimate mission, in order for Pakistan to re-establish its stability and begin the rebuilding, with a new government, foreign policy and a much needed shift of alliance and to regain its responsibility in maintaining peace in the world.

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.