Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Tricks to building suspense in your thriller (from one that has it down to a science)

Suspense is important in any genre.  In a thriller, it is critical.  It makes the difference between a good read and a great read.  It keeps us up nights and it leads reviewers to those coveted phrases like, "a heart-stopping page-turner!" and "an action-packed thrill ride!"

But how do you incorporate suspense?  How do you bring your novel from good to great?  How do you keep us turning those pages, and invite the clich├ęd reviews you so desperately crave?  Below are some observations for how one highly successful author has done it, using an example from one of my all-time favorite science thrillers.  If you can't guess the work, please do yourself a favor and pick up some classic Crichton.  I became a molecular biologist because of this novel.  And here are a few of the techniques that made me love it...

1)  Add a twist.  Then add ten more.

This is a story about a pair of scientists (are you nodding off yet?...)  They are out on an archeological dig site when an unruly helicopter lands, disrupting their work, and out steps a man who is clearly filthy rich as evidenced by the fact that he's entering an archeological dig site dressed in a pure white suit (OK, I'm still reading...)  He turns out to be their boss, and he needs them to go with him to his private island.  Right now.  And then the twists ensue:

  • Holy hell!  There are dinosaurs on this island!
  • They were genetically engineered from petrified mosquitos and frog DNA!
  • Oh no!  There's a major storm brewing!
  • Whoops!  The power went out!
  • I'm being chased by a T-Rex and a herd of angry velociraptors!
  • Despite the impossibility of our genetically engineered dinosaurs breeding, they are doing so!
  • And...they can open doors and herd people!
  • So a door-opening, people-herding trio of large, scaly bad guys is now encircling us with bibs around their necks and knives and forks wedged between the toes on their vestigial front limbs...
  • Whew!  An even bigger bad guy just saved us from the slightly smaller bad guys by eating them instead!  
A book with twist after twist not only keeps you guessing, it has no choice but to continue building suspense.  Because each twist must one-up the previous one.  So if you don't have a steady stream of twists, your novel might not have the bang-up ending a thriller should.

2) Mix up the characters.

It's a science thriller, so it's almost mandatory that we have a pair of scientists and a rich, demanding boss.  But throw in a leather-clad, rock star mathematician (not a contradiction in terms after all...,) a lawyer, an arrogant, greedy pig of an IT guy and a couple of young children.  Now you've got a story.  And a ton of new material for those plot twists.  And just as importantly, you've now made it easy to...

3) Jump between sub-plots like a jack-raptor on a date.

In case I haven't already mentioned it, I happen to love molecular biology.  But if null mutants of lysine and transgender frogs aren't your thing, you can always skim through these bits to get to the T-Rex gobbling up the lawyer (you KNOW you wanted it to happen!)  Frequent shifts between sub-plots lend forgiveness for a weak one, as readers will still race to the parts they bought the book for.

What are some of your favorite techniques for increasing suspense?
Read more about archeology in thrillers here and here.


  1. Great post Kris. It seems that many people think that they can have a few big twists in the story and it is all good.

    My goal is to grab the reader by the throat and start shaking. When you think the shaking is over, I offer a nice comfortable seat. As you sit down, I yank the chair out from under you. Hitting the floor, I grab you and throw you on a rollercoaster. Now the reader is ready for the story to begin.

    At least that is my plan. I will let you know if it comes true.

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  5. I've been a big Crichton fan myself from an early age, and now I'm trying follow his example as I work on my own science/medical thriller. I'm excited to follow along with you journey through this blog!