1) Thriller spells action.
Something needs to happen as soon as you open a thriller novel. If it happens in the first scene, it is good. Action in the first paragraph is better but action in the first line itself would be excellent.
For instance, this is the opening sentence of my book, Birds of Prey, ‘Anton hoped the bloody bastard would slip on one of the ragged stones.’ While a few well-meaning folks were scandalised to read the phrase ‘bloody bastard’ on the first line, the legendary Shri. B. S. Raghavan, who has worked directly under the first three Prime Ministers of our country, agreed to launch the book only because of that first sentence. So, don’t be scared to throw in a dead body or two there.
Please do not speak about the weather or the locale unless you plan to pull them into the action too. Jerry Pinto does this beautifully in ‘Murder in Mahim’. It starts off with this sentence, ‘Bombay doesn’t do night.’ After Tolstoy’s opening sentence in Anna Karenina, this is my most favourite opening sentence in literature. The sentence not only speaks about the city, which plays a major part in the novel, but also speaks about it in action. Bombay doesn’t do night.
Thomas Harris doesn’t do a gripping first sentence in ‘Red Dragon’. Damn, he doesn’t even do a gripping opening scene! Do you know why? He is building up the atmosphere for the second scene which is sure to make your stomach lurch. Thomas Harris could have easily interchanged those two scenes while structuring his novel, but he doesn’t because he knows that it wouldn’t have the same impact that it has now. And that brings me to the second point…
2) Pay attention to structure
Unlike a few novels that ramble on without any clear story-line, a clear-cut story is a prerequisite for a thriller. There must be a clear conflict and a rational solution for the same, without any ambiguity. You cannot introduce your murderer to the audience after they have read more than half the book. To take it one step further, a thriller novel needs to be divided into scenes and each scene needs to logically lead to the next. If you are interested to know more about structuring a novel, I would suggest reading these three books:
i) Aristotle’s Poetics
ii) Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces
iii) James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure
Since my novel dealt with two different points of view, and because there had to be a balance between them, I had to carefully structure the novel. The fact that I had pantsed my way through the first draft made sure that the story was all over the place. So, I made index cards with a scene for every card and arranged them (on the floor) in various ways to see how best it would work. Only after that became clear, did I start rewriting the next draft of Birds of Prey. Whether you do it on paper, cards or excel doesn’t matter, but give a thought to how you structure your book. Many authors are excellent storytellers that the process happens organically. However, most thriller writers give a careful thought to the plot and structuring of their book.
3) Create memorable characters
Most of us might not remember the plot of ‘The Sleeping Murder’ or ‘The Murder on the Orient Express’ but we can never forget Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. The same is true with Hannibal Lecter or Sweeney Todd. Whether the character is a protagonist or an antagonist, create three-dimensional characters whom we can either love and root for or love to detest.
What is a three-dimensional character? The best way to explain this would be to highlight, by an example, what is not a three-dimensional character. I’m sure you must have watched some episode of a regional saas-bahu television serial. That is exactly how not to do a thing. The mother-in-law in these serials is bad and gets worse by the day. She is the epitome of the devil with nothing good left in her. Her only goal in life is to exile her daughter-in-law from the family. This occupies all her time, effort and money. There is only one-dimension to her. Boring! Instead, give me a mother-in-law who feeds stray dogs while jogging in the morning, has an affair with her college-going neighbour and poisons her daughter-in-law in secret. I already love her!
These three tips are just a casual introduction to writing a thriller. There is a lot more to learn about thriller writing. Needless to say, to write good thrillers, you need to read more thrillers. When a thriller engrosses your attention, and fails to let you go, then reread it again. See what was the magic trick that the author has so successfully pulled off! Go back to the opening sentence, scene break-up, the points of view and ends of the various chapters. What are the cliffhangers? How are they presented? Try to decode them. Suspense, mystery and thriller is a satisfying and exciting genre to work in. Along with the reader, you discover the story too, a little at a time.