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6 Suspense Books That Will Make You A Better Writer

Writing a blockbuster suspense novel involves recognizing a formula that works for readers of the genre. That's why we've compiled a list of 6 seminal suspense books that any suspense writer looking to tackle the genre should read, primarily for their lessons in what works in the genre.

#1. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Dan Brown weaves real historical events with fictional connections.
Dan Brown weaves real historical events with fictional connections, making his writing top-notch suspense.

One of Dan Brown's talents as a writer is to use real historical events but sugarcoat them with fictional connections. It was the formula he used for The Da Vinci Code, a book that has sold over 80 million copies and has been translated into 44 languages. There was also a film adaptation released by Columbia Pictures in 2006.

The novel is the second using the character of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, who is called to the Louvre to inspect a grisly murder scene in which the victim has strange symbols all over his body. Langdon is joined by Sophie Neveu and their journey together is full of mysterious revelation and conspiracy theories-turned-true that is connected with the lineage of Jesus Christ.

While many critics bashed the book over historical inaccuracies (despite it being fiction), others recognized Brown's writing as a superb example of what makes a thriller/suspense novel so appealing to readers. Janet Maslin, a reviewer for The New York Times said that one word concisely conveys the kind of extreme enthusiasm with which this riddle-filled, code-breaking, exhilaratingly brainy thriller can be recommended. That word is wow. The author is Dan Brown (a name you will want to remember). In this gleefully erudite suspense novel, Mr. Brown takes the format he has been developing through three earlier novels and fine-tunes it to blockbuster perfection.

#2. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train is a suspense story told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator
Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train is a suspense story told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator.

The concept of the unreliable narrator has been often used throughout literature and it's still a great way to write a suspense novel. It's that technique that made 2015's The Girl on the Train so appealing to readers, as the story follows Rachel Watson, a woman who is hitting rock bottom quickly. As she rides on the train drinking heavily, idealizing the lives of the people she sees out of her window, she sees something else that puts her in the middle of a mystery in which no one trusts her—in fact, she doesn't even trust herself.

Told from the first-person point of view of three different narrators (all women), the story is taut with suspense and questionable intent, leaving the reader not knowing who to believe. It's a formula that definitely worked for readers, as the novel debuted as #1 on The New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2015 list and remained there for 13 consecutive weeks. A film adapted from the book was released in 2016, starring Emily Blunt and directed by Tate Taylor.

#3. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo tells the story of Lisbeth Salander.
Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo tells the story of Lisbeth Salander, one of suspense's most memorable characters.

The lesson writers can learn most from Steig Larsson's international bestseller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is the importance of creating an unforgettable character. His Millennium series introduces us to Lisbeth Salander, the computer-hacking, motorcycle-riding, trouble-making heroine who withstands much abuse throughout her life yet still controls her own fate. There is also religious imagery and mystery throughout the work, adding an element of secrecy and intrigue to the plot, as well as spiritual depravity to the characters' experience.

Equally as compelling in this story is the relationship between Lisbeth and journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who enlists her help to catch a killer of women. In an article published in the Canadian peer-reviewed journal, Cross-Cultural Communication, author Maria de Lurdes Sampaio writes:

Larsson plays with people's universal fascination for religious mysteries, enigmas and hermeneutics, while highlighting the way the Bible and other religious books have inspired hideous serial criminals throughout history. There are many passages dedicated to the Hebrew Bible, to the Apocrypha and to the controversies surrounding different Churches' branches. The transcription of Latin expressions (e.g., "sola fide" or "claritas scripturae") together with the biblical passages, which provide the clues to unveil the secular mysteries, proves that Larsson was well acquainted with Umberto Eco's bestsellers and with similar plots. There are many signs of both The Name of the Rose and of Foucault's Pendulum in the "Millennium series" and in some sense these two works are contained in the first novel.

Maria de Lurdes Sampaio

#4. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Since its publication, Gone Girl has sold over 2 million copies worldwide.
Since its publication, Gone Girl has sold over 2 million copies worldwide.

There really couldn't be a list of top suspense books without including Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn's international bestseller. The plot initially seems to concern an unhappily married couple, Nick and Amy, but twists into something quite extraordinary and un-put-downable—so much so that by the end of its first year in publication, Gone Girl had sold over two million copies in print and digital editions.

In making use of two unreliable narrators and an inside knowledge of media misrepresentation (she was once a writer for Entertainment Weekly), Flynn masterfully weaves a tale of suspense that leaves the reader questioning what's real and what isn't. She also creates a truly psychotic character that is difficult to forget. A review in The Guardian puts it like this:

But what's really ingenious about Gone Girl is its structure: Amy and Nick take turns narrating events, but not from the same point in time. While Nick charts life from the moment of Amy's vanishing, she fills in their relationship from the very beginning, painting a picture of a couple so ludicrously, impossibly golden that we begin to smell a rat almost immediately. If things were so great then, we wonder, how can they be so crappy now? Could Amy possibly be embroidering reality? And when is she writing all this, anyway? Where on earth is she?

Flynn's coup de grace is to provide us with not one but two unreliable narrators. Just as Amy is sugar-coating the past, so Nick is being economical with the truth of the present day; we know he's lying to the police because he tells us so, but he doesn't tell us what he's hiding, or why.

The Guardian

#5. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None is the world's best-selling mystery.
Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None is the world's best-selling mystery, with over 100 million copies sold.

This classic mystery novel written by Agatha Christie is the world's best-selling mystery, with over 100 million copies sold. That, alone, should be reason enough to want to learn how she did it—how she created the world's most beloved suspense novel when she wrote And Then There Were None.

The Guardian's Alison Flood quotes Mathew Prichard, Agatha Christie's grandson and chairman of Agatha Christie Limited, as to why the novel has achieved such fame:

If you read it carefully, it rests on a knife edge. It's very carefully and skillfully constructed, to get away, so to speak, with a plot as complicated as this, and to end up with a solution which you can actually see at the end that it works.

Alison Flood, The Guardian

Having been adapted into a BBC One series starring Aidan Turner and Charles Dance, And Then There Were None tells the story of 10 strangers brought to an island mansion off the Devon coast by a mysterious benefactor, UN Owen. Each visitor has a dark secret, and as they eat dinner, a record begins to play, with a voice accusing them each of hiding something. Suddenly, via dose of cyanide, the visitor is killed off, in reflection of the nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldier Boys". ("Ten little soldier boys went out to dine; One choked his little self then there were Nine.") Other deaths follow, also reflecting the nursery rhyme, making this suspense novel one of the best "whodunit" stories ever written.

#6. Misery by Stephen King

Misery is one of Stephen King's best-known novels.
Misery is one of Stephen King's best-known novels, and marks a change from what he had written previously.

Misery marked a different strategy in Stephen King's writing, and it was one that paid off. With only two main characters, writer Paul Sheldon and his psychotic fan Annie Wilkes, it builds tension in a way that few novels have managed to do with such minimalistic material. In the story, Paul is seriously injured following a car accident, so former nurse Annie brings him to her home, treating him and giving him doses of pain medication in her remote Colorado cabin. It isn't until later in the novel that Paul (and the reader) understands that he is a prisoner of a crazed fanatic.

Winning the Bram Stoker Award for a Novel in 1987 and nominated for the 1988 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, Misery was critically acclaimed and paralleled King's life to an extent. It was later adapted into a film directed by Rob Reiner in 1990, and into a theatrical production starring Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis in 2015.

Some of the elements that make this book so important for writers include Wilkes' unpredictable outbursts and creative methods of tormenting her captive, along with Sheldon's increasing desperation to escape. Another important element is the intense personal experience that King included in his writing, particularly his experience as a writer dealing with addiction. In his part autobiography/part how-to manual, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King states:

Take the psychotic nurse in Misery, which I wrote when I was having such a tough time with dope. I knew what I was writing about. There was never any question. Annie was my drug problem, and she was my number-one fan. God, she never wanted to leave. It would be fair enough to ask, I suppose, if Paul Sheldon in Misery is me. Certain parts of him are ... but I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you.

Stephen King, On Writing

This resolution to include the author's own psychology into characters inspires a suspense novel that stands above the rest. King's personal struggle with alcoholism factored in to his characterization, both for Misery and The Shining (another seminal suspense novel), allowing the depth of the character's struggle to come from a very real place—personal demons and all. This appeals to readers' sensibility in ways that can't be replicated otherwise, triggering emotion and catharsis that had been previously unreachable, and is the foundation of a novel that could very well become the best suspense story of all time.

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