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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

How to Write a Heart-Stopping Mystery Thriller


If you love curling up to read a creepy mystery or a nail-biting thriller, have you considered combining the genres and writing your own mystery thriller? A good mystery thriller blends the intrigue of a mystery with the spine-tingling danger of a thriller to create a compelling story full of surprises and action. Mystery thrillers often hinge on tiny details that readers might overlook on their first read, so they often require extensive planning. However, if you do it well, you'll establish a passionate fan base of readers who can't wait for your next book to launch. Keep reading for seven essential tips for writing your heart-pounding mystery thriller.

1. Create relatable characters

Character development is the most important step in your planning process, because everything depends on whether readers care about what happens to your characters. Your villains will drive the plot, so let's start by creating multi-dimensional antagonists who are trying to wreak havoc and cause worldwide destruction. Your primary antagonist probably has a few partners or assistants helping enact an evil plan, so you will probably be creating more than one antagonist. Write out a backstory for each of your villains to understand what life experiences led them to this moment. Your villains might commit (or intend to commit) heinous crimes, but even the worst villain has multiple layers and is not pure evil. If you write effective villains, your readers will feel some empathy for them and might even hope that they change by the end of the book.

As you write your villains' backstories, identify what motivates them and what stories they tell themselves to justify their behavior as they plan to cause global mayhem. What is the most vulnerable thing about each villain? If your villains got everything they wanted, would they be satisfied? You might be surprised at what you find on the page when you start exploring your characters' backstories.

Thrillers usually involve high stakes, global consequences, and protagonists who are willing to risk everything to prevent a global catastrophe. If your mystery thriller does not endanger all of humankind or the planet's existence, make sure that whatever is at stake feels like the entire world to your protagonists. Craft backstories for your protagonists until you understand what motivates them, what scares them, and what (or who) they cannot live without. Write until you uncover valid reasons that your protagonists would be willing to risk everything to stop the villains.

To create well-rounded protagonists, consider giving them some aspects of yourself—perhaps a few of your assets and a few of your flaws. You can also give characters aspects of your loved ones or features you find compelling in others, and soon you will have a character with a distinct personality that jumps off the page.

Keep writing each character's backstory until you know their biggest fears, what memories still haunt them, and the one thing they don't want anyone else to know. You will probably use bits and pieces of each character's backstory in your mystery thriller, but the primary purpose of writing their backstories is to bring the characters to life. Whatever you do, avoid creating predictable characters like the cranky, workaholic detective who drinks 25 cups of coffee a day and forgets to eat or the uptight secretary who does all the clerical work and would be stunning if she just unwound that bun, unbuttoned the top buttons on her blouse, and took off those dorky glasses.

Now that you've brought your antagonists and protagonists to life, play around to figure out the dynamics between them. Why is one character still holding a grudge over something that happened a decade ago? What information is someone planning to use as blackmail? Consider drawing a character web or character chart to visualize how the characters relate to each other. Remember, you can reveal critical information through the way characters treat each other, how they behave around each other, or how they communicate.

2. Establish your point of view

The point of view(s) through which you tell your story will shape the narrative and impact the plot. Omniscient narrators, multiple narrators, or third person close narration tend to work best for mystery thrillers, because you can access multiple characters' perspectives to increase tension and heighten suspense. You can make readers squirm with discomfort and suspense if readers know information that the protagonists do not, or if readers catch a character in a lie before the protagonist does.

To enhance your story's tension, remember that not everyone is a reliable narrator, and even characters that seem reliable might tell white lies or whoppers in desperate situations. The best mystery thrillers are full of deceptions and lies, so explore the dark side of the truth and spin lies that you would never attempt to tell in real life.

3. Open with action

Hook your readers from the first page by dropping readers right into the middle of the action. Open with an inciting event, like a murder, arson, robbery, or kidnapping, to grab your readers' attention. Do not worry about exposition or character explanations right now; if you hook your readers with a strong opening chapter that is full of action, they will keep reading to find out what happens next.

The inciting event that opens the story should be devastating, but it is minor compared to what the antagonists are planning next. Set the story in motion with the inciting event, and readers will follow the protagonists as they try to solve the initial crime and prevent the antagonists from committing their next atrocity.

4. Conflict

The way that your protagonist responds to conflict will create the action for your story. Revisit the character chart you made in the first step to look for possible areas of conflict. Establish the central conflict between your antagonists and protagonists, and then incorporate internal conflict within the protagonists and antagonists. Refer to your character chart as you explore the internal and external conflicts that characters are trying to resolve.

Speaking of internal conflict, use your character map to create plenty of angsty internal conflict for your protagonists. Put them in no-win situations in which they face moral and ethical dilemmas that have no discernable right answer. Force them to make impossible choices along their journey.

5. Incorporate twists and turns

Try to anticipate what readers expect to happen, and then take the plot in a completely different direction. Make a list of things that create discord or disaster in people's lives, and consult that list anytime the story feels stagnant or the action starts to wane. Your list could include a medical emergency like a broken leg, a hurricane and mandatory evacuation, or someone showing up with a weapon. Write down every dramatic thing that comes to mind, because you will be consulting this list quite often to keep the action popping on every single page.

As you take the reader down unexpected twists and turns, weave false trails and red herrings into the plot to intentionally mislead and distract readers.

6. Increase the suspense at every opportunity

Combine conflict and surprise to create delicious suspense that will keep readers engaged, but remember that you can only create suspense if readers care about your characters and are invested in what happens to them. Consult the list of your characters' fears from step one and find ways to force your protagonists to face those fears. In the process, your character might even grow and change while feeding the story's tension.

To heighten the suspense and create a sense of urgency, give the protagonists an impossible time limit. Perhaps the protagonist's father has been kidnapped and will have a heart attack if he doesn't get his heart medicine, or a hurricane is barreling towards the city and meteorologists keep reminding residents of the limited time remaining before the city loses power. Creating a time limit will add pressure to the situation and heighten the suspense for your readers.

As you keep ramping up the suspense, remember to ground your story in reality. The most haunting thrillers feel like they could happen to anyone at any time.

7. End each chapter with a cliffhanger

If you want to write a book that readers just can't put down, end every chapter with a cliffhanger. Put your protagonists in an impossible situation and then identify the worst possible thing that could happen in that moment. As you are about to end the chapter, set the wheels in motion for that worst possible thing to occur.

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