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8 Things You Need To Know When Writing Thrillers, by Sarah Alderson

1. Avoid cliché

You know what I’m talking about. You know the bad guys in any Hollywood movie ever made? They always have an English or a Russian accent, a jagged facial scar running down one cheek, a scary-ass stare and wear a suit. Baddies are so much better when they’re the ones in our midst, the nondescript ones, the people we think are our friends…

2. Don’t make the girl a hopeless damsel in distress (please)

This goes especially for you female writers out there…there’s a serious dirth of strong, female protagonists who can kick butt in a fight. It’s our responsibility to create great role models for teenagers, so let’s do that!

3. Black & White is oh so boring!

There are two sides to every story so don’t ever make your baddie a 2D cut out of a bad guy. And don’t make your good guys 100% good either. Let’s have some ambiguity. That’s what I tried to do in Fated by showing both Lucas’s and Evie’s points of view.  They’re sworn enemies and yet, by getting to know them both, it becomes a lot harder for the reader to identify who is bad. I did the same in Hunting Lila. It’s more interesting for the reader if they don’t know which characters to trust.

4. Points of View

In thrillers, writing from a first person perspective is usually a better way of evoking fear and emotions. The reader gets to feel everything the protagonist is going through. However, it also makes it harder when writing thriller plots if you can only see one point of view. In Hunting Lila the story is told from Lila’s perspective, which meant that lots of the action can’t be seen, only relayed. In Fated, I decided to write from two different view points. It enabled me to bring a lot more action into the book and from different perspectives. (Imagine it like having one camera to shoot a film, through one character’s eyes as opposed to multiple cameras focused on lots of different characters simultaneously). There’s no right way, just think first about what you’re trying to achieve.

5. Don’t just have one surprise up your sleeve, have a few

If you have only one twist in your book you’re taking a risk that your reader will guess it early on and that the book won’t hold any further surprises for them.  They’ll put it down at the end with a sigh and a ‘that was boring.’. As Baldrick from Blackadder once said, ‘Twist and turn like a twisty turny thing,’ – have lots of twists, and then when you think those twists are fully twisted, twist them back again. Keep your reader on his or her toes.

6. Pace Pace Pace

It’s not a thriller if you’re spending pages and pages discussing philosophical or political conundrums (unless say, you’re Stieg Larsson… but I’m talking YA here). Build characters, evoke atmosphere yes, but in a thriller you need to thrill from the very first page.

7. Kissing

Having said that, you also do need to know when to break the pace and give your reader the chance to catch their breath. This is when I go for the big romantic moments (Cos I’m a girl and I like the steam). Between heart-stopping action and heart-stopping steam you can’t go wrong.

8. Story Arc

All successful books and movies follow a fairly standard story arc. Thrillers should start with a bang; an inciting incident that kicks off the action. In Hunting Lila, Lila is mugged on the first page and almost kills her mugger by accident using her mind-power. In Fated, a bunch of demons called the Brotherhood are sent off to kill a teenage girl (what? Why? Huh?). Only then can you take some time out to build the characters and story. About halfway through you need to have a big showdown moment that incites more action and heads towards the climactic show down.


Sarah Alderson bio page

Hunting LilaLosing LilaFatedThe Invisible AssassinMaskmakerMaximum Ride: Fang (Maximum Ride)Forget Me Not: The Story of One Family's Voyage on the Titanic

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