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Micro Publishing Media spoke with Freda Hansburg, author of Shrink Rapt and Tell on You on what makes a good thriller novel. Read on for her amazing tips on how to write a thriller novel that will capture your reader.

MPM: Because so much of the psychological thriller genre depends on suspense and tension, how do you pace a thriller effectively?

Freda Hansburg: For a complete answer, I recommend The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.  As he describes, when writing a thriller novel, pacing takes place on multiple levels. It begins with structuring the three acts of the story:

  • The Opening Hook, a situation that grabs the reader’s attention.
  • The Middle Build, piling on difficulties that lead the protagonist to a point of no return.
  • The Ending Payoff includes twists and surprises that deliver on the promise of the Opening Hook.

Within each of the three acts, the author develops inciting incidents, progressive complications for the protagonist, a crisis she must face, and a climactic decision, the best possible bad choice that she makes to deal with the crisis. 

When writing a thriller novel, pacing requires a balance of slowly building tension, alternating with moments of dramatic action.  This is key to keep the story going. And ending each chapter with a sentence that compels the reader to turn the page.  I hope I’m not making this sound easy, because learning how to plot a thriller isn’t!

MPM: How much does one need to research when it comes to writing a thriller novel?

FH: I’ve learned that research is essential and ongoing in writing a suspense novel.  When I’m stuck in the writing process, it’s often a sign that I need to learn more in order to bring a scene to life.  I’ve googled more subjects than you can imagine – what to do when you’re arrested, how to disable a car remotely, what to feed a guinea pig, how to store Botox, the names of service areas on the New Jersey Turnpike.  I could go on, but you get the idea.  You have to be able to picture something to write about it convincingly.

MPM: How did you manage the research process for your other psychological suspense thriller books Tell on You and Shrink Rapt?

FH: I can’t imagine how authors carried out their research before the internet existed.  I do online searches and bookmark a dozen or more sites per story. For my upcoming dark fiction novel Suffer Little Children to be released on January 26th, I took a virtual tour of Johns Hopkins Medical Center so I could portray the setting realistically in a critical scene.  I also turn to subject matter experts within my network – lawyers, doctors, other therapists, etc. to serve as fact-checkers.

MPM: What are some of the things to consider when it comes to learning how to create an unexpected plot and character twists?

FH: Character and plot are intertwined.  The character’s needs drive the plot, and the plot creates circumstances that force the character to change.  A protagonist starts out pursuing a goal she believes will bring her something important.  The plot introduces the unexpected.  She must make choices, leading to changes in what she wants and who she is.  The reader shares the protagonist’s surprises and the suspense of wondering how she’ll cope.  Misdirection– the thriller writer’s version of sleight of hand – is another important tool in creating an unexpected twist in the book.  Subplots can be crafted to make the reader look the other way, helping the author sneak in a plot twist.  Connecting plot and subplot in unexpected ways also make for good plot twists.    

MPM: You’ve written two psychological suspense thriller novels now with another one on the way. What have been some of the lessons you’ve learned as a thriller author?

FH: The most important thing I’ve learned is to accept being stuck as an inevitable part of the writing process.  At first, I’d feel anxious and uncomfortable when I hit a wall.  Over time I learned to embrace being stuck as an opportunity to grow the story, either by doing more research or thinking out of the box or reexamining some of my assumptions about the characters and plot.  That wall and I are old friends now.

MPM: What are some of the key blunders aspiring writers may make when writing a suspense novel?

I can only speak to my own blunders.  There’s a tendency to feel protective toward your protagonist, but if you pull your punches, the writing of the psychological suspense story won’t be thrilling.  Pile it on, rough her up and take her to the dark night of the soul, so the reader will root for her.  If your protagonist is a glorified version of yourself, you’ll be tempted to go easy on her.  And you’ll find it difficult to give her enough flaws to be interesting.  I’ve come to enjoy creating characters with some unlikeable traits, then trying to make them sympathetic in spite of that. 

MPM: What are some of your best psychological suspense novels and why do you like them?

FH: Tough question!  I read the thriller book genre voraciously and admire many authors.  But I’ll pick three classic standouts.

#1 No Night is Too Long by Ruth Rendell. She was the queen of suspense, and the psychological suspense novels she penned under the name Barbara Vine were her darkest and most compelling. Years ago I read her novel No Night is Too Long, a complex story about a bisexual love triangle and an apparent murder, yet still, the story still haunts me.  Maybe it’s time to download it to my Kindle.

#2 The Secret Place by Tana French.  Although part of the Dublin Murder Squad series, this psychological suspense novel also works as a stand-alone.  Detectives attempt to solve the cold case murder of a popular teenage boy and find themselves immersed in the conflicts and dramas of two rival girl cliques at an Irish boarding school.  I love the structure of this story.  The detectives’ investigation moves forward, interweaving with a retrospective account of the events leading up to the murder.  French dives deep into the psyches of these girls and capture their unique argot in a pitch-perfect way.

#3 The Secret History by Donna Tarte.  Called “the thinking person’s thriller,” Tarte’s first novel centers on a coterie of wealthy students at a college in Vermont, who study ancient Greek and become obsessed with recreating a Dionysian bacchanal of their own.  Their ritual leads to an accidental killing and then a deliberate murder to cover it up.  After that, these strange souls begin to psychologically unravel.

You’ll thank me if you read these best suspense thriller novels.

MPM: What is the most compelling way to end a suspense or thriller novel?

FH: It’s a balancing act.  After taking the reader on a rollercoaster ride filled with twists and turns, you need to bring things to a satisfying conclusion – tie up enough loose ends, punish the villain, allow love to triumph, and create a good plot twist.  But at the same time, I like to leave just enough darkness and uncertainty to keep the reader thinking about the thriller novel and working out the unfinished possibilities.   

MPM: Do you outline first before you write a first draft? What is your process?

FH: I find first drafts the most daunting part of writing.  You’re walking through a dark tunnel, holding a flashlight, hoping to make it through to the other end.  I’m pretty compulsive and prepare a detailed outline, following the structure of the Opening Hook, Middle Build and Ending Payoff.  I may do other preliminary work, like listing my cast of characters, including their ages, occupations, key qualities.  Sometimes I do stream-of-consciousness warm-up writing exercises to get a better sense of the characters.  In The Ninety Day Novel, Alan Watt provides many examples of such exercises.  But with all the preparation, once the writing is underway, the story takes on a life of its own.  My characters surprise me, revealing secrets, or taking directions I didn’t anticipate.  That’s when the real fun begins! 

MPM: Tell us a little bit about your new work-in-process. What’s it about?

FH: Suffer Little Children, to be released by Red Adept Publishing on January 26, 2021, is my new psychological thriller book based on a real-life, state-of-the-art cancer study.  It involves an escalating battle of wills between the determined, unscrupulous mother of a terminally ill son and a dedicated nurse trying to salvage her career and personal life.  There’s extortion, betrayal, manipulation, kidnapping, pursuit, and a climactic confrontation – with children’s lives hanging in the balance.  And many twists and surprises along the way.

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