Murder as a Secondary Storyline in the Novel / Shana Thornton

Sometimes when we get done writing we sit back, look at the finished product, and wonder what’s missing. We wonder what is keeping this story from being the suspenseful piece of work that we want it to be. Often times, that answer can be that a story is perhaps too linear. It can, of course, be comfortable to stay in our comfort zone and stick with an easy-to-write plot. What we sometimes must do instead is keep the reader turning pages with a secondary plot. In this week’s guest blog, author Shana Thornton shares her experience with doing just that.

Happy reading!
Clay Stafford
Clay Stafford
Founder Killer Nashville
Publisher / Editorial Director Killer Nashville Magazine


Murder as a Secondary Storyline in the Novel

KNPHOTO SHANAMurder as a Secondary Storyline in the Novel
By Shana Thornton

Writers often say they have a finished novel, but it’s missing something to make it a more suspenseful story. Maybe there’s not enough action in the book to hold your attention as the writer, and your fears could materialize if a reader stops reading your book due to lack of tension to make them turn those pages. Consider adding a crime, specifically, a murder as a secondary storyline. The murder does not have to happen to your character or even someone they know, and it can still be a captivating, secondary plot line for your readers.

When murder is a secondary storyline in your novel, you enrich your story with an event that could motivate your character(s) to make different choices. As with real life, when a murder takes place nearby, people are naturally preoccupied by the investigation happening in their community or on the news. Your main character could easily become obsessed with a murder, and you reveal more about the character’s mind to the reader. Simply by showing fear in the character’s mind, you increase the tension of the story.

A murder as a secondary story line adds suspense to a book that may not have any or enough, and the murder keeps the reader on edge, wondering if the crime will become more important and in esKNCOVER SHANAsence, take over the story. For example, in my first novel, Multiple Exposure, my main point for writing the book was to show how fear and war affect the family members of soldiers who are deployed. I wanted to focus on the heightened state of fear caused by 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I decided to show those themes through a narrator, Ellen Masters, whose husband is a Special Forces medic and photographer. He is deployed for the majority of the present-day action of the book. During that time, Ellen teaches classes at a university and three students are brutally murdered at a park near her home.

This secondary plot line can also help with character development. The character experiences fear in my book. For Ellen, the murder becomes an obsession that leads to heightened anxiety. When she arrives home, she looks under the beds, in the closets, behind doors, waiting for a murderer to come after her. You could also show a character’s compassion, courage, and/or shock and disconnect to a murder.

You could also push the suspense beyond a focus on the main character(s), and develop the tension in the larger community. For my book, not only does the reader face the murder and fear through Ellen’s eyes, but she goes on to show the reactions of the community where she lives. She describes how the college students on campus react to the loss of the murdered students. This reveals more about the setting and the people who live in that setting. In the reader’s mind, the story can become expansive as you show the community, press coverage, and how groups deal with the aftermath of a murder in differing ways.

Two storylines can be intimidating, especially in the beginning of the writing process. To maintain both storylines, keep the main plot line simple and weave in enough to entertain your readers and keep them guessing about what may happen next. Eventually, the two storylines will become entwined, even if only in the character’s mind. You will create added depth and tension to your characters and the overall story.

One common mistake when pitching a book with a secondary storyline is that we writers often forget to highlight that plot line when describing the book. Recently, I was at a book event and continuously pitched my book as a war novel from the point of view of a soldier’s spouse. Later, as more readers stopped to talk, someone asked me if I had any murder mysteries, and that’s when I realized that I had been giving a book spiel that didn’t include the murder suspense part of my novel. Work on a pitch for your book that incorporates both storylines into the description. Chances are that readers will be interested in one or the other. You’ll gain readers who enjoy the murder mystery/suspense side of your story, and they will turn those pages as quickly as they can read the words to find out what happens next.


Shana Thornton is the author of two novels, Poke Sallet Queen & the Family Medicine Wheel (2015) and Multiple Exposure (2012), and co-author of the nonfiction creativity book, Seasons of Balance: On Creativity & Mindfulness (2016). Shana is a native middle-Tennessean. She earned an M.A. in English from Austin Peay State University. She was the Editor-in-Chief of Her Circle Ezine, an online women’s magazine featuring authors, artists, and activists. She is the owner of Thorncraft Publishing, an independent publisher of literature written by women (thorncraftpublishing.com). Shana lives in Tennessee with her family.

To read Shana’s interviews with women authors and activists, visit Her Circle.

To read more of her nonfiction, visit her blog.

Follow her on Twitter @shanathornton

Instagram @shana_trailbalance


(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to contact@killernashville.com. We’d love to hear from you.)

Thanks to Tom Wood, Arthur Jackson, and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s blog.

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