Raising the Stakes for Your Writing Skills / M. Elizabeth Lee

Writing a thriller has proven time and time again to be one of the most mind-boggling and challenging genres to write. With a thriller you need to keep your reader reading while building up to an exciting event slowly. Keeping your  reader interested during this escalation, while at the same time keeping your twist well-hidden, is the challenge we are tasked with overcoming. In this week’s guest blog, author M. Elizabeth Lee gives some fantastic tips and tricks for building a compelling thriller.

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


knphoto-leeRaising the Stakes for Your Writing Skills
By M. Elizabeth Lee

Writing suspense is like trying to climb a ladder while simultaneously building it. Do it correctly and you lead your reader on a thrilling journey where the stakes grow higher as dangers known and unforeseen press ever closer. If a thriller is successful, the reader leaps from the top of the ladder, filled with exhilaration after the crazy ride he or she has just completed. But when thrillers go wrong, and readers are not pulled along by a taut plot, compelling mystery and believable characters, they have no incentive to keep climbing the ladder, and instead, slide limply back to earth, where they use their last ounce of squandered energy to assign a one star rating. Sad!

The desire to know what happens next is the driving force of all fiction, and no more so than in the suspense genre, where the whole point is to keep the reader so spellbound that they miss their train stop or forget to walk the dog. That addictive sense of what happens next is the benchmark of great suspense writing, but creating that feeling is a feat like none other. Executing suspense successfully requires a complex mind trick; crafting your twisty, surprise-laden story while hiding what you’re doing from the reader, and simultaneously attempting to distance yourself enough to evaluate whether any of it is working. It’s enough to make a suspense writer wish for a second brain, or a timely case of temporary amnesia.

But as most of us have only one mind at our disposal, the evaluation process must be sidelined for the majority of the writing process. It’s much more beneficial to focus on the juggling act/magic trick of creating suspense, which has everything to do with manipulating reader expectations.

Expectation is tricky in thrillers, because serious fans of the genre a.) Love surprises, and b.) Have read it all before. In a typical thriller, some misdeed has been committed and the protagonist must figure out who did it and why before something even more horrible happens. Thriller writers are ingenious at ways of finding fresh angles to explore this basic construct, but to be successful, most thrillers do these four things:

  1. Establish High Stakes (and then raise them) — Tension is at its highest when everything is on the line. Start with a big problem, and make it bigger. For example, in Love Her Madly, Glo, the protagonist, is faced with either losing her best friend or the guy she thinks might be her true love. That’s a tough decision, but it’s kid stuff compared to the choice Glo faces later when she must either follow her best friend into the clutches of armed strangers or swim across a dangerous channel to get help. Boxing characters into near hopeless situations and forcing them to act is a foolproof way to create dramatic tension. Extremes are interesting and characters are (fortunately) not real, so writers can push all they want and no one gets hurt.
  2. Taut Pacing — Opening with a tight focus helps build momentum quickly. Keep extraneous detail to a minimum. Remember that bestselling European author who devoted pages to descriptions of computer hardware? Don’t do that. Your story is stronger without it.
  3. Mystery — Readers will be happiest if they can’t guess by chapter two who the villain is and why he plans to poison the reservoir. Shocking twists are the genre’s beating heart. Come up with a good one, and gain a fan for life.
  4. Payoff — Thrillers don’t have to end with an epic warehouse shootout, but they should have a climactic payoff. It doesn’t have to tie up every loose end, or even signal that the protagonist’s quest is over, but it should resolve the plot’s main mystery. Show your readers some love by giving them a payoff that will cast the journey they’ve taken in an entirely new light. Or conversely (or perhaps, perversely), keep a little extra mystery simmering on the back burner. By the final pages of Love Her Madly, Glo finally learns what has become of her lost friend, but a final discovery throws the truth Glo thought she had gleaned back into question. A little residual doubt can make a novel linger, ghostlike, long after a book has been shelved.

Thriller writers are constantly finding new ways to advance the genre. While a traditional “lone wolf overcoming adversity to find the truth” tale is a trope that is here to stay, I’m a fan of unreliable narrators and enjoy both writing kncover-leeand reading this style of thriller. Using a suspect narrator provides a tricky “Can I trust this?” intimacy with characters who might be lying through their teeth, half-crazy, deluded, or all of the above. When I was writing Love Her Madly I had to decide how truthful to make Glo about the night her best friend disappeared. Will readers take her story at face value? I can’t say. With this type of thriller, part of the fun is trying to suss out all the manipulations that are in play. The truth may be out there, but unless your narrator permits, you might never discover it.

Whatever the approach, readers of suspense want that thrill, and it’s our job to bring it. As mentioned earlier, one of the most difficult aspects of authoring suspense is handling doubt. After working on a story for months, sometimes years, it would be wonderful to automatically know that all those painstakingly placed dominoes will topple just right. But the truth is, you can’t know. You must wait for your readers to tell you their experience, keeping in mind that it is the rare author who nails it perfectly the first time.

It’s why our fellow writers, agents, editors and loyal reader friends are so essential to the work. They want to help us excavate the outstanding thriller lurking just beneath the surface of that killer draft. Accept feedback. Make it better. Keep reading. Keep writing. That’s our path.

Suspense writers are daredevils at heart, and the stakes are incredibly high. When a thriller doesn’t thrill, it’s a failure. But for those focused on the high wire act of creating a visceral thrill from words spun on paper, nothing else will satisfy.  


Elizabeth Lee is a novelist, screenwriter and actress living in New York City. Her thriller, Love Her Madly, was released this August from Atria Books/Simon & Schuster. Reach her at www.melizabethlee.com


(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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