• Julie Gray

Writing Suspense & Crime Novels

Suspense novels and thrillers fall under many sub-genres. Here are just a few, with examples:

Action Thrillers (Ian Fleming's James Bond novels)

Crime Thrillers (The Godfather)

Legal Thrillers (John Grisham)

Medical Thrillers (Robin Cook)

Political Thrillers (Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal)

Eco Thrillers (Nicholas Evans' The Loop)

Psychological Thrillers (Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca)

Military Thrillers (Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October)

Crime and suspense novels SELL. Here is a link to a list of the top crime writers, whose sales total a staggering 200 million pounds sterling a year in the UK.

The great crime writer PD James, who recently passed away at age 94, once spoke at the LA Book Fair. Other writers were speaking too - famous writers, people like Rushdie - but the line to see PD James went around the building twice.

PD James said that people love crime novels because at the end of the day, justice and normalcy is restored. The crime is solved, the mystery is solved and there's great comfort in going from chaos back to order. But for PD James, and this is what made her interesting and somewhat seminal for an English writer of her period, was that order was restored on some level, but that the people - innocent and guilty - had been changed.

James also said (transcript of a great interview here), in terms of types she used for both murderer and victim, that nice, ordinary, humble people do not usually commit murder.

This makes for a great example of the great diversity in thinking in terms of writing crime, suspense and psychological thrillers.

My direct experience with writing suspense is in writing a number of psychological thrillers scripts that explored, as psychological thriller often does - what happens when a perfectly nice person is pushed until they do something terrible.

For me, this is more modern and interesting than the crime-to-order idea that James spoke about.

I like to think, in my dramatic mind, that anybody is capable of anything and that is something we often ask ourselves - what would I do?! Would I do that?! I think it's really interesting to see how far a person can be pushed until they do the unthinkable.

In Fatal Attraction, our main character commits an act of infidelity right away in the beginning of the story. This particular story construct is called "the monster in the house" story because the antagonist, the threat - comes into the home sometimes literally but symbolically they now threaten the very fabric of your existence. They know where you live. So our main character makes a mistake - and now he has everything to lose. Now there is a very sound argument to be made that the director Adrian Lynne is a misogynist, and that the antagonist (Glen Close) is cast as an evil siren and that her victim bears little blame. Let's set that aside for the moment.

What's interesting in the psychological thriller is finding out what the breaking point is. And then it gets better because now there's a mess to clean up and the suspense for the reader or viewer is watching everything fall apart - because we know it will - while the main character tries desperately to believe that things can return to normal. They won't. They can't. We know this.

So in suspense writing, the tension - the suspense - is really derived from the fact that the reader sort of sees what is going to go wrong but is helpless to stop it. DON'T DO THAT. What is happening will hold some twists, turns and surprises - that is, in fact, an expectation of the genre - suspense is for very smart people - but the suspense itself is from the fact that the reader feels a sense of dread and worry constantly. The character does not see what is going on. But you do.

In mystery writing, the detective is the main character, and we are, in many sense, the detective's side kick and observer. We learn things at the same time that the detective does. We are side by side.

If you are interested in writing crime/thriller/suspense/mystery novels in any of it's sub-genre descriptors, i.e., medical thriller, etc. I would suggest reading a lot of these books first. They are plentiful and very easy to find in paperback. In fact, you can find a great number of these books in used bookstores. They are plentiful and cheap.

Readers are pretty savvy these days; choose your sub genre and pull it off exactly as the genre demands.

Writing suspensEfully is all about information: when and how it is given.

Information can be withheld in such a way that the revealing of it is funny - a punchline - or in such a way that it is a horrifying reveal. You have to ask, fundamentally, what your intension is in your story, scene or book.

Information and how it is revealed is everything. And very often, as Alfred Hitchcock knew quite well, the longer the wait for the reveal - the more suspense is generated.

In Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca we have to wait for about 2/3 of the story to find out what the HECK is going on in Manderley, having been led to believe that the story is supernatural when really…. I won't ruin it for whoever has not read the book.

Is there a central mystery to be solved? What are the clues? Is the story being told from the point of view of the detective/investigator, or from the victim? When writing mysteries it is often quite helpful to write them backwards.

So if you plan to write a mystery/thriller/crime book, know the genre down cold, have read it extensively, and never be boring.

Think about the central crime or mystery in the story: has it already happened, and we are now solving it? Or are we trying to prevent something from happening? Who is the narrator? Is the narrator reliable? Is there a big, dramatic twist? How will the various clues be revealed?

The worst thing you can do, really, in suspense/crime/thriller writing is to be boring and predictable.

The most overarching rule is what is the information (i.e., the truth, the killer, the reason for it all) and how will you reveal it in such a way that you are a step or two ahead of the reader and that the reader will be taken on an exciting ride.


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Need some help with your suspense, mystery, crime or thriller novel. I think I know just the editor and coach for you. Let's get you on track. Drop me a line.

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