What makes a thriller thrill?
It’s a good question, and one that a recent OzAuthors Online panel, hosted by our very own AB Endacott, explored with three fantastic #LoveOzYA authors: Sarah Epstein (Deep Water), Ellie Marney (None Shall Sleep), and Lili Wilkinson (The Erasure Initiative).
Together, they shared insights about how they approach plot and structure to make sure their story raises hairs, tingles spines, and keeps the reader flicking pages from the very edge of their seat.
Watch the full panel here, or read on for some key tips and tricks!
Thriller Tip One: Put the Big Bad in the driver’s seat
A great villain is a key ingredient for many different types of stories — and in thrillers, Ellie says they’re the whole damn meal.
“It’s always the evil doer who is doing nefarious deeds, and the protagonists are chasing after the villain and trying to catch them before anything worse happens,” she told the panel.
“The protagonists are basically reacting to what the villain of the piece is doing.”
Thriller Tip Two: Keep them guessing. All. The. Time.
For Lili, the answer to the question of what makes a great thriller is just that: a question.
One that’s set up, posed, or answered on almost every page.
Let Lili explain: “With The Erasure Initiative, I was very, very deliberate with this: in every chapter I wanted there to be a really big question at the beginning of the chapter (and) by the end of the chapter that question, or another question, gets answered.”
But the guessing doesn’t stop there, she stresses.
“In the answering of the question, it poses a bigger question that steps up the plot.”
This constant, dynamic questioning should never stop, Lili says, otherwise there’s a risk the “tension thread” of the whole story will snap.
Thriller Tip Three: Make it ‘unputdownable’.
Sarah’s guiding principle when writing any story, including thrillers, is simple: pull out all the narrative stops to keep the reader entertained.
“An entertaining mystery (will have) a hook, tight pacing, red herrings and clues — all that kind of thing,” she says of her storytelling toolbox.
“It’s just about crafting a story that just makes it really hard for the reader to put down at any point.”
Thriller Tip Four: Make the reader ask — ‘How would I cope with that?’
Darkness is part of human nature, and a good thriller will let a reader explore it in a safe and considered way.
“It’s partly that ‘Oh my god, something terrible is happening to that person,’ and ‘How would I cope?’ ‘How would I handle that?” Ellie explains.
In particular, young adult thrillers can let younger readers explore these more macabre aspects of human nature without being directly exposed to it, and with the relative safety net of a last-page resolution.
“The world is super scary,” Lili says. “The world also has no answers.”
“But when you read a thriller, you will have the answers by the end. And that gives a lot of comfort.”
Thriller Tip Five: Put your protagonist in danger. Constant, palpable danger.
“It’s about sticking the protagonist in a lot of danger and seeing what happens,” Lili says of a thriller’s fundamental backbone. “You are embedded in the action.”
And putting your protagonist up against it in a high-stakes situation can easily align with another key theme of young adult literature: the interrogation of sites of power.
“YA always is about young people learning to negotiate with the institutions that shape them,” Lili says.
“I think that all of that goes so beautifully with the engine of a thriller because it thrusts a teenage protagonist into that world, into those institutions and immediately puts them in peril, so that negotiation becomes very, very fraught and very, very dramatic.”
“And therefore: very, very readable.”
Written by #LoveOzYA’s Alex Patrikios