Upon the release of her second crime thriller, The Promise, Sally Jenkins shares her Top 10 Tips for writing a gripping thriller:

Sally Jenkins

Sally Jenkins

The villain

Make the villain believable by giving them a background that justifies their gruesome actions. For example, the small boy locked in a cupboard as a punishment by his mother, might, as an adult, think it’s acceptable to lock his wife in a concrete-lined cellar when he suspects she’s having an affair.

The victim

The success of a thriller depends on multi-layered characters. The victim mustn’t be all good. The wife of our villain might not be having an affair but she could be siphoning money out of the joint bank account in order to leave him.

Have lots of shocks

If your novel has a saggy middle, the author Raymond Chandler says, “Send in a man with a gun.” It doesn’t literally have to be a man with a gun but it should be something that increases the stakes and the tension.

Make the reader feel the characters’ emotions

Like an actor, the author must step into his characters’ shoes and describe their emotions. Imagine being the wife locked in the pitch black cellar without food or water. Then imagine being the villain flinging open the cellar door and wielding an axe – does he enjoy that feeling of power?

Open with an inciting moment

Thrust the protagonist into the main action of the story on the first page. Thriller readers don’t want pages of back story or description before the ‘proper’ story starts. Excite the reader immediately they will choose to buy a different book.

Police procedure

Be careful! Only include police procedure if you have accurate knowledge of how the police would treat a particular situation. Otherwise keep the police on the periphery of the story. Local police may be willing to help with questions on procedure. Or try following police feeds on Twitter and searching for blogs written by current and ex-police officers.

Write the first draft fast

It’s much easier to write a ropey first draft that gets the story from beginning to end, than it is to write perfect prose from the outset. The best piece of writing advice I ever heard was from writing tutor, Alison May. She said. “It’s OK to hate your first draft.” The ropey text can be edited and refined once the whole story is in place.

Would it make a series?

Readers love series reads because buying the next book in a series is less risky than a new author or another standalone novel. A series needs character(s) who can realistically find themselves involved in several thriller stories. Usually this is the police but it could be a crime reporter, private detective etc.

Leave them thinking

You want readers to remember your book long after they’ve finished reading, so have a theme that makes them ponder. For example – could all those bad things in the book be a result of one small boy being locked in a cupboard 30 years ago? Leave the reader wondering if he should treat his young children better!

Read a lot

Read a lot. Note how the story is structured and what the writer does to build suspense and shock the reader.

The Promise is a chilling psychological thriller and is available to buy from bookguild.co.uk, Amazon and all good bookshops.