How To Be a Thriller Writer, by Sarah Naughton

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How To Be a Thriller Writer, by Sarah Naughton
How To Be a Thriller Writer, by Sarah Naughton

5 tips on how to be a killer (thriller writer)

Disclaimer: While reading this surefire checklist on how to write 100% guaranteed-bestselling thrillers, please bear in mind that a) this is all guesswork on my part, b) I’m learning all the time, and c) it’s all far easier said than done.


I started out as YA writer way back in 2013, and then a publisher approached my agent and asked if I would try my hand at some thrillers for adults. Not knowing much about the genre, I commented that I guessed it would need a good twist. The publisher gave me a hard stare and said, ‘yes, at the end of every chapter.’ This is great advice, and you can only follow it by structuring your plot outline before you begin writing. Select the scenes you present really carefully – there should be a turning point in each of them: a new piece of evidence discovered, a bit of revealing characterisation, a decision made. This is what keeps readers turning the pages. I’m well aware that when an idea strikes, it’s so tempting to start writing immediately, but if you take the time to structure a detailed plot outline (mine are usually around 10 pages) you will never get lost or run out of steam, and you can just enjoy the pleasure of the writing.


The stakes should get higher and higher as the book goes on. The first obstacle can be small – in ‘You Better Watch Out’ Eleri must locate her school bag which has gone missing – but by the end it should be huge, and contain massive jeopardy for your protagonist – in Eleri’s case she thinks the Secret Santa is coming to kill her mum. This will tighten the fist you have around your reader’s throats until they’re gasping for breath.


I recently watched a film where you knew from the first scene how the story would play out. I persevered, trusting that nobody would waste a massive film budget with big stars on such poor writing, but I was wrong, and the ending was exactly what I (and my goldfish) predicted. I hurled the remote at the TV in frustration. The pleasure of a thriller lies in the satisfying frisson of being manipulated and confused. Readers actively want to be led down the garden path, to be certain they know what’s happened, only for the rug to be pulled out from under them. What they won’t forgive is a plot that plods from A to B in an entirely linear way – the character that seems like the baddie at the beginning, turns out to be just that at the end. Give them some red herrings, some horrible characters with clear motive and opportunity, who turn out to be as innocent as doves, angels stirring strychnine into their beloved’s cocoa. Seasoned thriller readers take pride in guessing whodunnit because it is usually the least likely of all the characters, but if the road to the end is twisty enough, they’ll still enjoy the journey.


You may have heard differently, but I would say don’t be tempted to race to the finish at breakneck speed. When you’re constructing your plot outline (you are doing that, right?) be aware of pace. Include some quiet times for your protagonist to question and doubt, the eerie silence before the masked man with the hunting knife jumps out from behind the shower curtain. It’s these moments of tension that will have your readers biting their nails to bloody stumps.


Can you describe your book in a couple of lines? I’m including this as my final tip because it might seem a bit trivial but it will help you know if your central idea is a strong one. My most successful books are easy to explain. For instance, in ‘You Better Watch Out’ Eleri, is gifted a real-life advent calendar from her school Secret Santa, but as the days to Christmas tick down, the treats waiting for her behind the doors of a nearby abandoned tower block become more and more sinister. This is a clear, simple premise that promises the things we want from a thriller: suspense, jeopardy, mystery. But these lift pitches are also bloody hard to formulate. I’ve always found it nigh on impossible to explain my plots in a few words (or even three hour power point presentations). It’s not a skill writers tend to have – though the very famous ones I’ve come across have it down pat because they’re used to pitching to film companies – but it’s an excellent test as to whether you have a really hooky pitch. Generally, try to think about the goal of the main character, eg Frodo wants to throw the Ring of Power into Mount Doom, and despite the hugely expansive novels with their digressive subplots, the narrative drive of the entire trilogy is focussed on getting him there.

You Better Watch Out: You Better Not Die DNFO
You Better Watch Out is out October 2023

Dark, moreish and chilling – the countdown to Christmas is on … and time is running out.

Every day in December, a gift is left for Eleri in the abandoned tower block opposite her flat. At first, she can’t help but be flattered, hoping that her Secret Santa is enigmatic Ras – a boy she has history with. But with each day that passes, the gifts get darker and more dangerous. Is this a harmless bit of festive fun? Or does this have something to do with Nina’s disappearance last year? If so … will Eleri be next?

The countdown to Christmas has never been so terrifying

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