This blog post is for thriller writers who want to start their story with a hook but don’t know how to. Here you will learn what you need to do to make the opening of your thriller as good as it can be. You’ll learn about crimes and conflicts, stakes and suspense, plot twists, and character development so that your story starts strong and stays strong through the entire story.
Always remember this:
The best thrillers hook their readers with instant action. Readers of thrillers are eager to feel the intensity of a crime, the anxiety of a high-stakes situation, and the suspense of not knowing what will happen next.
So how do you create that feeling in your readers? How do you bring these elements to life? How can you make them feel the danger and fear of your protagonist – even if they don’t want to be scared?
A perfect start is to hook readers with your very first sentence; starting by establishing a mood with strong descriptions in the first few lines of your story.
Choose a protagonist
When you start writing a story, it is essential to ensure that your main character is someone in whom the readers will be interested. Someone with weaknesses, strengths, and character flaws makes it easier for readers to connect with them emotionally.
There are many different characters, but for thriller stories, what matters most are character traits and goals. For example, does he have an exciting job? Is she driven by love or money? How is their self-confidence or sense of duty? Do they have a distinctive voice? How do these traits affect their actions and choices throughout the story?
These are important questions because your main character should have a well-developed character arc. Meaning they will change in some way by the end of the story. Their experiences in this novel will force them to confront their inner demons and at the same time learn something about themselves.
For readers to invest in your story, you must first hook them with a compelling crime or conflict. What is at stake? How will the protagonist’s goal affect them and innocent bystanders? For example: if they’re trying to stop a terrorist attack, what do they stand to lose if they fail? How will the world be affected by their failure?
Create conflict for the protagonist
It could be another person, a group of people, or an organization. Whatever it is, this opposition creates suspense and tension.
Let’s say your protagonist runs a successful beauty salon business in Vancouver. She is engaged and lives with a man who has turned to drugs and is becoming abusive. She wants to leave him, but he tries to stop her, begs her to stay, and promises to seek help. She is ten weeks pregnant when he next loses control and hits her hard in the stomach. She loses the baby later that day.
With this trauma, your protagonist’s life shifts. Heartbroken, she swears that no one will ever hurt her again. She makes her primary goal to be free of her ex and start a new life.
Add stakes to the conflict
What’s at risk for your protagonist if they fail? Is it their life? Their job? Their loved ones?
Here is an example:
The protagonist’s ex-fiance won’t leave her alone. He keeps track of her and shows up at the most unexpected moments, asking for money, making her stressed, and always on her guard. Finally, when she becomes distracted at work, she knows the stakes are getting too high. She must do something to get away from him, or she will lose everything she has worked for, and most of all, her self-respect.
Sara’s strengths are her positive attitude and ability to achieve what she sets out to do. She refuses to let him pull her down. She goes on a kayaking trip with friends and meets a good man, a police detective she gradually learns to trust.
Set up an antagonist with motivations that directly oppose the protagonist’s goals
Your antagonist’s biggest goal is to escape the gangs chasing him and leave the country. But for that to happen, he needs money to get a new identity which is expensive. So he plans to get the protagonist to pay for the pleasure of seeing him get out of her life.
But he’ll need her cooperation for that. His motivation for scaring her half to death is to stop her from telling the cops about him before he has a chance to get his papers and disappear. He has made sure she knows that if she alerts the cops, the gangs will find him, and they will find her, and then they will kill them both.
Give your story a setting and time
A setting can be a real-time period and geographical location or a fictional world and unfamiliar time.
For example, your setting can be in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island in the summer of 2019, which will provide a unique backdrop and interesting cultural clashes to explore.
The time also allows for exploring different social issues that were prevalent, such as drug abuse and crime rates. These two elements combined create an environment in which your thriller can thrive!
Make sure there is at least one central turning point
There must be at least one turning point in your story that changes everything about it. It could be a murder, a revelation, or any other event that completely upsets the status quo and forces your characters to react. This turning point will create tension and keep your readers hooked!
Let’s call the protagonist Jennifer and the antagonist Jason.
A turning point for Jennifer is when Jason calls to tell her he has killed one of the gang members for reneging on the passport. When she gasps in shock, he howls with laughter. “Yup, I’m still around. Don’t get too comfy. Just so we’re on the same page about the thugs chasing me—and possibly you—I want to emphasize how important it is that you don’t go to the cops for help. The gang has a mole on the force. If you mention me to the cops, they’ll know that you’ve made contact with me; meaning they’ll come after you.”
Jennifer falls apart and finally tells her police friend, Steve, about Jason and why she didn’t tell Steve about him before. “I was terrified,” she says, twisting a wad of tear-soaked tissues. “He warned me that if I told anyone that I had given him money, the Vancouver thugs chasing him would find out and come after me. Steve, I’m so sorry that I lied to you before.”
Steve takes her hand. “Jennifer, listen. You’ve taken on a shitload of guilt over something that isn’t your fault. I know how guys like him think, how they manipulate others. It’s not your fault.”
Include a twist or surprise ending
Make sure the ending makes sense logically and not just thrown in for no reason. It’s all about the details.
An example of another twist popping up before the ending:
Suddenly, Jennifer is gone. No one knows where she is. Steve is frantic, worries the drug gang has caught up with her.
While Jennifer tries to survive the abuse from the drug gang looking for Jason, Steve, and his team are all over the city, searching for information about her whereabouts.
Write a sentence or two about how your story will end, but try to keep it vague enough that you’ll be able to work in twists and surprises along the way!
Reveal backstory when appropriate
A backstory is vital because it sets up the characters and what they do. However, showing too much backstory early on can be off-putting to readers who want to get into your story right away.
The trick here is finding a balance: don’t spend an entire chapter explaining everything about how Steve became a detective; instead, sprinkle in bits and pieces of his backstory throughout the book to give your reader a sense of who he is without being overwhelmed.
One sprinkle could be something like this:
“You look kind of exotic,” Jennifer said to Jason. “Your skin is the color of light chocolate, and yet you have blue eyes and almost straight, black hair. What’s your background?”
“Let’s see.” Jason leaned back, tugging Sara with him. “My very tall, dark-skinned grandfather was born in India. He was working on a project in Thailand when he met and married my grandmother, who was small enough to fit under his armpit. They had two boys. Unfortunately, one of them died shortly after his birth. The other was my father.
“After high school, my father went to England to study engineering. But, he found it wasn’t for him, so he moved to Vancouver and became a police officer. That’s where he met my mother, a social worker born and raised in Sweden. They fell in love and got married—frowned upon by some—and, well, here we are.”
Write dialogue so characters sound different from each other
One of your characters might be the type to talk constantly, whereas another might be more introspective. How do they sound? Different voices will make your story more exciting and help readers identify who is speaking.
Ways to describe someone’s voice:
A loud voice can sound like a foghorn. A shrill voice can penetrate a room. A smoky voice can sound slightly mysterious and sexy, and a deep raspy voice can sound full of rage, but the sound of a voice can also be someone talking with stuttering or lisping or having a unique accent.
When it comes to dialogue tags (e.g., he said, she exclaimed), avoid using too many adverbs. For example, instead of saying he yelled loudly: say he screamed.
Establish mood through descriptions
What is your protagonist feeling at the beginning of your story? How does this change over time? How do these feelings help set the tone for readers to understand what will happen in your book?
The descriptions don’t have to be flowery, but it’s good if you can pull off lyrical language.
Maybe something like this:
– They stepped into an unmarked car waiting to take them to the Supreme Court Building. Holding on to Steve’s hand, Jennifer looked out at the barren trees and frost-speckled lawns as they drove down a quiet side street. Everything looked frozen as if holding its breath. She felt as if she was on her way to the death chamber. A moment later sounds burst forward as they eased into the stream of vehicles on Broadway and headed downtown.
Ben held a bagel out for her. “You need to eat something.”
“I’m too nervous to eat.” She sipped on her coffee. “But maybe I’d better.” She reached for the bagel. Ten minutes later, she straightened up in her seat. They had turned onto Smithe Street. They pulled into a parking space under the overpass between the courthouses and stopped. The sight of the solemn police officers standing ready to escort them through the wide glass doors gave her an anxiety rush. She had feared there would be a moment when the thugs might try to silence her. Was this it?
Dead leaves scuttled past on an icy wind as they hurried through the entrance past throngs of security and into an elevator. Exiting on the sixth floor, Steve held her close for a moment, whispered loving wishes in her ear, and kissed her cheek. Sara saw him disappear into the courtroom through the main doors as she was led to a room nearby.
I hope this post has helped you with your story writing. First, remember to make sure the protagonist is someone with weaknesses, strengths, and character flaws and that there are stakes for them in the conflict and an antagonist that opposes their goals.
Next, give your story a setting and time frame by describing where it takes place, what year or era, etc. Next, make sure there’s at least one central turning point (a plot twist) and reveal a backstory when appropriate so readers understand why characters behave in specific ways throughout events. Lastly, establish mood through descriptions – things like colors, sounds, smells should help create mental imagery for readers so they feel immersed in your world!
Good luck with your writing!