How to make readers’ hearts pound and their palms sweat?
Thriller writers share top tips with students at SIBF 2022
Acclaimed writers of the thriller genre, D.J. Palmer and Kathleen Antrim, co-host exciting workshop for UAE school students
Sharjah, November 12, 2022
Two popular writers of the thriller genre co-hosted a writing workshop for children at the 41st Sharjah International Book Fair to share inside know-how and discuss ways to start and write a thriller.
Award-winning writer Kathleen Antrim, author of bestselling political thriller, Capital Offense, and critically acclaimed D.J. Palmer, who has penned numerous suspense novels including, The New Husband, Saving Meghan, and The Perfect Daughter, began the session with the question: “What is the difference between a thriller and a mystery?”
The question, said Antrim, is crucial because writers must know what makes the readers’ hearts pound and their palms sweat.
Thrillers have a lot of plot twists. While the crime in a mystery novel is usually a case of ‘Whodunnit,’ in a thriller the reader actually sees the bad guy and has superior knowledge about what is going to happen to the main protagonist.
“The question with a thriller,” Palmer added, “is also how does the character get out of the situation? Since both the character and the reader know what is going to happen next.”
During the hour-and-a-half session attended by budding writers and school children, Antrim and Palmer emphasised that the story of any good thriller must have a ‘high concept.’ “This means that the reader must feel, if the protagonist does not prevail, something terrible will happen. There has to be a lot at stake. It has to be big and it has to be something people care about,” Antrim said.
It is therefore imperative to invest time and research when creating a main character, they advised the young audience. Whether the protagonist is ordinary or extraordinary, there has to be a noticeable change in their ‘character arc’ from the start of the novel to its exciting end.
“If it’s an ordinary person they have to be in an extraordinary circumstance, the circumstance must be larger than life, or you can flip this around as well,” said Palmer, who insists research and reading are critically essential to the writing process.
“Creating an emotional bond between the protagonist and the reader is also very important,” said Antrim. “I believe your antagonist will come off as a cartoon character if you don’t explain their humanity. No one is all good or all bad. We need to know why they think they are doing the right thing. As a writer is it very important to convey this to the reader.”
Another interesting tip the authors shared was to keep sentences short and crisp when writing suspense, as this increases the pace of the scene. “Don’t use the word ‘and’, instead use ‘but’ or ‘then’ to help drive tension.”
For Palmer, any good suspect in a crime novel needs just three things – motive, method and opportunity. “I also try to have one cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. If I don’t have it, the reader will not turn the page,” he added.