How to write a thriller

In The Moors book coverNina Milton, author of In the Moors and writing tutor with the Open College of the Arts, explains what it takes to breathe life into a thriller.

There are many strange truths about writing crime and thriller fiction, and one of them is just how much descriptive detail can boost the readability of a novel. John Gardner, one of the great thriller writers, summed it up perfectly when he said ‘Detail is the lifeblood of fiction’.

The more detail you chose to include, the less predictable the writing becomes. Skimming over a description loses the reader, zoning-in absorbs him. It’s a way to create fiction that is strong, absorbing and energetic.

Adding detail to your crime story isn’t the same as over-describing. By looking closely at the most interesting parts of the whole – whether it’s an artifact, a character, a landscape or an interior – the description of it will be enhanced. The reader doesn’t want to see it all; that’s like being too close to the screen in the cinema – too much information.Tease your reader

Amazingly, adding detail to scenes that have a high drama content actually increases the tension. You wouldn’t think that would be so, but it is. The reader longs to be teased.  Of course they want to know the end of the story, the solution to the mystery, but when they reach the end they’re saddened. They wanted it to go on forever.

Creating detail helps that teasing effect; it stretches story out while offering the writer a chance to use good language skills to create a scene vividly. Spielberg might have spliced the first and last scenes in Jaws together and save everyone a whole evening’s viewing, or Bronte could have inscribed …reader, I married him…on the first page of Jane Eyre. But they didn’t. They gave us detail.

Relish the second draft

Of course, your first draft is going to be rushed (and possibly messy), with not much detail – you are trying as much to get down your thoughts on the story as to write it. It’s fine to end up with a first copy that is possibly only half as long as the eventual manuscript. Whether you start this way and return to the beginning to add detail, or prefer to get in close in your first draft, when you start adding detail, you’ll find it will actually help you understand your story. It will highlight the small, vital moments that add up to the whole.

This is quite the opposite as providing chunks of description. Today’s readers are not keen on chunks of either description or exposition – that died out with the crinoline – so the way to add interesting detail is to slide it in surreptitiously as the action, interior monologue and dialogue continues to move the story on.

So this is the strange truth…the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes. Moving into close-up is absorbing and paints the imagery of the story.

Somerset levels cr Nina Milton

Somerset levels © Nina Milton

Take your time

Here’s a moment from the first skeleton draft version of my crime novel In the Moors;

I was drawing closer to the bogs. Far away into the west, an ancient clump of willows sprouted out of the bog. I pulled my jacket close about me and raised the collar against the wind. As I marched towards them, I saw the faint outline of police tape on thin metal poles. This was a dreadful place to be at night.

‘Take your time’ is one of my favourite phrases. I offer this advice my students, and so I guess I should take it myself. In that first draft, I was pummelling along, looking neither to the left nor to the right. My character, Sabbie Dare is walking into a dangerous situation. I can’t stop the action – it is full pelt. But there are ways of holding it up while maintaining the drama. I must take as much time as I dare to allow Sabbie to describe what she observes and confront her own thoughts. In the next version, you can see that I’ve slowed the action by writing into the gaps I left in my rush to get the words onto the page.

When I lifted my chin away from my footsteps, I could see I was drawing closer to the long-abandoned areas, murky water held together with sedges and bulrushes. These bogs went on forever, impossible to tell one blackened hellhole from the next. I had no idea how to find the location I wanted.

I turned a full circle, skimming the horizon.  Far away into the west, an ancient clump of willows sprouted out of the bog. The trunks were glossy black against the reddening sunset. Each branch, thick as a Sumo wrestler’s leg, skimmed the water’s surface before turning upwards to the sky. The patterns they formed brought symbols to my mind – cages and gallows and rune signs. My skin goosed up along my arms.

I pulled my jacket close about me and raised the collar against the wind. As I marched towards them, I saw the faint outline of police tape on thin metal poles, inadequately closing off the area.

The sun was slipping below the horizon like a thief in an alley. I had hoped I wouldn’t need my torch, but now it drilled a swirling vortex into the space ahead, illuminating the path with its paltry light. The slurry surface of the abandoned bogs gave me the clearest indication of where the path lay. I leaned forward as I walked to get the maximum light from the beam. The wind was whipping up, now darkness was falling. My cheeks and nose felt numb. When I looked up again to check my progress, the willows had gone.

I stared in horror. I wasn’t used to such dark magic. The grey horizon was hiding their silhouette. A gurgle of panic, like quickly swallowed porridge, rose in my gullet. The trees were somewhere ahead of me, but I hadn’t thought to take any sort of marking of where they lay – which of the many paths I needed.

My boot slid off a clump of slimy leaves. It filled with bog-water. I clutched at the air, struggling to keep my balance and the torch fell from my grasp. I watched in dismay as it sank beneath the oily sheen. My eyes stung with tears. Instantly the wind chilled them into ice.

This was a dreadful place to be at night.

In this fuller version, I’ve ‘seeded in’ description by using symbolic imagery, and added hints of the smell of the moors with words such as murky, slimy and oily. You don’t need to squash every sense into a single description, but sound, touch, taste and smell do work exceedingly well to draw a reader into an image – how, for instance, how Sabbie is effected by the freezing conditions. And I’ve tried to be unpredictable, especially in my choice of and simile.

Avoid the abstract

I’ve avoided using abstract nouns such as ‘Sabbie was scared’ to tell the reader about Sabbie’s emotions. I’ve shown them instead…A gurgle of panic… My eyes stung with tears…. I’ve tried to draw out the experience by making things harder for Sabbie; placing obstacles in her way. Losing her torch into the bog feels like the last straw.

To find the right details to include in your budding crime fiction, think about the ‘core’ of each scene. For example, your scene is an inner city waste land. Don’t try to describe all of it; your reader’s eyes will glaze over. Instead, focus your imagery on, for instance, one blighted buddleia, seemingly imbedded in nothing more than rocks and dust, where no butterfly has ever ventured.

Find space to add detail to your descriptive passages, to your character description, to the action and even the narrator’s thoughts. Doing so will enhance the drama and tension and your ‘writer’s voice’; the quality of the language you use.

Nina Milton in Tivyside by Jenefer Llewelyn FergusonAbout the author

Nina Milton’s novel In the Moors, published by Midnight Ink, is the first in the Shaman Mystery series; the second Unravelling Visions, is out in 2014. She has also published two books for children, books for children; Sweet ‘n’ Sour, (HarperCollins) and Tough Luck, (Thornberry Publishing). You can link with Nina’s writing world at