Tess James-Mackey on how to write a nail-biting thriller
"Let yourself follow that trail, and it could lead you to something that belongs in a nail-biting thriller."
This post was written by Tess James-Mackey, author of You Wouldn’t Catch Me Dead.
Thrillers come in all shapes and sizes, and before I put pen to paper the first thing I consider is how I want to make my readers feel.
Do I want them to have a list of puzzles and mysteries to solve, or entrench them in a deep psychological journey? Or do I want to scare the bejeezus out of them and have them urgently skimming through the climax as it builds to a terrifying crescendo?
For me, it’s always the latter.
With that in mind, my plotting starts with an image. For my debut, SOMEONE IS WATCHING YOU, that image was someone staring down at me through an empty window of the abandoned prison in my hometown. I then allow my imagination to spiral – what if that figure was someone, or something, living inside the prison? What if the main character became stuck in there with them? What if, what if, what if …?
The images start falling like snowflakes – a collage of missing person posters, a dead pigeon caught in a net, the hanging room with the rope still swinging. It’s then my job to gather them up and weave them into a story that sends ice up the reader’s spine.
My latest YA thriller, YOU WOULDN’T CATCH ME DEAD, was also inspired by a series of images in a very real place – Llanthony Priory, an ancient stone ruin nestled in the wilds of the Welsh Black Mountains. Even when I lived there as a teen, I pictured images of shadowy figures lurking just out of sight, a silhouette on the outside of the tent in the dead of night, and a dark, bottomless cellar that seems to whisper the protagonist’s name.
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Before I have an actual plot, I’ll often write one of those image-driven scenes when it’s vivid in my mind, demanding to be explored. Then I’ll work backwards – how could the protagonist have ended up stranded in the wilderness, scared for their life.
And who could be haunting them?
I have a ridiculous amount of fun writing this way, and most of these images that eventually turn into fully fledged stories are real moments from my life (I seem to unintentionally seek out seriously creepy places!)
Once I have the imagery nailed down, I work on inserting the main character. And the beauty of thrillers, is that you want things to go wrong for them. So I imagine the kind of person who wouldn’t thrive in the situation I’ve dreamt up – who would struggle, make bad decisions and drive the plot towards a high-stakes climax?
And what are they hiding from? What are they scared of? How can these things be woven into the story to make things even more perilous for them? I love a thriller with a satisfying character arc alongside the murder and mayhem – how does everything that happens in the book change the protagonist?
For me, it all boils down to that limitless question of; What if? Let yourself follow that trail, and it could lead you to something that belongs in a nail-biting thriller.
Get your copy of You Wouldn’t Catch Me Dead by Tess James-Mackey here.