In Gregg Hurwitz’s critically acclaimed suspense thriller TRUST NO ONE, the action starts in the very first scene, and doesn’t let up until the end of the book, without sacrificing character development or top-notch writing. If you’re looking for clues as to why your readers’ attention wanes halfway through your novel or critics complain that your scenes drag on, this is the post for you. NOTE: I’ll do my best not to give away the ending of TRUST NO ONE during this post; if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.
(1) Start with a bang. Generally speaking, fiction of any kind – from literary to romance to your garden-variety picture book – requires a tantalizing hook to get readers turning pages. Thrillers have to deliver in spades on this count; that’s the whole point of the genre. Readers want to be transported to a world of action and intrigue, and few are that forgiving of an author who takes his time delivering. In TRUST NO ONE, the novel opens with the main character, Nick Horrigan, waking in the dead of night:
I snapped awake at 2:18 A.M., the bloodshot numerals staring at me from the nightstand. For years on end, I woke up at this exact time, regardless of what time zone I was in. But after seventeen years I had just started sleeping through the night. I had finally outrun the old fears. Or so I had convinced myself.
Over the course of the next two pages, Nick finds himself facing a squadron of strangers who infiltrate his apartment, whisking him into a helicopter and off to a nuclear power plant, where a man he has never met before is threatening to detonate a bomb unless he has an opportunity to speak with Nick, alone. Clearly, Hurwitz is no slouch when it comes to the task of grabbing the reader’s attention early. When you’re looking at your own work, how does your first chapter compare? Is there action from the moment your character “snaps awake,” or are you spending too much time on setup that could be worked into the story later?
(2) Find a compelling way to tell your backstory. For TRUST NO ONE, the entire plot of the novel revolves around an incident that happened with Nick’s stepfather seventeen years before. Hurwitz uses this to his advantage by interspersing chapters based in present-day with those that take place seventeen years before. This is hardly a new technique, but it does take a deft hand to ensure that both storylines are equally as intriguing; otherwise, you risk your readers feeling as though they’re being pulled out of the more interesting story just when things were getting good.
In the case of TRUST NO ONE, Hurwitz does this by ensuring, first and foremost, that his readers know why we are going back in time. In the first two chapters, as Nick is being forcibly taken from his apartment and during the flight to the nuclear reactor, we learn that something traumatic happened seventeen years ago (in fact, we learn that in the first paragraph), and that that something had to do with his stepfather, who worked for the government in some capacity. The first present-day account ends with this, at the close of chapter two:
I thought about what my stepfather would do. Frank Durant. Seventeen years dead. My hero, if such a word can be used anymore with a straight face.
Chapter three pushes us straight back to the past:
Seven years to the day after my father died, I met Frank. He was sitting in our yellow kitchen and had his hand on my mom’s knee, and I thought, Fuck him.
That first flashback chapter is a fairly lengthy one, taking the reader through events from that first meeting between Nick and Frank, through the years as their bond grew, and detailing both Frank’s devotion to his job as security detail for the vice president of the United States, and his growing paranoia toward the end of his life:
A week later I caught Frank standing at the front window, two fingers through the curtain. His other hand rested on his hip-holstered Glock, and when I asked what was out there, the gun almost cleared leather. As he shook his head and moved past me, mumbling, I thought I heard an engine turn over and then a car drive away.
I wondered why a federal agent was creeping around his own house peering out windows, but I didn’t say anything. Maybe I didn’t want to think about the implications. Maybe I was afraid of what the answers would be.
What could be dangerous enough to scare Frank?
For a time I stood in the cold hall, looking at the master-bedroom door, debating walking over there and knocking. But I kept my mouth shut and my concerns to myself. Whatever it was, Frank could handle it.
He was dead within the month.
How do you give your readers the facts they need to understand your story? Rather than relying on boring, awkwardly placed info dumps and scenes of pure exposition, think of more compelling ways to get your readers up to speed. And if you do decide that flashbacks are the way to go, make sure that those flashbacks are written as evocatively as your present-day storyline.
(3) If there is a romantic subplot, it should enhance – rather than detract from – the suspense. The action in most suspense-thrillers has a certain rhythm – it’s rarely nonstop. With the exception of a few adrenaline junkies, most readers appreciate this – after he’s been blown up by the bad guys or chased through Central Park, we want our hero to be able to take a breather. We want to be able to take a breather. That’s where a romantic subplot comes in handy. It doesn’t have to be dire, but there should be some suspense, even if it’s just of the will-they-or-won’t-they (sleep together, get together, stay together) variety. This provides one more reason for readers to keep turning those pages.
In TRUST NO ONE, that relationship is between Nick and an ex-girlfriend, Induma, who has become his closest friend and confidante. Though Induma is not directly involved in the plot of the novel, she becomes a central character because she agrees to assist Nick in his investigation into his stepfather’s murder seventeen years earlier. The scenes between the two characters are not overtly sexual, but because they are still clearly drawn to one another and because Nick’s feelings about Induma evolve over the course of the story, that subplot complements the central action well and keeps things moving, rather than stalling them out.
(4) Every scene should have an element of suspense. Pay attention to your action beats, and make sure there is one in every scene. That doesn’t mean that every scene should be about exploding cars or nuclear meltdowns – it just means that every chapter should give your reader a reason to turn the page. As mentioned before, that reason in one scene may simply be, “Will they or won’t they?” In another scene, that reason may be a revelation about the deeper mystery in which your character is embroiled, while in still another, it may be a critical situation like whether or not the protagonist makes it out of a burning building alive. What makes a thriller thrilling is that the stakes are raised to a significant degree, versus a more sedate novel, like a cozy mystery or traditional whodunit. That means that you need to have more high-intensity action beats than other novels do.
A stranger breaks into Nick’s bedroom; he is whisked off to a nuclear reactor to try and negotiate with a potential terrorist he has never met before; his Secret Service agent stepfather is murdered; during Nick’s investigation, he finds an apartment riddled with bullet holes and stacks of hundred-dollar bills hidden under the floorboards; he is plagued by kidnappings and dead bodies and government conspiracies, never knowing who to trust or where to turn… These are the high-intensity action beats in TRUST NO ONE, and they take place in relatively quick succession throughout the novel, with those lower-intensity beats (Nick and Induma’s relationship, coming to terms with his mother and her new husband and stepdaughter, the less-thrilling aspects of the investigation itself) sustaining the action in between.
In taking a look at my own work, I invariably find scenes that have no action beat and, honestly, no real reason for being in the novel, other than a quirky piece of dialogue I like or a chunk of exposition I can’t figure out how to get in there any other way. That’s when that whole “Murder your darlings” philosophy comes to the fore. Break your novel down into action beats, and then ask yourself what is happening in between those beats. If there’s too much space in between with not a whole lot going on, it may be time for a little slash and burn to keep things fresh.
(5) Maintain suspense until the end of the novel. I believe that this is as important as hooking your reader from the start. Too often, the reason for turning the page – the mystery in which your main character is embroiled – is solved thirty pages before the end of the novel. It’s all right to have a denouement in your final pages, but if you can do it while the action is still occurring, it’s much more gratifying for your reader than if your final five chapters are your main character and his new girlfriend (because ultimately that Will They or Won’t They has become They Have and They Will Again) talking over the intricacies of the plot, and how it has affected their new daily lives together.
How does your ending hold up in terms of pacing, versus the rest of your novel? Are there still reasons for your reader to turn the page? In TRUST NO ONE, the final action sequence is in chapter forty-eight; there are fifty chapters in the novel. We already know who did what to whom by this time – now, we just don’t know whether Nick will ever be able to get that information out to the rest of the world, before he is taken out by the powers that be. So, while the whodunit aspect of the case is solved, there is still a significant motivating factor that compels us to keep reading: namely, the survival of our protagonist and how (and if) justice will prevail.
The final two chapters in TRUST NO ONE tie up the loose ends, letting us know what the fallout has been for all the key players, once the big mystery of why Nick’s stepfather died and who killed him, has been solved. Only two pages are devoted to that, however; the rest revolves around the resolution of the relationships in Nick’s life – Induma, his mother, his new stepfather, his surly teen stepsister. Because Hurwitz does a masterful job of creating a compelling, multidimensional protagonist, those secondary questions about how things turn out – outside of whether Nick Horrigan lives or dies – are enough to keep us reading right through to the final scene in the novel.
Can you say the same about your book? When you’re writing, what are a few ways that you ensure your thriller – and the characters in it – hold your readers’ interest from Chapter One all the way to The End?
Jen Blood is author of the bestselling Erin Solomon mystery series, and owner of the Adian Writing, Editing & Publishing Consultation. Get your free copy of Jen’s Editing A to Z Cheat Sheet here.