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How to Write a Crime Thriller: 7 Elements of Suspenseful Crime Fiction

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 3, 2020 • 2 min read

The page-turning genre of crime fiction stands out as one of the most popular genres of any fiction writing. The best crime writers like Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, and David Baldacci routinely top New York Times bestseller lists (and often elicit solid book reviews along the way), but the art of writing thrillers is a tricky one. New writers working on their first crime thriller must balance writing a gripping plot with steady character development and vivid worldbuilding that puts readers right in the action.



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What Is a Crime Thriller?

A crime thriller is a synthesis of the crime genre and the thriller genre. Crime novels traditionally focus on a criminal who must be apprehended—often by law enforcement, the military, or a self-deputized agent of justice. Thematically, the best crime books often circle the theme of good vs. evil and the notion that wrong deeds must be avenged.

Thriller novels devote most of their focus to creating suspense and dread. While most mysteries reveal a crime and then require their main characters to work backward to figure out who committed it, crime thrillers are often centered around the fear of a future crime. In a thriller, the bad guy is often established early on, and the main characters must work to stop them from doing evil.

7 Elements of a Suspenseful Crime Thriller

Here are some crime writing tips to push past your writer’s block and into the riveting world of crime fiction thrillers. In order to write a successful thriller, you’ll need to brainstorm and find the following:

  1. A compelling protagonist: Whether you’re writing a detective story or a psychological thriller, any crime novel worth reading has a good guy (or antihero) that readers actually care about.
  2. A point of view: Before you start writing, decide what message you want to have conveyed by the end of the book. Make sure that point of view is represented from the first page onward.
  3. Set pieces: In novel writing, a set piece is a key element that you build the rest of your narrative around. In good thriller writing, a set piece often exists as a crime scene. Peppering a few good crime scenes throughout your novel, short story, or screenplay will keep things suspenseful for your reader or viewer.
  4. Red herrings: Red herrings are misdirects—people or events in crime stories that seem far more important than they really are. Suspects who turn out to be red herrings may, in fact, be interesting characters, but they won’t help the good guy solve the mystery.
  5. Plot twists: A good mystery, thriller, or crime novel must keep a reader on the edge of their seat, and that means things can never get too comfortable. The best thrillers come loaded with plot twists so that the reader never knows too much about what lies ahead.
  6. Something to fear: When writing crime fiction, always be mindful of the reader’s experience. People don’t seek out the crime genre in order to feel relaxed and comfortable. They want to experience the suspense of a lurking murderer or marauding cop gone rogue. Scare them a bit … or a lot.
  7. Cliffhangers: Whenever possible, a good mystery book leaves its reader in suspense. Use cliffhangers to end chapters, or even to end entire books within a series.
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