One of the first things I did after inking my initial two-book contract as a suspense novelist was head to Barnes and Noble and buy a couple of Nancy Drew mysteries.
I’d been offered the contract based on only four chapters and an outline for a mystery—in part because I’d already worked with the publisher on a successful non-fiction book—and as sweet as I found that arrangemnent, there was a hitch: I wasn’t a hundred percent sure I could write an entire book, especially one that readers would find entertaining. It was time to accelerate my learning curve.
Since my day job running a magazine meant that my learning curve needed to be approached late at night or early on weekend morning before my kids got up, I decided that one strategy I could use would be to slow read mysteries and thrillers rather than racing through them like I usually did. This would give me a chance to examine more closely how the best authors wrote scintillating prose, constructed plots, developed winning characters, and created jaw-dropping plot twists.
Okay, you’re probably thinking that I set the bar a bit low by starting with Nancy Drew. But one of the things I remembered from reading every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on as a kid was that the chapter endings were always incredible cliffhangers, which made me unable to resist turning the page. After re-reading The Secret of Red Gate Farm, and a few others, I could see there was a certain technique used at the end of every chapter, and I swear that really helped me with my own chapter endings as I set out to make it to 85,000 words with the first book.
That mystery, If Looks Could Kill, ended up becoming the initial Kelly Ripa book club pick, an instant New York Times bestseller, and number one on Amazon. Now, seventeen suspense novels later, I have more confidence as an author (which isn’t to say I escape bouts of self-loathing!!), but I still love to slow read great crime fiction, learning from the best.
Here are seven thrillers I read in recent years that not only wildly entertained me but drove home important reminders for me as an author.
Grab the Reader from the Very First Sentence.
Verity by Coleen Hoover
At one time or another, all of us have probably kept reading a book with a lackluster first sentence, even a lackluster first chapter. Maybe you hung in there because you were a fan of the author, or a friend recommended the book and told you to “just stay with it.” Or it was an older book, written at a time when people had much longer attentions spans. Case in point, the opening sentence of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side: “Miss Jane Marple was sitting by her window.” No offense, but that’s about as untantalizing as it gets.
Most readers today don’t have the patience for some initial out-the-window gazing. The best crime books often hook you immediately, and Hoover’s mega seller Verity shows just how seductive a first sentence can be:
“I hear the crack of his skull before the spattering of blood reaches me.”
She had me at “crack of his skull,” and the rest of the sentence was icing on the cake.
Hold the Reader Hostage with a Gripping Inciting Incident
We Were Never There by Andrea Bartz
The inciting incident is the moment early in a book’s plot when the protagonist finds herself, often against her will, called into action, and everything is propelled forward with no clear end in sight. If you’re doing your job as a writer, you’ve already enticed the reader by this point (with a great first sentence, for instance, a great first chapter, and a fascinating protagonist), but it takes a compelling inciting incident to guarantee that your reader will want to stay with you until the end.
Okay, how’s this for an inciting incident? Two young women named Emily and Kristen, childhood friends with a thirst for adventure, are on vacation in a remote part of Chile. As a reader, I’m already a little nervous. Then one night Kristen announces she’s going back to their hotel room for a hook-up with a guy named Paolo, asking Emily to give her forty-five minutes. When Emily eventually returns, she finds Kristin not only in tears but also stained with blood, and Paolo with his skull cratered in.
This changes everything for Emily and Kristin, with stakes that couldn’t be higher, and the action in this terrific thriller never lets up from there.
Make Every Single Scene Count
The Judgement by Joe Finder
I was lucky enough to sit next to Joe Finder at a dinner party a few years ago, and he shared a little trick he uses as an author. He keeps a post-it on his computer with the words “Surprise, Reveal and Reversal” to remind himself that every scene in his books has to have at least one of those elements.
Not only did I steal this trick for myself, but it drove home what I love about a Joe Finder book. There’s never any down time. Every scene is action packed with no one simply grabbing a cup of coffee with a friend or making a meal for themselves (oy, I’m guilty of this!). Judgment, the story of a dynamic female judge being blackmailed by a man she had a one-night stand, is the perfect, gripping example.
Keep Your Reader Up Past Bedtime
The Silent Woman by Minka Kent
Though I learned a lot from Nancy Drew chapter endings, I’m always appreciative, as both an author and reader, of someone who’s currently doing a fabulous job at that, which is certainly the case with Minka Kent. In The Silent Woman, Jade Westmore is crazy about her new, recently divorced husband, Wells, but there’s one wrinkle in the arrangement. His first wife, Sylvie, who suffered an unfortunate accident a while back and hasn’t uttered a word since, lives in a cottage on their property. That’s more than enough to hook me, but it’s the end of the second chapter that wins my total devotion. Though Jade’s been warned to never enter Silvie’s cottage, one day when Will is out of town, she decides to bring wife number one some flowers. Before she leaves, Sylvie forces a slip of notepaper into Jade’s hand, and at the end of chapter 2, when Jade finally gets back to the main house and opens the note, she discovers only one word written inside: “RUN.”
Forget bedtime with a chapter ending like that. You’re going to be up for hours!
Deliver a Breathless but Believable Ending Twist
The Exiles by Jane Harper
I don’t know about you, but some of the twists in thrillers I read these days are just so overtop, they make my head spin—and not in a good way. I understand why some authors are going bat shit crazy—readers today say they want incredible twists, twists they “don’t see coming”—but if the ending is unbelievable, it’s never very satisfying.
I love Jane Harper mysteries for a lot of reasons but a big one is that her endings never stretch credibility. Take her most recent novel, Exiles. The twist is basically a slight of hand, the work of a master magician. You’ve been fooled, but totally get it and understand how it could have happened. Fabulous for readers, and a great reminder to other authors that less is often more.
Make Your Story Even More Compelling by Not Tying Everything Up with a Bow at the End
The Long and Far Away Gone by Lou Berney
At its most basic Lou Berney’s mesmerizing novel is about two people looking for answers to the questions that haunt them. Juliana is trying to find out what happened to her sister, who disappeared at a state fair and is presumed dead. Wyatt is the sole survivor of a robbery turned mass murder at a movie theater and he doesn’t understand why he was spared. By the end of the novels, both characters do reach closure of sorts, which makes for a gratifying reader experience, but as the Kirkus reviewer pointed out, “the wondering, the questions, never really go away.” We finish the book not knowing absolutely everything.
And that’s not bad a thing. There’s something powerful in a mystery about a little lingering, well, mystery, which is, after all, the way life works.
Sell Your Book with a Totally Compelling Title
Last Girl Ghosted by Lisa Unger
Lisa Unger’s books have the kind of titles that make me insanely jealous as an author because I want to read them without even seeing a description. Take Last Girl Ghosted? It’s not simply a clever, punchy title but one that serves as a microcosm of a story, forcing you, the potential reader, to wonder, Why was she ghosted? Why is she the last the one? What the hell happens to her? And, Am I going to seriously regret not reading this book? Yup, which means you absolutely buy the book.
Lisa does the same thing with the titles of other recent books: Confessions on the 7:45?, Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six, and the upcoming, The New Couple in 5B.
Of course, a title better deliver, and Lisa’s always do!