How to write a thriller

In a few days time I’m heading to Ted Hughes’ old house, Lumb Bank, in Hebden Bridge, to teach an Arvon Foundation course on how to write a literary thriller, with fellow author, Adam LeBor. I’m looking forward to meeting guest author, Felica Yap, who wrote, Yesterday, as well as returning to the wilds of Yorkshire where I grew up.

 

 

Most of what one can learn about writing a thriller will apply to any kind of fiction – character, plot, setting, dialogue, language, style and voice are, of course, vitally important. But what is critical in a thriller is information: who knows what, and when and where and how did they or will they find it out? The key is to think about what is going to happen next. If you set up a question in the first few pages, finding out the answer is what will keep readers turning the pages. 

Think of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Immediately this raises small questions: what is Manderley? Who is telling us this story? Why aren’t they at Manderley anymore? What is so special about Manderley that our unknown narrator dreams about this place? And then quickly we’re introduced to the larger questions: who was the first Mrs de Winter? What was she was like? What happened to her – and what will happen to our protagonist? These questions are what keep us reading.

The two main ways the writer can heighten this sense of anticipation is through the structure of the novel, and via suspense. The structure of the novel is essentially about presenting information in a particular order. For example, in a psychological thriller, moving the second most thrilling or exciting moment in the story to the prologue can create anticipation because we know that something bad is going to happen, yet in the first few pages, that terrible deed has not yet occurred.

For instance, here’s the prologue of Bone by Bone.

BONE BY BONE Prologue

Another example of how structure can lead to anticipation is through the withholding of information, by delaying telling the reader the answer to a question: leaving a scene early, just before the information is about to be revealed, is one way to do this. The resulting cliff hanger will hopefully make the reader want to find out what happens next. Think of Harry Potter: The Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling. When the Dursleys are hiding on a boat at sea and someone beats down the door and steps inside, we’re on tenterhooks – and this is where the chapter ends.  

Of course, endless cliff hangers could well become annoying, so another way of delaying answering the question is by complicating the story. This can be done by adding more information and greater levels of complexity – through a sub-plot, for instance, or by switching the Point Of View to another character.

Suspense, in contrast, is about who knows what at which point. Do the characters know, or only one of them? Does the reader know the secret but the characters do not? For instance, in My Mother’s Secret, the main protagonist, Emma Taylor, knows the secret, and her daughter, Stella, is trying to discover it. The reader finds out the secret about half-way through the novel, but the daughter does not – which is dramatic irony – and, I hope, has readers swiftly turning the pages, hoping against hope that Stella doesn’t do anything too foolish to jeopardise everyone’s safety….

I write, ‘My mother has a secret.’ 

 

If you’re interested in writing novels but missed signing up to my Arvon course, do ask me about assessing your manuscript or work-in-progress.

 

Cake competition!

My Mother’s Secret is out in paperback! To celebrate, I’m launching a competition.

As I’m sure you’re aware my love of cake has made its way into My Mother’s Secret. Not only is the protagonist, Emma Taylor, a baker, but quite a few kinds of cake are mentioned throughout My Mother’s Secret.

So what better way to celebrate the paperback release than with cake and prizes!

I’ll be holding a competition on my Facebook page from the 7th – 14th of October to see if anyone can guess how many types of cakes there are in My Mother’s Secret! The winner will receive a signed paperback copy of My Mother’s Secret and a £10 voucher to spend in Hart’s Bakery! I spent quite a bit of time at Hart’s Bakery when I was researching My Mother’s Secret, and ‘Kate’s’ (the bakery that Emma Taylor works at) is based on it, so it only seems fair to let you indulge there too!

All you need to do to enter is post your guess on my Facebook page and tag @SanjidaKayAuthor with #MyMothersSecret. If you add a photo of your favourite sweet treat you’ll be entered TWICE!

The competition ends on the 14thof October and I’ll be selecting the winner the following day.

Good luck!

 

 

In a thriller, nowhere is safe…

This is a blog post I wrote on the importance of setting for The Asian Writer, and I thought would be most appropriate as I’ve just got back from a quick trip to the Lake District, where My Mother’s Secret is partly set.

 

There’s a thin band of cream silhouetting the cranes that hover over the half-built office blocks in the city centre. I head home, below an arc of houses that will be bright as jewels when the sun comes up. At this time of the day, it’s beautiful; the river is still, and seagulls fall above it, like flecks of confetti. 

 

I love Bristol, where I live, as anyone who’s read my first thriller, Bone by Bone, might be able to guess! For my third, My Mother’s Secret, I’ve returned to Bristol as a location, but also placed another character – Lizzie Bradshaw – in Leeds and the Lake District. The settings in my novels are extremely important to me, but I’m certain a well-drawn location enhances any book. Can you imagine Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children without the blooming buzzing confusion of Delhi, or Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney without the smell of money and crack-hustle of New York?

A detailed backdrop in fiction helps create a tangible world for one’s characters, as well as being a tool the writer can use to heighten tension or thicken the atmosphere. My main character, Emma Taylor, lives in a leafy suburb of Bristol: Long Ashton. The ‘world’ this woman inhabits tells us a lot about who we think she is: middle class, comfortably off, the kind of person who shops in M&S for a treat and takes her youngest daughter to ballet lessons. It seems calm, safe, secure. Emma, though, is tense and anxious: she’s hiding a secret from everyone she knows, so Long Ashton appears the perfect place for her. Similarly, her job as a baker makes us believe she’s in a cosy, comforting cafe, filled with the scent of bubbling yeast and buttery croissants. When the reader discovers the bakery is actually in a tunnel beneath a train station, it might, perhaps, start ringing alarm bells. In contrast, Belle Isle in Leeds city centre, where Lizzie Bradshaw works, really is a dark and dangerous place.

 

A couple of boys around thirteen, but already taller than her, were hanging about on the street corner, and there was another group of young men in the centre of the housing estate, smoking and swigging from cans. She could hear the wind, boxed in by the flats, moaning round the corners. Chocolate wrappers and newspapers rustled across the ground, and a Staffordshire terrier tied to a bench with rope growled at her through bared teeth. 

 

 

Stella, Emma’s fourteen-year-old daughter, is determined to discover what her mother’s secret is. She’s a spiky, book-obsessed girl, and constantly reads Jane Eyre to make herself feel less anxious. Many of the Bristol scenes take place at Tyntesfield, a gothic mansion near Long Ashton.

William Gibbs’ collection of curiosities is stacked up and draped in sheets, but my torch picks out a few that haven’t been covered up: a glass dome with tiny, stuffed hummingbirds, the smooth carapace of an ostrich eggshell, a jade-green ammonite. This would be the perfect place for someone to stalk us. There are so many hiding places. 

The architecture and the claustrophobia of the rooms mirror both Stella’s gothic obsession, and the escalating tension in Emma’s life. The suburbs and the city centre are densely populated: as Emma says, ‘I like being surrounded by people – it feels safe;’ Lizzie, who lives in a remote village in the Lake District, feels safe precisely because there is no one around. She tells DI Simon Duffield, ‘You can walk for miles and never see a soul. Please, let me go home. I’ll be safe there.’ But, of course, in a thriller, nowhere is safe and the places we feel most secure are often the most dangerous.

 

The editor of The Asian Writer interviewed me for her new podcast. I was her first guest! It’s here if you’d like to listen:

 

 

 

 

Coming Soon – The Stolen Child

My second thriller, The Stolen Child, is out soon: 6 April! And I’m delighted to be able to reveal the cover to you!

 

The Stolen Child is set on Ilkley moor, where I grew up. It’s about a couple, Zoe and Ollie, who long for a baby but are unable to have one. They adopt a child from birth, a little girl called Evie. A few years later they have their own child, a boy called Ben. The story begins when Ben is two and Evie is seven. Evie’s starting to realise that she’s different from the rest of her family, and beginning to understand what it means to be adopted.

One day she receives a card addressed to My Daughter. Inside it says:

                           Seven years ago, you were stolen from me. 

                           Now I’m coming to get you back. 

                                                              Love, your Daddy.

 

I’ve been fortunate to have had some wonderful pre-publication comments:

 

‘The Stolen Child captivated me, terrified me and left me deeply moved.’ Holly Seddon

‘Beautiful terse writing and the build to the shattering climax is palpable.’ Peter James

‘Gut-wrenching… The Stolen Child succeeds as both a fast-paced thriller and a haunting tale of a fragile family.’ Peter Swanson

‘Grips to the very last page… I couldn’t put it down.’ Amanda Jennings

 

I hope you enjoy it! It’s available for pre-order from Amazon.