6 Tips for Writing Thrillers

Diane Callahan
Creators Hub
Published in
16 min readMar 18, 2022

Title: Writing Thriller Novels overlaid on a picture of a police evidence board

What makes a novel a thriller? What differentiates it from mystery or suspense?

I discussed these questions and more with fellow YouTuber Alexa Donne, who’s a thriller connoisseur and author of The Ivies, a YA boarding school thriller. Her upcoming thriller Pretty Dead Queens is all about small-town murder.

We cowrote these six tips for writing better thriller novels, from designing killer endings and plot twists to exploring the darker side of humanity through complex characters and themes.

Cover of The Maid by Nita Prose with the text “Mystery?” beneath; Cover of The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith with the text “Thriller?” beneath; Cover of The Guest List by Lucy Foley with the text “Suspense?” beneath

As a genre, “thrillers” are a broad category, and the definition has changed over time. In the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, the first authors to come to mind with thrillers were usually Tom Clancy and Dan Brown, along with Stieg Larsson’s runaway bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Covers of The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy; The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

A decade later, authors like Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins ignited a key subgenre of thrillers — domestic suspense and psychological suspense.

Covers of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn; The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins; My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

There are medical thrillers, legal thrillers, political thrillers, spy thrillers, Gothic thrillers, technothrillers, and a dozen other subgenres.

Eight book covers: Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell; Runaway Jury by John Grisham; The Terminal List by Jack Carr; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre; Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia; When All the Girls Are Sleeping by Emily Arsenault; The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle

Mystery, suspense, and thriller are all overlapping genres, so it’s not always easy to draw a clear line between them. As the dictionary definitions state:

  • Mysteries deal with “the solution of a mysterious crime,” with crime novels being a mystery subgenre.
  • Suspense novels produce a feeling of “frightened anticipation.”
  • Thrillers are “designed to hold the interest by the use of a high degree of intrigue, adventure, or suspense.”

Diane Callahan
Creators Hub

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com