Cliffhanger! Keeping Your Reader On The Edge Of Their Seat

A good thriller doesn’t just engage.

It grips!

It squeezes like the coils of a supersized anaconda wrapped around the neck of an unsuspecting explorer, extracting every single last drop of tension as the chapters unfold.

The masters of the thriller genre toy with their readers like a cat plays with a mouse. They give you hope, then snatch it away. They shine a little light, then plunge the reader into the dark. They take you into an amusement park which seems like innocent fun, then strap you into the roller coaster ride to the firey pits of hell.

Your baddie needs depth, motivation and, often, redeeming features which make them almost likeable.

If the reader can put the book down, the author has failed.

Here are my top tips for creating a book that puts a reader on the edge of their seat.

Meeting the reluctant hero

Choose a really messed up moment to meet your hero. Make sure that they are juggling life’s problems to the max. In my book The Everest Files my hero Kami is struggling to escape from a fixed marriage. He is emotionally stressed, unsure of the future, trapped in a situation he can’t see a way out of. His family are poor, he’s living on the edge, anticipating a lifetime of unhappiness.

Give them a ray of hope

There must be hope. Hope of resolution. Hope of finding a better place emotionally. Even if it is the most slender chance of happiness, we need it to be a beacon throughout the story. It goes back to ‘what does the hero want and why do they want it?’ The reader must want the same thing that the protagonist wants. And with just as much passion and intensity!

A really good baddie

There’s an old writers’ saying that a book is only as strong as its antagonist and that feels so right. Your baddie needs depth, motivation and, often, redeeming features which make them almost likeable. Cartoon baddies don’t create tension because they are too predictable. Make your antagonist unpredictable and volatile… that keeps the story nice and edgy.

Make things bad for your hero, then make them worse, then make them even more terrible.

The ticking clock

This is a classic tactic to crank up the pressure. How many movies have you seen where the bomb counter is ticking down in the last minute of the movie (even though the ‘minute’ normally lasts about ten!)? Ticking clocks can be anything that pins the climactic scenes of the book to a specific event. The more unusual and bizarre they are, the better!

Rising action

Make things bad for your hero, then make them worse, then make them even more terrible. When I do writing workshops the advice that is often most useful (particularly to writers creating taught, tense stories) are ‘suddenly things got worse!’

The reader wants a journey to the limit. The limit of terror, the limit of emotional stress, all wrapped up in a thrilling package of twists and turns.

Twist the knife

Twist endings are the very essence of a thrilling read. Don’t even start to write your thriller until you’ve planned what yours is!

How to surprise your reader at the final hurdle? Well a friend could betray your hero at the last moment. Or an enemy could suddenly decide to be an ally. Or the hero may surprise themselves with a long-forgotten skill or piece of knowledge to outwit an enemy. Withhold information, load the plot with revelations in the final scene and make sure you take the reader's breath away.

Above all… read! The techniques of the masters are out there, all you need is the courage to turn the page!   

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Matt Dickinson

Matt Dickinson’s series 'The Everest Files' is currently being read and enjoyed in schools all over the world. The second book in the series, North Face, came out recently. He tours extensively with the ‘Everest Reading Challenge’, helping young readers and writers to find their voice and their ‘edge’!