Thriller writing is thrilling! At least, it is if you feel everything you put your protagonist through.
Descriptive writing can build incredible suspense and make a story sing.
This is true even if many parts of the story are in narrative without much dialogue, as is this exciting Chapter 33 from The Howling Cliffs, the 1st sequel to my award-winning novel, River Bones.
As is the practice on this site, a sample chapter is included and we will inject certain notes to make a writer aware of what the plotting of the story should be doing to keep a reader turning pages.
The Howling Cliffs
A Sara Mason Mystery
Sample - Chapter 33
The rock on which Sara precariously crouched was relatively flat but arched slightly in the middle and slippery with moss and lichens. Above that, a huge boulder protruded out of the side of the mountain above her perch. She eased to the side of the boulder and reached for a shrub and clung to its base. It held. She tried to get a foothold in the loose earth and finally found a rock to support her foot. She reached higher for another shrub. As she gently tested to see if the rock would hold her weight for climbing, one shrub pulled loose and sent a surge of adrenalin through her as she froze and pressed flat against the muddy hillside to make sure she wouldn’t slip farther.
She looked around the rain soaked area for any way up or down. Everything had broken loose when she fell. In the thickening darkness, she simply found nothing more to grab hold to use for leverage. She tried again and again to jam her sneakers into the loose earth to gain a foothold. The ground would not support her weight and she could easily tumble down into the valley. It would surely be a death sentence.
She eased back down to her safe place on solid rock and began to look at the other side of the boulder. What she saw made her heart jump. From there, it was a steep drop down into the valley. If she tried to climb up there and the ground gave way, the only place she might land would be on the valley floor what looked to be a thousand feet below.
Once again, rain began pelting her. What little remained of the late evening sky darkened quickly with a huge downpour. The only saving grace was that the summer weather was warm, yet, the combination of trade winds and rain made the air chilly.
By this time the reader knows Sara is stuck on a dangerous cliff with no way off due to rain and mud and daylight turning to night time.
A thriller should put the protagonist in peril, especially if it’s a woman, but men can be in equal or greater danger. What is a story if nothing exists to overcome that makes it a thriller? The suspense must build and is usually done through narrative writing, but one line of dialogue can set a mood or tone of the story in few words. That is not to say that thriller writing should not contain dialogue. It must show dialogue. This example is to explain the little bits of dialogue presented in the thriller chapter presented here.
Sara retracted her arms inside the sopping tee shirt. She pulled the shirt over her head as the rain beat out a pounding rhythm. She would have to wait it out. She didn’t dare move. Where to? She had no idea if she moved a little to the right she might find boulders to huddle beside and block the rain. Or to the left? Or would she fall over another cliff? It was now too dark to see. Knowing moving about could spell disaster, she sat huddled in a fetal position cocooned inside her shirt, fully aware of the dangers of being exposed to the elements.
Preoccupied with keeping herself warm, Sara mulled over events that had happened to her recently. Specifically, being run off the road and then pushed over a cliff had to be caused by the same person or persons. The odds of each being separate incidences in such a small window of time would be staggering. After a few weeks on the island, she began to see that people accepted her, knowing she was a lover of peace who wished to solve cold cases of missing persons. It brought closure for desperate families. The only reason someone would want her dead would be to hide their evil deed.
She gritted her teeth to steel her nerves, determined to be rescued or be able to climb out when daylight appeared. She remembered she could have bled to death as she hung upside-down in her mangled car. She remembered the feel of the person’s forceful hands on her back that sent her sailing over the precipice. She would find that person, learn his depraved reasoning, and see that he was arrested.
“I’ll get through this,” she said, mentally promising herself. “I’m coming to get you!”
Have you ever read a thriller where the one in dire need didn’t have thoughts or ever talk to him or herself? Don’t you blurt something out when you are stressed - even an expletive or a gnarly groan? Suspense is built into narrative writing when you have a situation such as is presented here. Sara’s angry, frightened, but determined. She or anyone else will talk to him or herself. Whether you show the character's thoughts or have that person speak, dialogue breaks up the narrative and adds suspense to any thriller.
Lightning flashed and lit up the area where she huddled. She sat in a bad position, open to the sky above her upright body. She’d be fried if lightning struck anywhere near her. Quickly, she lay down and spread out on the cold hard surface, keeping the shirt over her head. Pelting rain assaulted her bare back, legs and arms. Instead of lying prone, she curled into a fetal position, trying to contain as much body warmth as possible. She pulled the shirt down over her knees and stretched it around her buttocks. Huddled inside the shirt, she made an effort to blow her warm breath against body parts.
Sara prayed for a break in the rain. Finally, the break came as clouds drifted. Weak moonlight beamed down. She was on a small ledge, guessing it to be no bigger than a dozen square feet. That’s all she saw as clouds closed in again. On hands and knees, she felt around while hoping for another break. The dim light came and had she moved forward a few inches farther, she would have slipped on the mossy wet rock slope and fallen into the deep ravine.
Feelings of apprehension she felt when standing on the cliff overlooking the rushing river gorge in Vietnam crept in, but the scenery in front of her in the moonlight was beautiful, masking the danger below.
Cautiously peering down into the valley, the elevation was dizzying. Grateful for the moonlight and determined to remain safe, she began to slowly crawl backward, feeling around with her hands. When she was a safe distance from the edge, she turned to face the overhang. She felt around, trying to find her cell phone. She tediously crawled around each time moonlight lit the area. It finally sank in that she would spend the night in her awful predicament.
She sat again, huddled inside the tee shirt. She felt pain from the many gashes and gouges she sustained. Her blurred vision said she may have worsened her concussion. Her chin throbbed and felt swollen. She felt again and realized her chin was badly cut. Realizing this, she waited for the next dash of moonlight, examined the front of her tee shirt and found a very dark spot. Blood, it was blood! Her chin had bled. She put her palm against her chin and only then realized how swollen it was.
A feeling of nausea swept over her as she appraised her condition. She immediately lay prone, trying to dispel the dizziness. She placed a hand on her stomach trying to calm the queasiness. If she had another concussion, the force of vomiting would be the worst thing that could happen. It could make her brain bleed again and that might be the end of her.
No matter how frightful and tense the situation in any thriller, you must put your character into additional peril – but one or more new threats must fit the situation. This chapter shows much of what can be done with narrative writing but I also love dialogue. I put myself into this situation as I wrote these few dialogue lines. They are exactly what I would say and how I would act. However, in thriller writing, a story can start and proceed at great speed with little or no back story. Did you notice the mention of Sara's previous concussion? That was a little bit of back story that should add to the thriller effect.
The wind against her wet clothing and body kept her in a continual state of shivering. Finally, she sat up and began to remove her sopping clothing till she was stark naked, including her sneakers and socks. The wind blowing against her wet clothing was sapping her body heat and strength. She stood, naked as a tropical bird on a windward cliff, and forcefully wrung every last drop of water that she could from her clothing.
Another spell of faint brightening of moonlight came as the clouds drifted across the sky. She could barely make out the cliff edge and was too perilously close. She scooted her shoes as she took a couple of steps backwards and simply stood and stared. The sky was a magnificent mural with splotches of vog that reflected a smearing of pink, coral and red.
From the distance came the sound of a rushing waterfall. She stood with her hands full of wet clothes, stark naked, but now warmer in the evening air. Suddenly, she lifted her arms in the air. Her bra dangled from her arm and flapped loose.
“I’m alive!” she said, shaking her clothes. “I’m alive!”
This bit of spoken dialogue does much to enhance Sara’s character. Yes, she’s alive and she knows it and she’s excited and thankful. She would speak it out loud. She’s thankful she didn’t meet her ending. She has hope of getting out of her situation as long as she’s alive. Even though a thriller may put the protagonist in unspeakable torment, the human condition offers hope, as long as one is alive, even if the thriller plotted threatens the character's very existence.
She began to shiver again. Sorting through her wrung out clothes and careful not to drop any into the dirt at her feet, she stepped into her panties and put the cold clammy feeling out of her mind. Getting her bra back on was a futile effort. She opted to stuffing it into the pocket of her shorts. The damp clothing added to her chill. She needed to find a spot sheltered from the wind and was thankful to have accomplished redressing. Her strength was quickly ebbing. The sound of the waterfall made her thirsty.
What was important was to understand why someone would push her over the cliff. Someone didn’t want her in the area, and now meant to stop her from ever leaving the place and no one would know.
“But I’m alive,” she said again, out loud and with force. “And they will know.”
Facing being there all night, she needed to find the best location to sleep out of the wind, if that were possible. She wondered what Birdie was doing at that moment. Maybe Ka`imi had made it home and Birdie thought she had simply left Ka`imi in the yard and gone home. Birdie would have no way of knowing she was not home. Yet, if Ka`imi didn’t make it home, Birdie would be out looking.
“Call the police, Birdie!” Sara said, screaming out loud again.
Rustling sounds came from down in the valley. She heard the snorts of animals.
“Wild pigs!” she said.
No matter how dire the situation in any thriller, there are always additional ways to put your character in deeper peril - to glue your reader's eye to the story and make them hold their breath as they read – but one or more new threats must fit the situation. This chapter shows much of what can be done with narrative writing to increase the edgy feel of the situation. Then, since I also love dialogue. I put myself into this scene as I wrote these dialogue lines. They are exactly what I would say and how I would act.
Birdie once said these animals were descendents of pigs owned by the ancient Hawaiians and had gone wild, becoming as fierce as any wild boar. She wondered if any might reach her location. Not that she wanted a visit from hungry animals that could tear her to shreds. She needed assurance that she was safe from animals if she ended up spending the night on the ledge. It sure looked like that might happen.
No hikers would be on the trail above at that late hour. Each time she heard the snorts, sometimes closer, sometimes farther, she would hold her breath till assured they were just foraging. Maybe they, too, looked for a place to bed down for the night. Hopefully, there was no way for them to reach the ledge from either side. Sara didn’t know how high pigs might be able to climb. She needed to stay alert.
To her surprise, music came from somewhere in the distance. Sara listened intently, trying to determine if people were coming up the trail. She gasped, recognizing the sound. Her cell phone! It had fallen far below. Someone was calling. It had to be Birdie trying to find where she was. The music stopped. The silence was deadening, disheartening. Then a new tone came from the same direction alerting her that someone had left her a voice message.
“A-a-r-rgh!” Sara said.
Another light sprinkle passed over, but a wide break in the clouds forecast the rain might cease. Moonlight washed over the area. Though her sight remained blurred, she strained again to get a better understanding of her situation. She faced a large boulder, most likely the one that broke her fall. To her relief, beneath it she saw an area for shelter.
“Yes!” she said in quiet anticipation.
She crept close on her knees, but what she saw next sent waves of caution through her nervous system. Back in the shaded recesses, moonlight reflected off something round or dome-like. She stopped where she was as goose bumps washed over her, and not from being cold. She crept closer, trying to focus her sight and see through the dim light. What looked to be a human skull and bones lay back underneath the shelter of the overhang.
Thriller writing must be edgy. It must go beyond suspense. Descriptive writing does this. Writers and readers who love narrative writing know what is descriptive writing and what is writing that simply passes a story along to the next scene. The riveting suspense of a thriller is clearly visible in good descriptive writing whether it be narrative writing or dialogue.
Writing a thriller also requires a great imagination and a lack of fear of expressing those elements that make the thriller genre what it is.
For those of you contemplating thriller writing, you will add suspense to your scenes and character’s habits by including anything that makes that moment in time sizzle, without overburdening the story with unnecessary detail. You will learn as you write, but you must write to learn.
Though Sara Mason, the protagonist of the The Howling Cliffs, is the only character in this Chapter 33, many other diverse characters people this plot of twists and turns. You can read about the other characters in this thriller in Character Sketch.