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Outlining Thrillers, Suspense, and Mystery Novels

Writing a thriller, suspense, or mystery novel, in our opinion, has to be one of the trickiest types of fiction writing because you have to be more formulaic in your approach as you set the right mood to the story, and discretely add clues and plot twists to the story.

While you may be able to get away with writing a general fiction or romance novel without first outlining, we would not recommend that you try this with these three genres.

Outlining for thrillers, suspense and mystery novels follows a similar process to that of outlining for a general fiction novel. However, there are some additional necessary elements that help drive these types of stories.

1. Carefully Choose the Voice of the Narrator

The purpose of these genres is to keep the reader guessing every step of the way. Accordingly, you have to keep this in mind when choosing the voice of the narrator for your story. A first person point of view is the most limiting form of narration, followed by a third person limited, and then a third person omniscient.

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  • First person------“I” am telling the story, and I’m a character in the story

  • Third person, limited-----The story of “he,” “she,” or “they,” and the narrator exists outside of the story and doesn’t know the motives or thoughts of all the characters, but instead focuses on one particular character who drives the story, and allows the readers to get into the psyche of the character

  • Third person, omniscient-----The story of “he,” “she,” or “they,” and the narrator knows the motives and thoughts of all the characters and is an unbiased observer

2. Set the Mood with a Gripping Introduction

In order to set the mood for your audience when writing a novel in any of these genres, we highly recommend that you catch your audience’s attention with a gripping opening scene—this could be a crime being committed or something equally as dramatic, for example, having the main character suddenly jot awake, after making a stunning revelation during his/her sleep.

These types of opening scene will have your readers eating out of your hand as they try to figure out what’s going to happen next, or what led the story to that dramatic introduction.

3. Add Many Clues & Keep Secrets from the Reader

Another perk to outlining your story is that you're able to plan out when and where to insert clues only detectable to the extremely careful reader. If your thriller, suspense, or mystery novel is well conceived, the reader, at the end of the novel will be kicking his/herself for not spotting the clues earlier. The clues shouldn’t be too difficult to decipher, it should be something the reader may have been able to pick up on had he/she been paying super close attention to every detail of the novel.

Along those same lines, leaving your reader in the dark about some events only to reveal them at the end of the novel is a good technique for this genre of writing. Secrets in novels are best when the reader is certain that information is being kept from them. This will keep the reader reading as they try to get more clues to figure out the secret or to get to the reveal.

4. Add Many Plot Twists to the Story

A good writer is able to evoke different emotions from readers. Plot twists are an excellent way to do that. Just when you’ve led your reader to a certain conclusion, you pull the rug from under them and leave them in shock as you prove their conclusion wrong, and take the novel in another direction. While you shouldn’t overwhelm your reader with too many plot twists, it’s okay to have a couple of them sprinkled in your novel.

5. Use the Protagonists’ Traumas to Drive the Story

The most impactful novels are the ones where the main characters are fully developed, especially the protagonist. The protagonist's present day decisions in the novel should be inspired by their past experiences, some of which are distressing. To add some depth to the protagonist, you can make the character more susceptible to certain blind spots due to his/her past, which could help drive the direction of the story.

Accordingly, when creating your outline, make sure to develop your protagonist’s history and use that history as fuel for the decisions that the protagonist makes in the novel, especially when it comes to dealing with the villain.

6. Humanize the Villain of the Story

That being said, every good thriller, suspense, or mystery novel should have a villain—the person whose actions have driven the plot, leading to the climax of the novel. When creating your villain character, make sure to humanize he/she in your outline by highlighting their good qualities along with the bad. Just like the protagonist, the villain’s actions should be shaped by his/her own traumatic experiences. For example, a painful childhood experience could be something that taunts the villain to the extent that they decided to live life on the dark side.

In your outline, you can decide if you want to reveal the villain’s identity from the outnset or just keep the reader guessing. Keeping the villain’s identity a secret is easiest to do when you create a nuanced villain who like most human beings, is not all good or all bad.

7. Incorporate the Settings into the Story

While you don’t have to set each scene in your outline, you can plan certain scenes in advance, especially the ones that lead to the climax of the story. Having a clear understanding of certain impactful scenes can serve as a guide as you develop the story towards those scenes.

When creating those scenes, use the location to paint a vision for your reader. For example, it could be a scene where the protagonist is in the woods at night. Use the happenings in the woods to create tension in your reader: mention the sounds the character hears as he walks, the uneasiness the character feels as he takes the next step, the fact that he jolts in fright at the striking sound of an owl hooing in the night or at the feel of a branch brushing against his shoulder.

8. Create an Explosive Climax

While a climax is essential for every type of fiction writing, it is especially important in a thriller, suspense, or mystery novel because of the types of emotions that these types of genres are intended to pull from the reader. When a reader picks up any of these types of genres, they are expecting high-conflict and high-stakes situations. As such, if you skillfully incorporate these concepts to create a climax, you will certainly keep your reader’s attention.

9. Deceitful Ending

Unlike with general fiction novels where the ending doesn’t play a pivotal role in conveying the essence of the story, how a thriller, suspense, or mystery novel ends plays a crucial role in the reader’s enjoyment of the story. That is because of the reader’s expectation when they decide to read these novels. They want an ending that leaves them shocked and flipping through the pages, confused as to why they didn’t see that ending coming.

Accordingly, a good way to tease your reader, and add to their overall enjoyment of the novel is to foreshadow a certain ending only to change course and end the novel in a totally different way. For example, all signs could lead to the fact that the antagonist/villain is the killer, only for you to at the last few pages of the story reveal that the actual killer is the protagonist.

Comment below or send us a message if you have any comments or suggestions!

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