Writing a thriller

Writing a thriller – tips for suspense and twists

Today, we can hardly imagine a world without Sherlock Holmes, Monk, and Miss Marple. These figures shape the shelves of many book lovers and fascinate us to this day. But how did these crime classics get this far? And how can you also manage to inspire your readers?

With our article, you will learn more about the popular genre and collect helpful tips so that your crime thriller also provides the highest thrill!

A thriller – What is it anyway?


A crime novel, or crime novel for short, is a literary genre that represents the investigation of a crime committed. Both the criminal act and its circumstances are described, as well as the analysis and solution finding by detectives, police employees, lawyers, or private individuals.

Readers are taught the moral and legal concerns and they reconstruct the events with the main character piece by piece.

What is considered the very first crime novel has not yet been clarified. What is certain, however, is that crime novels only became established as a recognized genre in the course of the 19th century. In the past, they were not particularly respected and were labeled as ‘simple literature’, but this has changed a lot over time. Today, many crime novels are regularly on the bestseller lists and are always among the top three on the audiobook lists.


Due to the growing popularity of crime novels, subgenera quickly developed.

Probably the most popular is the thriller, in which the investigating persons not only have to solve the case but are also endangered by the perpetrator themselves.

In addition, there are also gangster comedies, which are usually set in big cities and contain a lot of humor, which can reach up to black humor.

With even more wit, comic thrillers are written that have already resonated with a figure like Agatha Christie.

Another subgenre of crime fiction is regional thrillers. The plot of this takes place in certain regions, which can be quickly recognized by a detailed description or are announced at the beginning of the novel. Many readers are happy about references to their homeland, so these crime novels can often be found in bookstores in the same region.

The genre “Whodunit” is the most widely used form today. Derived from the English “Who has done it?”, the reader does not know how exactly the crime took place and who is guilty. So you can get involved in these thrillers yourself.

Writing a crime novel – finding ideas

Are you still looking for the right inspiration for your crime novel? This is completely understandable because with the huge selection in bookstores and online shops, it seems as if all topics have already been grazed. But don’t get discouraged and keep your eyes and ears open, because ideas can come from anywhere.

If you have found an interesting and exciting topic for writing your crime novel, it is best to recognize it in the blurb. This ensures a promising plot right from the start.

Your idea can range from a completely new storyline with many twists to special elements of the story. These elements in crime fiction are, for example:

  • Unusual figures
  • Questionable motives
  • Interesting locations
  • A certain period of action (the 20s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, etc.)
  • A conspicuous method of killing or concise patterns of action according to which the perpetrator proceeds

The following applies
The more your crime novel differs from those of others, the more interesting and captivating the reading public will find your work.

You can be inspired by your favorite crime novels and horror stories, get a taste of other, not yet read works, or read books from similar genres. Furthermore, podcasts (e.B. true crime podcasts), the chronicle of the daily newspaper, and also crime festivals help to find out which current crimes move or interest readers the most.

There are no limits to your idea, but you should always think about the plot of your crime novel so that your work is not perceived as too abstract and thus possibly illogical. The ending should definitely be logical and comprehensible.

Preparation: Research

Before you jump right away and start writing your crime novel, you should do thorough research.

Many well-known crime writers have extensive knowledge in medicine, criminology, or psychology. You should also acquire these.

You can use many sources for your crime research:

Reference books and journals

  • Other novels
  • The Internet
  • Movies, series, documentaries, podcasts
  • Visit locations
  • Further training or meetings by and for crime writers
  • Specialist staff (inquiries by telephone, e-mail, or at events)

With all sources, you should ask yourself how trustworthy they are and whether more in-depth research would be worthwhile.

Also be aware that public institutions, such as hospitals, may differ from country to country and that procedures or laws are designed differently than in Germany.


There are many possible locations where your crime thriller can take place: in a vast area (big city, many nearby villages), in several countries (if a serial murder spreads over half of Scandinavia) or even just in a well-known district of a city.

Individual chapters or even the entire plot of your crime novel can only take place in closed places such as a school, a police station or on a boat. These are places that have a special and uniform structure and to which not all people may have access.

If the locations of your novel are not fictitious and take place in an open place, such as the city center of a metropolis, you should know the places. What does it smell like there? What do you hear? Which building immediately catches the eye of most people? You can also incorporate details as you write your thriller, such as a broken edge on a figure of the fountain in the marketplace that is important to the story and adds more depth to it. Readers who live there will look around during or after reading and check your statements. If these are then truthful, the reading public is all the more pleased.

Closed places such as hospitals or factories are often similarly equipped and include certain equipment or premises that you can use for your action. Again, it is important to know the rooms if your readers know their way around. If the thriller takes place in a fictional setting, it is convenient if you keep basic data about it in mind or write it down so that no mistakes creep in.

Police investigations

Should police investigations take place in your act, knowledge of the course of the investigation is necessary. A big role in your crime novel is played by the proximity to reality, from which you should only deviate if it is very helpful for your plot.

For example, it is unlikely that a duo of investigators will go on the hunt for the perpetrators alone in the showdown, as several police officers are usually involved for their own safety. However, if it adds to the tension that the investigator duo is on their own, you are welcome to use this for yourself.

Historical background

If your crime novel is set in a different era, it’s convenient to know about the language, customs, clothing, historical data, and more. In this way, your novel remains truthful and your reading public may also feel enriched during the book, as they did not yet know some facts or information. Again, you can distance yourself from reality if there is a good reason for it.

Murder weapons

Pistols, knives, and poisons are just a small selection of different murder weapons. All have their peculiarities and necessary application instructions. How many cartridges can fit in the pistol? How quickly does the poison work and what effect does it have exactly? These details will refine your thriller! It is best to remember or write them down, as they can become a central indication in the investigation.

Medical knowledge

These help you to better describe corpses, injuries, and other circumstances. Only basic knowledge is sufficient for this, as too many facts could bore the readers. Perhaps the knowledge of writing your crime novel will also prove useful in another place, as it has led you to come across a new idea.

The characters in your crime novel

Character traits and motifs

If you want your characters to be well fleshed out and popular with readers, you should come up with a biography of all the important people. With these profiles, it will be easier for you to integrate the characters into the thriller and, if necessary, to attract attention with special features or characteristics. If your reading public likes certain characters very much, they will want to read more of them and also buy possible sequel thrillers.

One character you should pay special attention to is the investigator.

Characteristics of this figure are:

  • A strong pursuit of justice
  • A great will to clarify the case
  • They are determined
  • They stand behind the cause, even if they have to go beyond their area of competence or their permitted legal terrain
  • They go beyond their own limits
  • They overcome their fears

The goals of these good-natured investigators could be,

  • That they want to create a perfect world when they have children or are expecting a first child
  • That they may want to bring peace to the relatives of the dead or to themselves

These main characters in the crime genre are, for example, nice family fathers or mothers who get along well with the company and have other hobbies in addition to their profession, such as sports, visiting good restaurants, etc.

However, there are also negative or reprehensible motives:

  • Revenge if, for example, colleagues have been killed
  • Secret enrichment
  • The characters want to distract the investigation from themselves

The investigators might be too impulsive and use violence on suspects or have a twisted worldview because they want to create a “better world.”

These are not always the dazzling heroes of your crime novel, they can also be addicted to alcohol or have mental health problems. Such deeper characters are often perceived as interesting because they are not “perfect”, but have been shaped by the circumstances of the profession. In addition to work, their life situation usually does not consist of woman*man and child, but of insomnia, nightmares and overtime.

Your characters can also be composed of positive and negative and create an interesting mixture that gives the characters that certain depth and makes them comprehensible. This creates the advantage that readers can easily empathize with the situation of the characters.

Another option for your thriller is to hide the character traits of the characters and reveal them bit by bit, as the characters have a good poker face and don’t want to talk openly about feelings and their story. Very conspicuous or interesting properties, on the other hand, should be shown openly, as it encourages the reader to continue reading.

As you write your crime novel, the environment or the characters themselves can also change a lot in the course of the plot. If, for example, the father of the family drops his good-natured façade and loses his hope and faith in the good due to a terrible situation. In the case of more negative characters, on the other hand, the healing process in the course of the book is interesting when other people influence them positively.

There are many more motifs and characteristics that can shape your figures.

An idea: Take a look around your environment and look for interesting ways of acting and character traits there. This could serve as a good orientation for you.

Environment and background

Since the main characters of a crime novel are usually a bit older or at least adult and have therefore already experienced a lot, they have already gained a lot of life experience. On the one hand, this can be a well-protected childhood, with wealthy parents who still provide an anchor and a home today.

However, there is also the opposite:

  • Poor conditions
  • A fight for survival every day
  • Violent or no parents at all
  • Poor conditions with the entire family and thus hardly any caregivers

The relationships and the environment shape your characters, so they should not neglect that. The environment can be composed of a wide variety of people. From family, friends, and girlfriends to colleagues and partners. If the parents were legal representatives or criminals, this may have led to a great influence or a trauma has happened to the character and thus they want to fight for justice. With the help of the story and the environment, the goals and motives of the main character arise or explain why the main character is the way she is.

Through peculiarities and problems (whether big or small), readers can identify well with the characters.

The structure of your crime novels

In order to create a rounded, logical, and perhaps also surprising ending for your readers, all processes should be meaningfully related. For example, a simple piece of paper or a document on which the entire action is listed in bullet points can help. You can design the individual scenes with the questions of what, when, and where happens so that no mistakes creep into your timeline.

In order to create a rounded, logical, and perhaps also surprising ending for your readers, all processes should be meaningfully related. For example, a simple piece of paper or a document on which the entire action is listed in bullet points can help. You can design the individual scenes with the questions of what, when, and where happens so that no mistakes creep into your timeline.

So you can plan the story well and change it if necessary if you notice that something is wrong. Once you have fully familiarized yourself with your crime construct, it is also easy for you to incorporate clues and lay false tracks, which puts the icing on the cake of your book.

Your crime novel should include the following sections: Introduction, Main Part, and Conclusion.

A concept for plotting will also help you in many other genres. That’s why it’s worth taking a look at our overview of building a story!


At the beginning of your thriller, it is particularly important that the readers are interested and that they can no longer put the book out of their hands. Unlike in other genres, this is often started with a puzzle task, for example by describing the end of the book, then there is a jump back in time and only in the course of the novel does it becomes clear how it came about. Another way to start with a crime novel is to let a murder happen on the first page so that the readers then want answers to the questions: Who, What, How, Where, When.

So you should create suspense and arouse curiosity from the beginning, even if the murder in your planned plot does not happen until later in the thriller.

After you have done this, it is advisable if you start by introducing the characters, the location, and other relevant key data. You can hide the actual motives of the characters and only resolve them in later chapters of your crime novel. Exemplary scenes in the introduction are:

  • The murder itself
  • The discovery of the body
  • Introducing the investigator to the plot


In the further course of the thriller, the investigations are started and deepened, whereby the characters find themselves in a wide variety of situations. Here, readers get an increasingly clear picture of the entire plot and start with the first attempts to solve the case themselves. In the main part of your crime novel, you can either ensure that the reading public

  • Is on the right track,
  • That it suspects too many people to be able to make a firm decision, or
  • That it is convinced of the guilt of various characters, which in the end turns out to be completely wrong since you have led them on the wrong track.

As an author, however, you should not lose sight of the common thread when writing your crime novel and should work out events that shape the plot well.

Exemplary scenes in the main part are:

  • First suspects and assumptions
  • Further investigations and reconstruction of the crime
  • Getting suspects to speak


The end of your thriller should be well worked out and logical because this is where all the threads come together. You can confirm your suspicions to the readers here or include a surprising/unexpected twist that fits well into the planned plot.

Exemplary scenes in the end are:

Conviction and confession of the perpetrator

  • Supposedly good ending, but it comes to new insights and another showdown
  • Secondary characters could be injured or killed
  • Dissolution and sigh of relief for the investigators

Tips for your plot

To make it easier for you to plan your plot, we have put together various tips for you to orient yourself on!

Narrative perspectives

Even before you start writing, you should ask yourself which narrative perspective you want to use in your crime novel. Since it can be difficult to change the point of view in the plot without confusing the reading public, it is advisable to commit yourself from the outset.

There are three possible perspectives for your story:

  • First-person narrative perspective
  • Authorial narrative perspective
  • Personal narrative perspective

If you want your readership to experience all situations with one character at the same time, the narrative self is worthwhile for your crime novel. In this perspective, it is described which thoughts and emotions drive the individual character so that readers never know more than the character. From chapter to chapter or even within a chapter, the perspective can jump to another character, which allows several characters to have their say.

An example from the point of view of a police officer: I have the feeling that I recognize this person on the street, but I can not assign his face. Maybe I should go through the database again when I’m back at the police headquarters.

If you want to let the readers look directly into a character, you should use the authorial perspective. The narrator is omniscient and not part of the plot, which allows him to know the thoughts and feelings of the characters and also to have an overview of the entire situation. It objectively describes what happens.

An example with a view of the perpetrator: She threw the knife into the nearby river and made sure that no one was watching her.

Last but not least, the personal narrative perspective is still missing. Here, the figures are also looked at from the outside, but not perceived as objectively as with the authorial perspective. Through this perspective, the reader can put himself or herself well in the characters of the crime novel.

An example from the victim’s point of view: Sascha looked around, although he felt completely dazed. A basement room or a storage room? he wondered. Then he heard footsteps coming toward him and he was overcome by goosebumps.

The writing style in crime fiction

In crime novels, the time span of the plot is sometimes only days, which is why the writing style often sounds “fast”. The processes take place in quick succession, leaving little room for detailed descriptions. These would also scare off readers, as most crime novels are about stopping an act before it’s too late. So here applies: A fast-running action and not too detailed descriptions.

The tense in crime novels is usually the present tense or past tense. Once you have decided on a form, you should keep it until the end.

Generate voltage

One of the most common questions when writing a crime novel is: How do I bring as much suspense as possible into play?

When writing, you have to keep in mind that the reading public should really find the places that you yourself plan to be exciting as exciting.

Authors should therefore put themselves in the shoes of your reading public and plan ahead. However, this is not always easy, as there is no concrete instruction for it. However, nowadays a lot is defined as exciting, from a car race to a trip. Voltage can therefore be interpreted and used in many ways.

Many famous crime novels are about a situation between two extremes: living or dying, catching perpetrators or not. It is therefore always helpful in building tension when readers can unconsciously put themselves in the shoes of characters and gain the ability to empathize, suffer or hope.

In crime novels, a distinction is made in the field of suspense and tension. Suspense describes the entire arc of suspense, which is still low at the beginning of the plot but continues to increase until it flattens again at the end of the book. He ensures that readers are captivated and cannot put the book away until the end. This sheet should be recognizable, preferably already in the table of contents. Tension, on the other hand, stands for tension peaks that trigger a lot of tension for a short time and provide the highest thrills. One example is the crash of a car into a river and the associated question of whether the people in the car will survive it.

Topic Cliffhanger

If you’re not just planning your thriller as a one-piece, a cliffhanger might be right for you! The English word refers to the open outcome of a book or other media. For example, you could make sure that your characters don’t manage to solve the case until the end of the first book, but in the end, get the necessary clues for the sequel novel. Or you can complete the mystery of the first part and let the bookend with a new murder, which means that the investigators have to save lives again in the second part. Through a cliffhanger, readers will definitely want to follow the story further and also buy the next part.

The cover design

Since crime novels represent their own and very popular literary genre, the covers are usually very similar to be found directly in bookstores.

The covers use dark colors and like to show pictures of abandoned houses, individuals, ravens, or even blood. The font is not ornate, but clear, bold, and easy to read.

If you want to learn more about the cover design of a crime novel or thriller, we recommend this blog post: Thriller and crime book cover: Design tips for authors.