What I’ve learned from reading mysteries and thrillers.


I’ve been working closely with a few wonderful writers over the past year, reading their manuscripts and helping them write, edit, and finish their books. In order to support their work (and I mean actually help them write the book they want to read, not just tell them what I would do if they were me), I’m reading the books that have influenced them.

I ask them questions like, What do you love reading? What do you wish you could do with story/language/form? What books are in your book’s lineage? Who are their cousins, friends, grandparents? Make me a list of first paragraphs you admire. Study endings of big sagas and trilogies – what do you notice? Find the ones you love: show me what you love about them.

Reading their comps and influences gives me perspective and context. It makes me a better reader and thought partner, and more prepared to help them solve their story puzzles.

As I read their influences, I see the connections in style and form. Highlighting these connections sometimes helps a writer find the unique shape of their work, crack the code of style and voice, and write the story that they genuinely want to write.

There’s a surprising gift for me in this work, too: reading to learn on behalf of another writer’s novel in progress is a master class in whatever genre my writer is working on. I’m reading titles I’ve never read before – and I’m studying them closely.

For example, here is something I’ve learned about craft from reading literary mysteries and psychological thrillers – in particular, The Stranger Behind You by Carol Goodman.  

To create a sense of fear and dread, try shifting from past tense to present tense in short bursts. For example, “I walked to the park on a crisp autumn night. I heard footsteps behind me. I fall to the ground. The sky is red and orange. I can’t breathe.”

The shift in consciousness is jarring to read, and creates a physiological response as you read it. Feel it?

You may have noticed that memoirs about traumatic events are often written in present tense. That’s because that’s how a traumatic event is literally experienced by the writer – it’s unresolved, so when the traumatic memory is triggered, the mind still files it under “this is happening to me now.”

I have used this past-to-present slip in my short stories in scenes with heightened emotion or drama, to show a moment has crystallized in the character’s memory, always-present. But it’s very disruptive to the narrative, and can be confusing for readers who aren’t used to it, or readers who aren’t writers themselves. 

I’ve learned that switching from past to present tense has a different effect when layered over multiple characters, say, or when a character finds herself in the same location more than once. It’s one way to write an atmosphere of heightened anxiety.

It’s also more stabilizing for your reader when you bring it into your narrative more often, and make it a pattern. Your reader learns to recognize it as part of the story (not an interruption).  The reader feels anxiety on behalf of the character, and continues to enjoy a more seamless reading experience.

An easy reading experience isn’t always what you want to write, of course. But it helps to know what techniques you can use to make readers stop and feel a little discomfort for artistic effect, and what techniques you can use to make readers feel relaxed and in control as they turn the pages.

The more techniques you know how to use, the more power you have in your writing.


Photo credit (top): Seokwon Kim on Unsplash.

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✨Happy Birthday, Radiant ✨
Return to focus and flow.


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