Throwback Thursday: April Henry on Adding Tension: How to Make Any Book – But Especially Mysteries & Thrillers – Better

Congratulations to April Henry on Two Truths and a Lie (Christy Ottaviano Books, 2022), an Amazon Editor’s Pick for Best YA.

Take a look back at April’s advice on tension, originally published in December 2010 and reposted in March 2014, it remains the most-viewed writing craft post in Cynsations history.

By April Henry

When Cynthia invited me to write a guest post for her blog about some aspect of writing mysteries, I knew immediately what I wanted to write about. Tension.

The trick to writing a good mystery or thriller is to have plenty of tension. Heck, that’s the trick to writing any good book, period.

But how do you get that tension? Here are some things that work for me:

Grab them by the throat

You start right out of the gate, like these first sentences:

• “He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air. Metal ground against metal; a lurching shudder shook the floor beneath him.” – The Maze RunnerJames Dashner (Delacorte, 2009)

• “I find Will facedown in the woods near Barron Creek.” – The Less-DeadApril Lurie (Delacorte, 2010)

• “When I go down to breakfast, I’m greeted by photos of bullet wounds scattered all across the kitchen table.” – Flash BurnoutL.K. Madigan (Houghton Mifflin, 2009)

• “It was the rough hand over her mouth that convinced Cassie Streng that what was happening was real.” – Shock Point, me (April Henry)(Putnam, 2006)

Make it snappy

Chapters under two thousand words make a book just zip along. I’m currently writing a book where most chapters are under a thousand.

Create a ticking clock

In a mystery or thriller, this can be a literal bomb that the reader can’t stop worrying about. It could also be an ultimatum. For example, in my thriller – Girl, Stolen (Henry Holt, 2010) – Cheyenne’s folks are given only a few hours to gather millions in ransom money after she is kidnapped.

There are many kinds of ticking clocks, from a looming big test to a much-dreaded prom. You can even give it a twist by showing the clock but not saying what it’s counting down.

John Green does this to great effect in Looking for Alaska (Speak, 2007). Chapters are titled “136 days before,” “111 days before,” etc. The reader knows something dramatic is going to happen when the countdown is finished.

Cut to the bone

Look for passages that describe the weather, the landscape, the aftermath, or travel. Then cut them. (Or at least cut them back.)

Have actions backfire

Your main character has a goal – but every action her or she takes to reach the goal should just push it further away. In Girl, Stolen, when Cheyenne fights back against the guy who is stealing her step-mom’s car, he is forced to subdue her – and ends up kidnapping her.

Raise the stakes

Our main character was already nervous about singing in class, but now she has been asked to sing at the stadium. Or for a more mystery-related example, not only will someone die if our main character doesn’t catch the serial killer, but the next victim could be his girlfriend.

Make choices painful

Force the character to make a choice between two things he or she wants desperately. Edward or Jacob? Peeta or Gale? Staying safe at home or risking life and limb?

Create kick-ass chapter endings

Chapter endings should look ahead, not behind. They need to end on a note of drama (and, if possible, a cliffhanger) rather than just summing up what has just taken place.

For excellent examples of kick-ass chapter endings, take a look at The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008):

• Chapter 4: “Which also means that kind Peeta Meelark, the boy who gave me the bread, is fighting hard to kill me.”

• Chapter 5: “But because two can play at this game, I stand on tiptoe and kiss his cheek. Right on the bruise.”

• Chapter 6: “I wonder if she will enjoy watching me die.”

And here are some from Girl, Stolen:

• Chapter 1: “Because for the last three years, Cheyenne had been blind.”

• Chapter 12: “‘Well, well, well, what have we here?’ Jimbo said. ‘How come you don’t have her tied up’?”

• Chapter 23: “Then like a man splitting a log with an ax, Cheyenne swung the wrench in its swift and terrible descent.”

These tricks can make any mystery, thriller, or novel better.

Cynsational Notes

New York Times-bestselling author April Henry knows how to kill you in a two-dozen different ways. She makes up for a peaceful childhood in an intact home by killing off fictional characters. There was one detour on April’s path to destruction: when she was 12 she sent a short story about a six-foot tall frog who loved peanut butter to noted children’s author Roald Dahl. He liked it so much he showed it to his editor, who asked if she could publish it in Puffin Post, an international children’s magazine.

By the time April was in her 30s, she had started writing about hit men, kidnappers, and drug dealers. She has published 27 mysteries and thrillers for teens and adults, with more to come. She is known for meticulously researching her novels to get the details right.