Posted in Books, Writing

10 Thrillers to Read if You Want to be a Writer

I absolutely love to read thriller novels, both for adult and for younger audiences, and here are ten of my all-time favorites…

1. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is one of my favorite novels of recent years, a sensational story that works in many ways on many levels. On a basic surface level, it is a hugely entertaining read, with endless twists and turns from beginning to end. The novel is alive with big surprises both in terms of the plot itself and in terms of Flynn’s framing of the story. Amy and Nick are fascinating protagonists, sharply drawn, greatly flawed, and relatable. Finally, I love the way that Flynn constantly ups the tension throughout the book through the use of stakes being raises higher and higher and strong chapter cliffhangers, even in the novel’s final thirty pages when other authors would feel comfortable in just wrapping things up.

2. A Simple Plan, by Scott Smith

A Simple Plan is one of my favorite thrillers. I find it outstanding in almost every way, with author Scott Smith, who to date has only penned one other published novel — 2006’s The Ruins — proving himself to be a master at suspense, tension, character development, setting details, point-of-view work, to mention a few. And of course the suspense is unbearable. Between the opening scene of the men finding the crashed plane and the four million dollars and the scene of Hank causing havoc in a middle-of-nowhere mini-mart, this book is nearly non-stop suspense, with even the quietest moments filled with constant tension. Scott Smith works like Alfred Hitchcock in a way, delaying that shocking moment, because he knows, like all the best storytellers, it’s the leading up to the gunshot that’s more suspenseful than the gunshot itself.

3. The Painter, by Peter Heller

The Painter is an impressive literary thriller that is insightful, harrowing, occasionally heart-pounding, and always fascinating. I love the complexity of the lead character and how flawed he is. Of course there are stakes in The Painter’s story-line, and moments of action and tension, but never is the complexity of Jim ever lost amidst the thriller plot. The stakes keep rising throughout the narrative, an antagonist on Jim’s trail, the police questioning him, and at one point it doesn’t seem he’ll make it out of this mess alive.

4. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

What’s not to love? The Hunger Games is one of the most popular young adult novels ever released, and it earns its popularity with terrific, tension-filled prose, a dazzling story, and a memorable lead character. One major reason the book works as well as it does is that Collins chose to write it in first person, present tense, and this immediacy and urgency gives the story its nearly non-stop tension. Secondly, I love that the violence is never shied away from, considering this is a book for teens. The violence is never gory or over-the-top by any means, but Collins wisely shows in detail that, yes, kids are getting slaughtered in this world. Additionally, Collins’ use of setting is vivid all the way through. Even in first person present, Collins makes the settings always pop in front of Katniss’s eyes.

5. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

I absolutely loved this literary thriller. Author Ng is a tremendous writer and brings such love and care to her prose in this novel. I love the omniscient point-of-view, which allows for these stylish prose as well as the ability to go into any character’s head whenever she wants. Not only does that show us that someone outside the characters is in control of this story, that someone else knows more than what these characters do, but it also offers a great deal of tension. This is a murder mystery, after all, with secrets and twists galore throughout its pages, and Ng understands that even in a literary work she does need to keep the reader flipping through those pages.

6. Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith

One of my favorite films of all time is Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and it was a delight to finally read the novel that inspired it, one written by an early master of the thriller genre — Patricia Highsmith. I enjoyed the book a lot, particularly in the way Highsmith highlights interiority in her characters. I have read thrillers that bypass interiority for action prose and suspenseful moments and chapter cliffhangers, but Highsmith often slows the narrative pacing down to let the reader get inside Guy and Bruno’s heads, and in the case of this story, that element is a plus not a minus.

7. Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen is a terrific literary thriller. One tremendous aspect of the book is Eileen herself, one of the most disturbed and compelling protagonists I’ve read in a work of fiction in a long time. Eileen is darkly funny, always smart, and sometimes vicious in the way she thinks, and I loved every minute spending time with her. The character development is solid throughout, and the thriller elements in the last fifty pages are extremely effective, all the more propulsive since the reader genuinely cares about the characters. The tension builds and builds, with the stakes constantly being raised.

8. Big Driver, by Stephen King

Big Driver is a novella, part of Stephen King’s 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars, that tells of a female writer who is raped and seeks revenge. The novella showcases so much of what I love about Stephen King’s work. First of all, I love the way he builds character in the beginning of his stories, always using humor and humanity in his storytelling long before he takes the reader into the deep horror. I also love King’s use of humor; even in his scariest stories, there is always an element of humor that puts a stamp on the narrative, never a deadly serious tone from beginning to end. One of the major elements I adore in King’s work is his use of tension and the constant raising of stakes, certainly two reasons why Misery remains one of my all-time favorite novels, and there are lots of examples of them in Big Driver, too.

9. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood tells of the real-life slaying that took place in small-town Kansas in 1959, and the capturing, courtroom proceedings, and ultimate death of the two killers — Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. It really does read like a thriller novel, with impressive prose throughout and unique viewpoints into his characters. I enjoyed the level of suspense throughout the pages, especially considering that this is non-fiction and I already knew what happened to Dick and Perry. There are moments of genuine horror, fear, tension. Chapter cliff-hangers do the trick, as do the parallel structure of the book, where Capote will spend a few pages with Dick and Perry, then with Holcomb inhabitants, then back to the two killers. Capote is not afraid to keep his readers flipping through the pages, and he infuses endless moments with genuine suspense

10. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

What did I love about the book? The Goldfinch is one of the ten best books I’ve ever read. A thick doorstopper of a literary novel is typically the kind of book I avoid; however, the story intrigued me enough to give it a try, and it only took a few pages to recognize the power of Donna Tartt’s imagination and writing ability. Sometimes literary novels have such a focus on the beauty of the prose that the story gets lost, but Tartt has a remarkable ability to blend strong writing with a consistently entertaining story, which, yes, absolutely reads like a thriller at times. Every character is sharply drawn — from the protagonist Theo to his antiques dealer Hobie to the best friend Boris. Tartt always uses just the right language to help the reader visualize the characters. In addition, the way Tartt keeps the painting The Goldfinch an important element throughout the narrative is impressive, and I loved that the novel mixes various genres, like coming-of-age, literary fiction, and thriller, at all times. Overall, The Goldfinch impressed me all the way through.

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