Karen Ellis’ Top 3 Tips for Writing Mystery & Thriller

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Karen Ellis, author of the Searchers series, shares her top 3 tips on how to write the best mystery and thriller. Book 1 of the Searchers series, A Map of the Dark, is available now, and the highly anticipated sequel Last Night.


For many years I’ve taught fiction writing at The New School (in Manhattan) and for the last several years my course has specifically focused on suspense fiction. I like to start my students with an assignment I call “First Pages”—the challenge is to establish character, context, conflict before the end of a single, double-spaced page.


Because it’s essential for a reader to know who this is about, which allows us to start making an emotional connection—without an emotional connection, who cares?


So we have our bearings by knowing where the character is—as a reader, it’s disorienting if on page four I discover that the character is on a train when all along I thought she was in a living room. (You’d be surprised how many new writers make this kind of mistake.)


Because if a reader has a sense of what the problem or question is before the end of page one, there’s a good chance they’ll turn the page to find out what happens next—and compelling us to turn those pages is the only way to bring us deeper into your story.

Once you’ve got your first page nailed, take your time, pace yourself and give your reader only what they need to know, but no more, as you build the rest of the story. Don’t answer the story’s ultimate question or solve the ultimate problem—whodunnit, or will they catch the bad guy before he does it again—until the end.

Novelist Karen Ellis lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.