Writing the slam-bam thriller climax

How does a writer come up with a thriller climax that truly thrills? Here was my advice over at ITW’s website:

On the surface, writing the thriller climax seems easy. You just put your hero in danger and throw in some bad guys chasing him in a spooky locale. Hero gets cornered, death seems imminent, and he either saves himself or gets saved by the cavalry. A big-stakes action scene should do the trick and get readers’ hearts racing, right?

Not necessarily. An effective thriller climax isn’t all about action, which can in truth be pretty boring. I first came to this insight while watching a James Bond film, and realized that the car chase was going on too long and I wanted to get on with the plot. The scene itself wasn’t revealing anything to me except crashed cars and broken bodies, and since you already knew the hero would survive, I wasn’t feeling particularly thrilled.

So what does make a climax thrilling? Tension. This is not merely action; it’s the fear and adrenaline that precedes the horrible thing you know is coming. The longer you can draw out that tension, the longer you sustain that sense of imminent jeopardy, the more thrilling the scene. I think of it as slowly blowing up a balloon bigger and bigger, waiting for it to pop. One trick I use is to have several crises building at once, involving multiple characters. Intercut between these scenes. Leave each scene with a mini-cliffhanger or a question begging to be answered. Don’t get to the blood-and-guts too soon, or the balloon will pop and you’ll lose that tension.

The Big Reveal makes the climax even more thrilling. It’s the surprise that your hero never saw coming, the shock that makes a reader suck in a startled gasp. In my medical thriller HARVEST, after a desperate struggle, the heroine is strapped to an operating room table, about to be sliced open. She’s reached what you think is her darkest moment … until the surgeon walks in. He’s not just any villain; he’s the man she loves. It’s not the action or the violence that a reader will remember; it’s that heart-stopping moment of ultimate betrayal. Give your Big Reveal an emotional punch, and the climax will be far more powerful. It can also be your way to explain parts of the mystery that are otherwise unknown to the hero/reader. Not a stilted “as you know, Mr. Bond” conversation, but a dropping of clues through dialogue or a sudden insight on the hero’s part.

The Rescue wraps up the action. It can mean either self-rescue by the plucky hero or a rescue by outside agents. My own preference is to not draw this out. Make the rescue happen, make it quick, and end the scene in another page or two. The tension’s now gone, so don’t linger too long over your spent balloon. Move on to the final scenes.

3 replies
  1. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    I like your take on the ‘Thriller’ ending. I never thought incredible special effects and audio marvels could put me to sleep until I saw ‘The Transformers’. 🙂

  2. cindee
    cindee says:

    This post reminds me of a time when I had to write a short story for school. In a roomful of people, my friend accidentally blurted out, “I climax too fast! It’s not good.” Which caught a lot of odd stares and rippling laughter but the point stands true. The climax is best maintained through tension; but if it climaxes too quickly then the story ends too abruptly and if it goes on for too long, it becomes an “eternal breakfast” (Margaret Atwood). After my exams, I am going to attack my copy of Last To Die. Ms Tess Gerritsen, you never disappoint!

  3. Landie1407
    Landie1407 says:

    Perhaps this is not the appropriate place for fan mail but I simply have to thank you for being my favourite author and for creating such wonderful stories and characters!

    I have read every one of your books and short stories and you never disappoint.
    Your work is amazing and always lives up to expectations.

    Please carry-on writing.

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