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Friday, October 12, 2012

Tess Gerritsen ~ Writing the Slam-Bam Thriller Climax

Tess Gerritsen left a successful practice as an internist to raise her children and concentrate on her writing. She gained nationwide acclaim for her first novel of medical suspense, the New York Times bestseller Harvest. She is also the author of the bestsellers Life Support, Bloodstream, Gravity, and The Surgeon. Tess lives with her family in Maine. (PHOTO CREDIT: Paul D'Innocenzo) --as appeared her blog.

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.


  1. Brilliant advice! Tweeting this. I'm working on a suspense novel and I loved the idea of having two tense scenarios going on at once! (And I might know which James Bond flick you're referring to--I think I fell asleep in that one).

    1. You're writing a suspense, Heather?? What big news! Can't wait to hear more! And lol about the James Bond--a lot of them make me fall asleep, actually.

  2. Great advice. Thanks. I think how we end is as important as how we begin. One draws readers into the one book and the other draws readers into the next. So even if we aren't writing thrillers we need to have that high tension in the climax.

  3. Bull's eye! The plot threads have to be laid down at the beginning, woven throughout the middle to create a strong, credible real-seeming world & come together in an inevitable, inescapable climax.


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