Homegrown Thrill Rides

Homegrown Thrill Rides: A checklist for suspense, what is the domestic thriller,  and tips on writing one.

As a now retired librarian turned full-time fiction writer, diving into the vast Kill Zone archives for three nuggets of wisdom is the perfect role for me here at KZB. It gives me the opportunity to share so many insightful posts on craft, publishing, and much more. For today’s post, I want to take a look on creating “homegrown thrill rides.” It begins with a sampling from a checklist on how to create suspense and tension for the reader, a necessary ingredient in any thrill ride. We then turn to excerpts from a pair of posts on the domestic thriller: defining it, and a few of the key factors to consider in writing one.

Please weigh in with your own thoughts. I have included a few questions as prompts for comments after the excerpts. Date links are provided to the full posts which can provide further fuel for thought and discussion.

Experiment with these devices to increase suspense and intrigue:

__ Sprinkle in some foreshadowing – drop subtle advance hints and innuendos about critical plot points or events.

__ Withhold information – use delay tactics, interruptions at critical points.

__ Stretch out critical scenes – milk them for all they’re worth.

Surprise or shock your readers:

__ Add in a few unexpected twists. Put a big one in the middle and another big one at the end.

__ Use surprise revelations from time to time – reveal character secrets and other critical information the reader has been dying to know.

__ Have your main character experience at least one epiphany – a sudden significant realization that changes everything for them. Try putting one in the middle and one near the end.

__ Write in some reversals of feelings, attitudes, expectations, and outcomes.

Keep adding more tension. Increase the troubles of your protagonist by using these plot devices:

__ Ticking clocks – every second counts.

__ Obstacles, hindrances – keep challenging your hero or heroine.

__ Chases – your protagonist is chasing or being chased.

__ Threats or hints of more possible danger ahead.

__ Traps and restrictions – your character becomes somehow trapped and must use all their resources to get out of the situation.

Create a memorable, satisfying ending.

Design a big showdown scene, an extremely close battle between the hero/heroine and the villain.

__ Write in a surprise twist at the end.

__ Leave your readers satisfied – the hero wins by a hair, the main story question/conflict is resolved.

–Jodie Renner, June 12, 2013 


I wanted to talk about a sub-genre known as the “domestic thriller.” I’m not sure when this was coined, but it’s quite popular now, especially after Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, Gone Girl. More recently, A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window has kept readers flipping the pages.

My research didn’t uncover a hard-and-fast definition of the domestic thriller. It seems to be a cousin of the psychological thriller, but with a home setting and (usually) a woman as protagonist and (usually) a male as the villain. A title like It’s Always The Husband (Michele Campbell) will clue you into the vibe.

I don’t, however, consider this a new genre. It’s at least as old as Gaslight, the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. You’ve probably seen the 1944 movie version for which Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award as Best Actress. (I actually like the British version better. Released in 1940, it stars Anton Walbrook and the absolutely amazing Diana Wynyard. Catch it if you can!)

Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) may rightly be deemed a domestic thriller.

I would classify many of Harlan Coben’s books as domestic thrillers. Suburban setting, ordinary person, crazily extraordinary circumstances.

Which is my favorite kind of thriller. I’ve always loved Hitchcock, and he was the master at the ordinary man or woman theme. My favorite example is the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much starring James Stewart and Doris Day. The idea, Hitchcock once explained, came from a scene he pictured in his mind. A foreign, dark-skinned man, with a knife in his back, is being chased, and falls dead in front of some strangers. When someone tries to help him, heavy makeup comes off the man’s face leaving finger streaks on his cheeks.

So Hitchcock did that very thing. He had Stewart and Day as tourists in Morocco, and in the marketplace one morning a man with a knife in his back falls at Stewart’s feet. Stewart gets the face makeup on his hands.

Of course, right before he kicks the bucket the dying man whispers a secret of international importance into Jimmy’s ear, and we’re off and running. The bad guys want to know what Jimmy knows and they’re willing to kidnap his son to find out.

–James Scott Bell, May 6, 2018


Keys Factors for Writing Domestic/Psychological Thrillers

1.) Set your domestic thriller in familiar settings. Give the reader comfort until they realize your novel doesn’t take place in Mayberry. Set your story in a small town, on a commuter train, in a home with a family who could live next door to you, or create a situation that seems harmless at first until it escalates into a terrifying tale. Much like Stephen King is partial to turning everyday objects into nightmares–I’ll never use a turkey carving knife again–it’s important to think through an effective setting that lulls the reader into a false sense of security until you pull the rug out.

2.) Make your story hinge on familiar subjects. I’ve suggested a few below, but I’m sure you could come up with more that could be turned on its ear with escalating tension. Use your own personal experiences to discover what might touch your readers.

  • A marriage that doesn’t need much to send it over a cliff
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Neighbors from Satan
  • A clandestine love affair
  • School rivalry/Helicopter moms competing against each other
  • Parenting – Lots of possibilities
  • Family relationships
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends/Jealousy

3.) Now ask yourself the critical question of “what if…” What are the worst plot twists that could happen in the world you’ve created? Think WAY out of the box. Use a dartboard to add some unpredictability to your brainstorming.

4.) Make your character(s) real. Imagine people you have known, but elevate them into a major player’s role in your story. It helps to start with the familiar to make it real, but then your character would take on his/her own journey. Remember, your characters need to be real and not supersized into movie star status. Take “every man or every woman” and force them to step into an horrendous plot. Make your starring character(s) believable.

5.) Give your characters flaws that could prove to be fatal. It’s a balancing act to pick vulnerability that doesn’t make them appear too weak. Give them insecurities they can overcome in a believable way, without making them whiners. Force them to face their insecurities. Are they capable of overcoming their worst fears? Give them a chance to do it. Will they? Dig deep with a journey for your character to survive through your plot. They must struggle to gain ground or appear that they never will. Nothing trite will work here. It must seem insurmountable. I found a great resource for character flaws – 123 Ideas for Character Flaws

–Jordan Dane, January 3, 2019


  1. How do you go about creating suspense in your fiction?
  2. Do you read domestic thrillers? Write them?
  3. What tips or advice do you have?


13 thoughts on “Homegrown Thrill Rides

  1. Dale, thanks for revisiting these excellent posts. I remember all of them and use many, if not all, the tips from Jodie, Jim, and Jordan.

    My books are classified as psychological thrillers but, after rereading Jim’s and Jordan’s definitions, maybe they should also be domestic thrillers since they’re kissing cousins.

    When drafting a scene, I always ask what is the worst thing that could happen right now? Even if, at this moment, there’s no chase or cliffhanger or knife at someone’s throat, there are infinite ways in a character’s everyday life that challenge them and make it more difficult to achieve their goal.

  2. Wow, Dale, what a great selection of archived posts and what a great post.

    There is a treasure trove here on creating suspense, and on writing the domestic thriller.

    Jodie’s posts and her books are loaded with wonderful advice. Every time I read one of them, I find something new. The more I learn, the more I realize how much remains to be learned. Read Jodie’s books.

    Jim’s article defines and explains what constitutes a domestic thriller. I don’t write them. But, thinking beyond my current series, that is the direction I want to move in the future. And Jim’s post helps us think about the possibilities.

    Jordan’s post, as always, is loaded with wonderful actionable tips for writing the domestic thriller.

    This post is worth bookmarking, just to find a way back to some professional advice on suspense and domestic thrillers.

    Thanks for pulling these three posts together for todays discussion! Wonderful!

    • Thanks, Steve! I’m so glad you found these three posts worthwhile and that you’re looking at the domestic thriller for the future. Do you have anything specific on the backburner that is percolating? You certainly don’t have to provide any details, just curious? I think that with your background and experiences as a physician, you could write some very suspenseful domestic thrillers.

      Thanks for commenting. Have a wonderful weekend!

  3. Debbie, thanks so much for your comments! I was thinking of your books in part when I read Jim and Jordan’s posts. Psychological and domestic thrillers do seem like “kissing cousins”, genre-wise. I love your approach in asking “what is the worst thing that could happen right now” when drafting a scene, and considering all the many ways things could go wrong for a character. That is a terrific way to ramp up suspense, as well as deepen the story.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  4. I admit I find all the genre distinctions very confusing. Thrillers and subsets, mysteries and subsets. Suspense. Some days I feel it’s as clear as mud. For example, this post got me curious about what J.A.Jance’s novels about Sheriff Joanna Brady are classified as–I would’ve thought thriller or suspense, but the series are called mysteries, and when I looked 1 of the books up on Amazon, it’s called suspense, but technically classified as “police procedural” or “women sleuths”—but I for whatever reason don’t tend to think of books about law enforcement being mystery. I tend to think of mystery as more of someone who is investigating informally or maybe a PI. But I digress….

    Can’t think of anything specifically “domestic” thriller that I’ve read based on above description, though I do like thrillers in general. But have never written a thriller. I was also curious after reading this post to skim through the list of story ideas I have in the hopper to develop as novels and only saw one story concept that could potentially be a thriller–but at this point I don’t have the story idea developed enough to know if it will be mystery or thriller.

    I know we have to know how to market our books and who our readers are, but genre labels give me a headache. I just want to write the books & figure that out later. 😎

    • Thanks for commenting, BK. It can definitely be a little bewildering. Categories help the helpers, be they librarians or booksellers, be able to point readers to something “like” what they enjoyed, which they might also love. For writers, it helps with the expectations readers of that sub-genre might have when they open, say, a domestic thriller or a police procedural.

  5. How do you go about creating suspense in your fiction?
    The usual. Not as many ticking clocks/packages as I should have used. A hook or question for every chapter “out.” Trips, to get the MC out of his element. In my screenplay, “Going to Ground,” the MC (named “Rod”) almost electrocutes himself repairing a garage sale toaster, foreshadowing his getting struck by lightning later on. Villains aplenty menace Rod and his family throughout the script.

    Do you read domestic thrillers? Write them?
    No. See above.

    What tips or advice do you have?
    I like to add several heaping gobs of dark humor, in lieu of international men of mystery and femmes fatales, hoping readers will say, “It’s domestic, but it’s good.”

  6. Late to the party as usual on Saturday, but I love the “wisdom” articles you chose, Dale. I don’t write thrillers, but these tips can be used in my mysteries just as well.

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