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Thriller openings – to keep the pages turning

Thriller openings are important. A thriller needs to grab the reader by the throat to draw them into the story and then not let them go to ensure the pages keep turning.

One of the best ever thriller openings, in my humble opinion, can be found in Lee Child’s Gone Tomorrow. He once said he considered this book to be his most accomplished work and I agree.

The scenario: a man on a subway train realises he’s sitting opposite a suicide bomber. The story’s opening takes place over the first six chapters and achieves many things.

The opening sentences bring us straight into the action:

‘Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all kinds of tell-tale signs. Mostly because they’re nervous. By definition they’re all first-timers.’

There’s no lengthy build-up. There’s a question hook we’ll read on to find the answer to and there’s a wise-crack relevant to the book’s world-weary, loner hero protagonist, Jack Reacher.

Opening structure

The opening has its own beginning, middle and end and all the subsequent turns and thrills that would make this a satisfying piece in its own right. We are entertained while this fully independent piece of fiction does its job of setting up everything to come.


In the midst of the action, before we even know Reacher’s name, he reveals he knows the list of behavioural indicators that suicide bombers display because of his time in the military. We start to get a picture of who he is by being shown how he reacts to the situation he finds himself in.

We have to wait to find out what the indicators are. And there’s a carefully placed cliffhanger at the end of the first page: ‘The list is twelve points long if you’re looking for a male suspect. Eleven, if you’re looking at a woman.’

Minor characters

When introducing minor characters who are necessary but don’t have a major role to play in the story and indeed one that may even only be temporary, the writer needs to include a ‘telling detail’, a line or two that will paint a vivid portrait in the reader’s mind: ‘She had a well-worn supermarket bag looped over her wrist…’

Pace and Suspense

The peril builds but as the tension is ratcheted up, the author makes us wait to see what happens next by slowing the pace. He throws in some details which are interesting in themselves, but separate from the action, which also aid characterisation.

The author puts the lead into an impossible situation where all of his choices to resolve the problem are very bad ones. The protagonist is literally painted into a corner where it appears there’s no possibility of a good resolution.

The problem is magnified by a time limit as the train relentlessly moves towards the inevitability of getting to the end of the line. Each stop at the next station counts down to the passengers’ impending doom.


At each stop there’s potential for a passenger to get off and save themselves from certain death but also the horror of others, waiting on the platform, to get onto the train. Here the author uses repetition and a clever refrain: ‘No one got on. No one got off.’ You hear the sound of the subway train.

Reacher decides his only option is to try and engage with the suicide bomber. By the time the saga is concluded at the end of chapter six, the authorities have seen him talking to the bomber and so he is implicated in a major crime and therefore thrust into the main story adventure.

Key takeaways:

The thriller opening has many things to accomplish in setting up the bigger story to come but make it gripping and engaging in its own right.

Plant questions to hook a reader in and make them want to read on to find out the answers.

Always give any minor characters, especially those it’s not necessary to name, a telling detail or two to firmly cement a picture of them in the reader’s mind.

Build suspense by clever use of pace. Adding a clock can heighten the tension felt at the anticipation of an action’s resolution but also, use pace to slow things down and make the reader wait.

Carefully plan page endings so that last lines encourage readers to turn the page or consider splitting scenes across chapters at the point of high drama.