Derik CavignanoHave you ever devoured a book so quickly that you finished it in one or two sittings, your heart racing as the words flew off the page? Knowing you should stop to eat dinner or take a bio break, but never finding an appropriate lull in the story?

As a thriller fan, that’s exactly the type of book I love to read, and, as an author, that’s exactly the type of book I try to write. But how does an author mold a story into a page-turner? What’s the secret ingredient that makes a book impossible to put down?

The answer is tension. All great thrillers are steeped in it. Tension is the glue that keeps readers engaged. It’s the subliminal collision of character and events arranged in a way that triggers an emotional response in the reader, creating a sense of anxiety that can only be remedied by turning the page.

The Art of DyingFor me, the first step in creating tension is by introducing a flawed but likable protagonist whom the reader can relate to, someone whose hopes and fears remind us of ourselves or someone we know. Once that emotional connection is established, anything that threatens the life of the protagonist creates tension. It’s the author’s way of exploiting the reader’s empathy to his own advantage, using it as a lever to coax the reader into plowing through the chapters.

"For a thriller to be unputdownable, the tension must be more nuanced than simply shoving the protagonist into harm’s way."

But in order for a thriller to be unputdownable, the tension must be more nuanced than simply shoving the protagonist into harm’s way. A taut thriller takes a layered approach to tension, ratcheting up the intensity as the story progresses, continually raising the stakes in a way that magnifies the consequences of failure. Personally, I like to set the stage with an ominous event that slowly builds into a more dangerous situation, preferring to keep certain elements of the danger shrouded in mystery—a technique that results in the reader’s imagination running wild about potential dangers lurking beyond the page.

Another technique involves using a character’s own flaws against him, causing him to stumble into an even stickier situation where he’s confronted with a moral dilemma and, consequently, has even more to lose. Another layer of tension involves introducing a character’s worst fear and subsequently giving her no choice but to face it, allowing readers to see if she rises to the occasion or runs from the room with her tail between her legs. On some level, I think everyone wonders that about themselves, and experiencing that test vicariously through a character increases the reader’s empathy for the protagonist.

While the layering of these techniques raises the reader’s anxiety level, the addition of a ticking clock never fails to shift the story into the highest possible gear. Suddenly, the protagonist must complete his or her mission by a specified time or something even more terrible will happen. Not only will readers be on the edge of their seats, but they’ll also be glued to the page because time is running out for the characters they’ve grown to love.

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Derik Cavignano is an award-winning author who writes character-driven stories in a variety of genres, including horror, sci-fi, and crime. In his latest novel, THE ART OF DYING, the bizarre death of a mob foot soldier sparks an escalating war between Boston’s Irish and Italian mafia, but one detective’s relentless search for the truth uncovers evidence of a serial killer obsessed with the art of human suffering.