Tom Pawlik

Tom Pawlik has a BA in Communication and has been active in Christian teaching, youth work and music for over 25 years. His first novel The Way Back placed 2nd in the 2004 CWG Operation First Novel Contest (currently unpublished). His second novel Vanish won 1st place in the 2006 CWG Operation First Novel Contest run by Jerry Jenkins and the Christian Writers Guild in association with Tyndale House Publishers. That novel was published in June of 2008 Tyndale House. His third novel Valley Of The Shadow is set for release July 2009 from Tyndale House In addition to writing fiction, Tom is also an accomplished musician and songwriter, having written more than 150 songs. He and his wife Colette live in Ohio with their four children and one large dog.

The Thrill of Suspense


Something terrible had happened. I could tell by my wife’s expression as she hung up the phone that it was something serious.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

My heart rate climbed as I watched her search for words. And before she even answered, I knew it would change our lives forever . . .

Now before I go any further, let me just say I love writing suspenseful stories. After all, suspense is at the heart of what makes a great thriller. Thrillers cut across many genres: action thrillers, romantic thrillers, psychological thrillers, scifi and supernatural thrillers to name a few. But writing a good thriller can be very challenging, especially for a new novelist.

My first novel, Vanish, is a suspense thriller released last summer by Tyndale House. It has been the culmination of a lifelong dream to get published, and I’ve enjoyed working over the last few months to help promote the book. I’ve also been feverishly writing the sequel (scheduled for release next summer).

So what makes a thriller? What criteria are needed to classify a novel as such? I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’d like to consider some basic ingredients that make up a great thriller.

First, the stakes. A thriller should have some serious element of danger. Maybe it’s clear and present, maybe it’s lurking somewhere down in the sewers. But someone’s life should be hanging in the balance. Hanging by a thread. Maybe it’s the life of the hero or a loved one, or the lives of an entire city.

Second, the villain. A thriller should pit a sympathetic hero or group of heroes against a hugely malevolent evil. The deranged but brilliant serial killer, the cold-blooded terrorist, the seemingly unstoppable creature. And the villain should possess all the advantages. All, save one. The overlooked skill, ability, or weapon with which the hero eventually saves the day.

Third, suspense. What is it that keeps the reader turning the pages? What is it that causes them to glance at the clock and say, “Just one more chapter”? I believe it’s the element of the unknown that fuels the readers’ curiosity. Suspense isn’t always about action—chase scenes or fighting. It’s about making the reader wonder what lies around the next corner or behind that closed door.

Suspense isn’t about what happens. It’s about what happens next.

Finally, a good thriller should draw the readers’ interest to the plot and characters as fast as possible and not let go until the last page is turned. In today’s rapid-fire, bumper-sticker, elevator-speech culture, we need to grab the readers’ attention and reel them in quickly. So I try to follow three basic rules when writing my opening chapter:

1. The job of the first sentence is to make the reader want to finish the paragraph.

2. The job of the first paragraph is to make them want to finish the chapter.

3. The job of the first chapter is to make them want to finish the book.

Now this is all easier said than done. But if you’ve done your job well, it should keep your readers thinking about the story and the characters long after they’ve finished the book.

I began this article with a short paragraph that I hoped would demonstrate this very principle. My goal was to make you want to continue reading on to the end to discover what terrible news my wife had gotten.

Alas, I’m nearly out of room. I guess I’ll have to save that story for another article.