September 26 – October 2: “Can there be too many surprises in a thriller plot?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Can there be too many surprises in a thriller plot? Must each thrill help move the plot? These are the questions posed to this week’s ITW Members Paul McGoran, Arlene Kay, Judy Penz Sheluk, Ron Parham, Wendy Walker and Maynard Sims. You won’t want to miss it!




skeletonsJudy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery novel, The Hanged Man’s Noose, the first in the Glass Dolphin Mystery series, was published in July 2015 by Barking Rain Press. Skeletons in the Attic, Judy’s second novel, and the first in her Marketville Mystery series, will be published in August 2016 by Imajin Books. Judy’s short crime fiction appears in World Enough and Crime (Carrick Publishing), The Whole She-Bang 2 (Toronto Sisters in Crime), Flash and Bang (Untreed Reads) and Live Free or Tri: a collection of three short mystery stories. She is also the author of Unhappy Endings: a collection of three flash fiction stories. In her less mysterious pursuits, Judy works as a freelance writer; her articles have appeared regularly in dozens of U.S. and Canadian consumer and trade publications. In addition to ITW, Judy is also a member of Sisters in Crime International, Sisters in Crime – Guppies, Sisters in Crime – Toronto, Crime Writers of Canada, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. She lives in Alliston, Ontario, Canada, with her husband, Mike, and their golden retriever, Leroy Jethro “Gibbs”.


ALL IS NOT FORGOTTENWendy Walker is a family law attorney in Connecticut. Prior to her legal career, she worked as a financial analyst at Goldman, Sachs. All Is Not Forgotten is her first psychological thriller. Wendy is currently writing her second thriller and managing a busy household of teenage boys.




Breastplate coverBefore turning to crime fiction, Paul McGoran had a varied career as Navy linguist, marketing executive, management consultant and day trader. His first published novel was the pulp thriller, Made for Murder (New Pulp Press, 2015). He is also the author of a collection of short noir fiction, Paying for Pain. Paul writes fiction because it is most immersive activity he has ever known. His next novel will bring his P.I. protagonist back to his old hometown to solve the revenge murder of the bully who terrorized his childhood.



FESTIVALFrontCover_4-22-16SmRon Parham is an accomplished and award-winning author of thrillers Molly’s Moon and Copperhead Cove, and the upcoming Festival of Fear, due out in the summer of 2016. His novels are about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Festival of Fear takes place in southwest Iowa, where he grew up and spent his childhood. All three novels are part of the Paxton Brothers Saga. He now lives and writes in the Temecula Valley, a world-famous wine-growing region just east of Los Angeles and north of San Diego. He is currently working on his first novel of the Gas Lamp Saga, starring Jake Delgado, the private investigator from his first two novels.


swannArlene Kay spent twenty years as a Senior Executive with the Federal Government where she was known as a most unconventional public servant. Experience in offices around the nation allowed her to observe both human and corporate foibles and rejoice in unintentional humor.




maynardMaynard Sims are the joint authors of numerous novels, including the Jack Callum series, the Bahamas series, the Department 18 series, and many standalones. They have ten collections of stories, several novellas, as well as over thirty edited works.





  1. Can there be too many surprises in a thriller plot? Must each thrill help move the plot?

    The simple answer to the question is yes… and no. Hang on that doesn’t sound very simple at all.

    I think it all depends on the type of thriller that you are writing (or reading). Too many surprises can start to feel contrived, as if the author is using the element of surprise artificially rather than naturally. Of course surprise, along with mystery, suspense, action, and a whole raft of others, is a vital piece of the enjoyment of a thriller. But if the author is adding them in a way that doesn’t seem to be a natural part of the story then they can feel a bit of a cheat.

    However if the surprises are an integral part of the story and the plot, then it doesn’t matter how many there are, because they are a strand of the story-telling. Keeping a reader of thrillers on their toes is an art and adds to the enjoyment of the form. Finding out who did it, and why, is a core reason for thrillers, and surprises are an important part of the construction of that.

    Each thrill doesn’t need to move the plot necessarily. A thrill, or a surprise, can be used in many ways. For example to help the pacing, to emphasize a plot point, to reveal an aspect of a character that may not have been seen previously. A new thrill (or surprise) can be used to ratchet up the pace and the excitement of the story if it is done well.

    The plot moves along with reveals. These might be achieved through a sudden introduction – a surprise – they might be achieved through a thrilling scene. Once again it depends on the type of thriller, and the way the author wants their story to unfold. A thrill may well be used to advance the plot through increased pacing, or character traits shown in the action, but plot propulsion isn’t confined to thrill or surprise. They are enjoyable though.

  2. When I read this question, my first thought was of Primal Fear by William Diehl, and the movie of the same name starring Richard Gere and Edward Norton. The answer is…NO…if you’re as adapt at writing suspense as Diehl.
    But…surprise for surprise sake, shock for shock sake, that doesn’t work, even if it moves the plot forward by an inch.

  3. I think the answer is yes. With every thriller or suspense novel there is a delicate balance of providing enough depth of side plots and twists and distracting the reader. For example, a twist that simply pulls the reader away from clues to solving the mystery but is not integral to the plot is a distraction and can make a reader feel betrayed. But a plot that simply lays out clues without anything else of interest can make the novel flat. There is no perfect road map for any story and in fact I think different writers could write the same basic plot in many different ways and with may different offerings of texture. The key to a successful journey for the reader is to find that balance.

    1. Wendy, I think you hit the mark when you said, balance. Too many surprises, twists in a story can make it contrived and become, worse, boring. Evenly paced, with other essential elements, such as romance, humor, or even poignancy can create a good read.

  4. Can there be too many surprises in a thriller’s plot? Must each thrill help move the plot along?

    I’ve had to rewrite my answer to those questions in light of Maynard Sims’ excellent posting above, which hits all of my highlights, and then some. I even began my piece in the same fashion. To wit, my short answer was—yes, and no.

    Even when writing thrillers, I’m a writer who cares most about character development. Living in the heads of my characters—understanding them and giving them expression—is the most important thing I do. That said, I’m also an outliner, and I try to dole out thrills and surprises in a way that makes sense for the pacing of the novel.

    And there you have the two major concerns of all fiction, character and plot—heart-pumping surprises being the distinctive element of a thriller’s plot.

    What happens before and after each thrill is what moves the plot along. So no, every thrill needn’t push the plot forward—some of them are only devices that allow us to continue a character’s development, make her react and show us what she’s made of.

    1. Sorry to get in so quick, Paul. I am UK based so posted Sunday night – plus the 26th is my 29th wedding anniversary! Got to get to the church on time and all that…

      I agree about character as the main thrust of a book. If the reader can’t engage in some way with your characters no amount of plot or thrills and surprises will compensate.

  5. Thrillers work best when tension builds slowly and steadily. As a reader I get hooked when the narrative reaches a crescendo then rises to a climatic set of scenes. Some authors do this so nimbly that one can only marvel at their skill. James Patterson’s classic, Kiss the Girls is a vivid example. Just when readers think they unmasked the murderer, he executes a deft paso doble that leaves them gasping. (It happened to me, unfortunately)

    Too many twists and turns in a thriller can be counterproductive and distract the reader from the narrative. A schizophrenic plot line actually deescalates tension. A few digressions that deepen the character or behavior of the protagonist are acceptable and can add spice to the novel. Too many excursions into nowhere land become boring and cause adrenalin overload. Our goal is to leave readers on the edge of their seats not rolling their eyes.

  6. The comments from the previous authors are all valid and well thought out. As a thriller author, I don’t consciously think about adding twists and turns just to jolt the reader. I write them into the story organically, as part of the storyline and plot. If they don’t move the story along, I eliminate them. If they seem to be out of place in the pace of the story, I remove them. But if they add substance to the story, add relevance to the characters or add tension to the plot naturally, I keep them. I enjoy adding a twist when it serves the plot or adds to character development, and I really enjoy the reaction of the readers when they comment on it. That is what organic writing is all about, to me. I don’t think a novel can have too many twists and turns unless they are there for shock value alone or if they don’t serve the storyline. Otherwise, the more the scarier.

  7. Some great points here in these posts.

    I agree with the point about the twists and turns being organic in the plot. They should come from the natural development of the story and be valid for the character development as well. It is probably when they are added in for their own sake that they feel artificial.

  8. Further to my comments above, I believe that today’s thriller readers are sophisticated enough to realize when the writer is throwing something into the story that will surprise or shock them. As long as the surprise, twist or turn moves the story along, it is most welcome by most readers. It’s when the surprise is added as a stand alone incident to shock the reader that the reader will roll his/her eyes and possibly put the book down. They want tension, suspense and surprise, but only if it is believable as part of the plot and storyline. I’ve stopped reading a book several times when the author tries to get too cute or tries to impress me with an unnecessary twist. If we as authors write as though we are the eventual reader this should not happen.

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