December 9 – 15: “Can there be too many surprises in a thriller plot?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re joined by ITW members Matt Coyle, Susan Sleeman, Colleen Winter and Matt Buchman as they answer the questions: Can there be too many surprises in a thriller plot? Must each thrill help move the plot? Whenever you’re ready just scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along!


Susan Sleeman is the bestselling author of more than 35 romantic suspense novels with more than 1 million books sold. She has won several awards, including the ACFW Carol Award for Suspense for Fatal Mistake and the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Thread of Suspicion. In addition to writing, Susan also hosts She has lived in nine states but now calls Portland, Oregon, home.


Colleen Winter is a science-fiction junkie and uses her electrical engineering degree to create stories that walk the line between what is real and what is possible. In a previous life, she worked as a journalist and now is a communications consultant in the Ontario electrical industry. She lives near Toronto, Canada and spends as much time as she can rock climbing and hiking the beautiful places of the world with her family and her dog.


M. L. “Matt” Buchman has 60+ thriller and romance novels, 100 short stories, and lotsa audiobooks. Booklist says: 3x “Top-10 Romance of the Year” and among “The 20 Best Romantic Suspense Novels: Modern Masterpieces.” NPR and B&N say “Best 5 Romance of the Year.” A project manager with a geophysics degree, he’s designed and built houses, flown and jumped out of planes, solo-sailed a 50’ sailboat, bicycled solo around the world…and he quilts.


Matt Coyle is the author of the Rick Cahill mysteries. He knew he wanted to be a crime writer at age 13 when his father gave him Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder. His books have won the Anthony, Ben Franklin Silver, Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Silver, and San Diego Book Awards, and have been nominated for the multiple Macavity, Shamus, and Lefty Awards. LOST TOMORROWS is the sixth book in the Cahill series. Matt hosts the Crime Corner podcast on the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network and lives in San Diego with his yellow Lab, Angus.


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  1. Can there be too many surprises in a thriller plot? Must each thrill help move the plot?
    This is a question I ask myself constantly whether writing a thriller or a romantic suspense. But I twist its tail a little bit. Instead I prefer:

    “How will each surprise effect the reader’s enjoyment and immersion in story?”

    No matter what I’m writing, I’m thinking about the readers’ experience. (Actually, the reader’s because I write to entertain one specific reader, but that’s a different topic.)

    If I relentlessly bury my reader in surprise after surprise, it can have two failings: 1) it will feel like I’m manipulating them, 2) they never get to feel smarter than my character. I think that while the first will just tick off a reader and perhaps make them leave the book, that the latter will frustrate them and they’ll never come back.

    I once read somewhere that you want the reader to be ahead of the character in understanding the plot for most of the book, because it makes the reader feel smarter. And you want the character to be ahead of the reader for the ending, because it increases the tension.

    This holds true for every single “surprise” / “plot twist” / “direction shift” (quest was A, but turns our to be B or R). Each time I want the reader to see it coming, but then the character to be the one who uncovers it first.

    As long as I can maintain this delicate balance between reader and character control of the unfolding story, then I can provide as many twists as I want.

    “If I can keep the reader immersed.” For me that is the key to every sentence, every twist, every scene.

    However, to the second part of the question: Any plot twist, thrill, etc. that doesn’t move the story forward doesn’t belong. Note that I said story and not plot. Part of the story may be a piece of a character’s past that is going to make the upcoming plot twist all the more stressful for them.

    I try to have everything in a story feed into the advancement of that story. Plot, character, setting, and so on should all augment the story. It may not always be direct and hopefully not too obvious, but does it direct the reader in deeper or up (and maybe out)? Even when teasing the next book in a series by a “surprise” character introduction or a path not followed (even though I’ve temporarily convinced the reader they should go there but the character doesn’t), it also must feed the immersion of the reader in the current book. Otherwise, the reader surfaces from my story and I risk losing them.

    Letting the reader out of the story is the ultimate crime to a writer. Will an extra plot / story / character “surprise” keep the reader in the story? If so, it belongs. If not, cut it.

    1. I love your focus on keeping the reader immersed in the story. Since anything that breaks that dream is an opportunity to lose them, and a surprise twist will do that. I had to use the word ‘organic’ here since it is overused, but I like to keep my twists and surprises organic so that they feel inevitable and fully integrated into the plot.

  2. There can definitely be too many thrills in a thriller plot because if the author keeps throwing one life threatening situation after the next, the reader gets ‘thrill fatigue’ and ends up not really caring whether your protagonist gets out of the next sticky situation or not.

    I remember that happening in the TV series ‘24’ where it got to the point when you knew that the worst possible thing that could happen was going to happen every scene, with no time for pausing or reflection in between. It got to the point where I didn’t care what happened next since I knew it would be horrible. The pace was just too relentless.

    Quieter scenes can provide a balance to the action, and also give the reader time to process what has gone before. If we move from one high octane scene to the next, there is no time to process what is happening in the plot, especially if it is a complex one. We all need time to process and we need to give our reader the space to do that. Scenes with less action are also an opportunity for the reader to get to know the character in a different way and not just how they respond to dire situations.

    Ultimately, if you are going to include a thrill, it needs to be connected to the plot. If it isn’t, you run the risk of overloading your reader with high intensity scenes and leave no room or attention span for the intense scenes that do matter. Having thrills that are not connected to the plot only increases your chance of creating ‘thrill fatigue.’

  3. Yes, unfortunately, there can be too many surprises or twists in a thriller plot. And, it’s not that rare of an occurrence. A twist for twist sake that seems to fall out of the sky can ruin a well-written and engaging book in an instant and it usually happens near the end after you’ve invested a lot of reading time. I saw it happen a number of times when I was judging the Edgars a few years back. To me, it seems like the author has suddenly lost his or her confidence to keep the reader engaged. Or, maybe it comes from an editor with the same doubts. If you’ve got me hooked for 300 hundred pages, thrust yourself, dammit.

  4. I do believe you could have too many surprises in a thriller plot as I think it might dilute big surprises that you want to shock and stick with the reader long after they’ve finished reading the book. I honestly think a big thrill must move the plot forward in some way or it will feel episodic and the book overall will lose impact.

  5. I’ve read it and seen it on screen–the story that should have finished but kept on going with characters doing random dangerous things for no apparent reason just to add a thrill. Often it’s a teenage child of the hero/heroine totally ignoring all warnings and the experiences to date in the plot and going off alone to be abducted. Eye rolling stuff. Give kids some credit for intelligence! Or the cop standing guard on the hospital room going off to have a coffee at the crucial moment. Hahaha

    1. Yep! Dribble. “Story’s done, but WAIT! it’s too short. I need to make the book longer so I’ll just dribble!” Makes me nuts.

      And, yeah, the willing suspension of disbelief only reaches so far. Wearing the nightgown and carrying a candle into a basement, dumb cops, and impossibly non-risk-averse heroes…all crazy making.

      But I find that if I always return to character, and make sure that the plot stays true to that character, I can get away with an immense amount!

  6. As a reader who loves thrillers, YES there can be just too many surprises. They are not surprises then, they are just the ordinary. They can also be emotionally draining which takes a tole on a reader. Keep the thrills and spills to a manageable level so they are truly surprises, and I’ll LOVE it (and give it a good review!!)

    1. I’ve often heard it said that a novel is 5 good twists and a short story is 1.

      I think they’re both conservative by at least a factor of two, but not in you can have 10 or so twists without throwing the reader.

      I think that there are types of twists. And if you mix them up, then the reader will go right along with you to end up with a much more engaging story. Just off the top of my head, I’d say there are 3 main categories of twists:
      1. Plot – the obvious (we’re going that way, nope, we’re forced to go the other)
      2. Story – the changing of the quest itself. (Da Vinci Code starts out to solve a murder, then save his life, then…)
      3. Character – a character faced with their past or their dreams of the future and the twists that throws at them
      4(maybe). Theme – we start out thinking its one kind of story and it shifts to another. (ex. political to psychological)

      If well integrated, I think there’s room for a whole lot of twists there. Especially if they can coincide so that a character twist is triggered by a plot twist which makes a story twist…

      Don’t know, I’m just playing with it.

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