“Thriller” is a great genre. In terms of literature, a thriller is any story that “thrills” the reader—i.e., gets adrenaline pumping, the heart racing, and the emotions peaked. As you can guess, that makes it fairly broad.
Buckle your seatbelts. These story ideas are gonna be a wild ride. To study up on techniques that make thrillers and suspense work, check out Joslyn Chase's article here or her full guide on how to write a thriller here.
As we continue our series on the ten types of stories, today we're sharing prompts for inspiration to write a thriller. But first, let's look back at the value scales that create the ten types of stories. (See the full guide here.)
Just so you know, “thrillers” come in all shapes and forms, dipping freely into other genres. In other words, expect the unexpected! Also, I normally do 20 of these things, but these 10 are much longer and more detailed than usual. I didn't want to overwhelm you today, so 10 prompts it is!
10 Suspenseful Story Ideas
- Rosa Rivera-Ortiz is an up-and-coming lawyer in a San Diego firm. She works twice as hard as her colleagues, but often with less recognition. So she's as surprised as anyone when she's requested specifically for a high-profile case. Bron Welty, an A-list actor and action star, has been arrested for the murder of his live-in housekeeper. The cop heading the case is older, ex-military, a veteran of more than one war, and an occasional sufferer of PTSD. Rosa's hired to defend the movie star; and it seems like an easy win until she uncovers some secrets that not only make her believe her client is guilty, but may be one of the worst serial killers in the past two decades… and he knows she found out.
- Zion Jones is a police interrogator in Miami's overburdened police department. He's up to his eyeballs in paperwork and really doesn't have time for another case, but when his best friend and fellow cop is shot in a burglary-gone-wrong, he's willing to take on a few extra cases. The next interrogation was supposed to be routine: a murder, a suspect, a suspicious amount of transferred cash. But the moment he gets in the room, he knows something is wrong. This suspect isn't scared. This suspect is laughing, and proceeds to tell Zion personal, too-intimate-to-be-hearsay details on cold case murders going back nearly a hundred years. It gets weirder: for reasons unknown, the digital recording came up blank, as if no conversation had taken place. Of course, everything Zion has to report is dismissed—it's nonsense, nothing that can be proven, and it was just an attempt to mess with his head. Right? If that's so, then why does Zion feel like someone's watching him everywhere he goes, as if just waiting for him to make a move on the terrible details he's been given?
- It's the Cold War. Sergei, a double-agent for the CIA working in Berlin, is about to retire when he's given one final mission: he's been asked to “defect” to the USSR to help find and assassinate a suspected double-agent for the Kremlin. Sergei is highly trusted, and he's given to understand that this mission is need-to-know only between him and very few superior officers. But as he falls deeper into the folds of the Iron Curtain, he begins to suspect that his superior officer might just be the mole, and the mark Sergei's been sent to kill is on the cusp of exposing the leak.
- It's 1952. A small town in the Midwest is rocked by the brutal murder of Mary, a Black eleven-year-old girl, who's been bludgeoned until nearly unrecognizable. The sheriff, Joe Everyguy, is an upstanding and well-respected man who is determined to get to the bottom of what might be the grisliest case of his career. But as the crime unfolds, revealing prejudice, covered up abuse, and sexual philandering in and around the school, he begins to realize two things: one, there's such a hotbed of crime and immorality in the heart of his small town that if he doesn't root it out, it could destroy them all. And two, all the evidence points toward one suspect: his own daughter, Linda, Mary's classmate and supposed friend. The town wants to hush this up. Sheriff Everyguy is terrified the truth will destroy his family if he keeps pushing for answers—he can't uncover the cabal without exposing his daughter. If he quits now, he abandons a lifetime of intentional integrity and the town he loves as home. But if he keeps going, he might just be sacrificing his little girl's life.
- It's 3012 AD. The Earth has long been left behind as uninhabitable. Justice Jones, retired special forces (think MacGyver + Marines), enjoys his quiet new employment as art appraiser on Tethys, one of Saturn's lovely terraformed moons. He's a staunch agnostic, which makes him stand out; most of Tethys' population ascribe to one of two religions: the Cats, who believe that mankind should stop exploring and be content with the two dozen or so moons and planets occupied, and the Dogs, who hold to a sort of demented Manifest Destiny that humankind should populate the whole universe. Justice ignores all of this ninety percent of the time; unfortunately, when he walks into the museum late one night to inspect a possible forgery of 1000-year-old Martian sculpture, he finds two dead bodies: the leaders of the Cats and Dogs, respectively. Each side blames the other for their leader's death, and before long, the arguments erupt into violence. There are innocents on this small moon; there aren't any major forms of government, or military presence. As the tensions grow thicker and the body count grows higher, Justice finds himself coming out of retirement to save the innocents on this moon who are about to be caught in the crossfire. The Cats and Dogs may be out for blood, but they've never encountered anything like Justice Jones.
5 More Thriller Story Ideas
- It is 1800. A lighthouse on a barren cliff in Canada. Two lighthouse keepers, German immigrants, are alone for the winter and effectively cut off from the rest of the world until the ice thaws. Both Wilhelm and Matthias are settled in for the long haul with warm clothes, food, and matches a-plenty. Then Wilhelm starts hearing voices. His personal belongings disappear from where he'd placed them, only to reappear in strange spots—like the catwalk, or dangling beneath the spiral stair knotted in brown twine. Matthias begs innocence. Little by little, Wilhelm grows convinced that Matthias is trying to convince him (Wilhelm) to kill himself. Is the insanity real, or is this really Matthias' doing? And if it is real, what will he do to defend himself? There are so many months until spring… (Bonus: this prompt works from Matthias' point of view, too, since he'd find himself locked in a lighthouse with a crazy guy.)
- It's sometime in the future in a dystopian society, run with an iron fist by its government. The pollution is so bad that citizens almost never step outside, traveling instead via tubes between residence and work, or the small, expensive shops and home. Even the domiciles are all underground, small two-room apartments run completely by nano-bot technology and voice-command. In this grey and airless life, Bo and Lifen's six-month-old son, Heng, is mysteriously kidnapped. Devastated, they survive a near-breakup of their marriage, Lifen's failed suicide attempt, and Bo's brief stint with alcoholism as they both tried to cope with their loss. Eventually, they manage to grieve together instead of apart, and rebuild their lives… but it all comes to a crashing halt when a stranger rings the doorbell. It is a young man who claims to be their son. Not only that, but he has a small thumb-drive hanging around his heck giving him legal claim to their tiny, one-door domicile and everything they own—which means that when he steps inside, his voice-command locks the door behind him… and it won't unlock until he tells it to. In fact, he controls food. He controls the air supply. Little by little, he takes over their lives, forcing them both to quit their jobs and huddle in their cold and frightening home as they struggle to survive to this invasion of a so-called son who acts nothing like a son should. Why is he doing this? Is he really their son? And can they possibly fight him when the nano-bot run home obeys his every command?
- Shah is the son of the Rajah, arguably the richest heir in the world, and dangerously bored. How does he fill his time? By thinking of himself as a detective and solving “mysteries” all around the palace. This means Shah gets into everybody's business and makes up completely absurd tales about his adventures, but who's going to argue? He's the son of the Rajah, and technically holds their lives in his hands. But don't think Shah has no friends; his most faithful servant, Nainsuk, has raised Shah from an infant, and while he loves the boy as his own, Nainsuk isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. He believes Shah's wild tales of night-escapes from demons and genius in solving unsolvable mysteries. So, when Nainsuk's younger sister goes missing, he begs the prince for help. Shah, convinced of his own near-immortality, takes the case… but when he leaves the palace for the first time in his life, following clues, he discovers life on the outside is nowhere near as idyllic as life within. Religious factions struggle for supremacy, political groups jostle for influence and the Rajah's ear, and the desperate poor and the greedy rich all fight, turning the city around the palace into a boiling mess of blood and sweat. In short order, Shah loses his money, his jeweled sword, and his beard—and without these things, the guards at the palace don't recognize him, refusing to let him back inside. Shah's only chance is to wait for Nainsuk to return in the morning, since surely his old caretaker will recognize him… but in order to do that, he has to survive the night in the crime-ridden streets. Roving gangs, packs of wild dogs, and desperate thugs who see him as an easy target are the least of his concerns. It turns out Nainsuk's sister was kidnapped as a sacrifice to the goddess Kali, and he has until dawn to save her… and himself. (P.S. No, I will not apologize for the Avatar reference.)
- It's 1935. Germany's government has been persecuting the Sinti people since long before the Nazis came to power, but the Third Reich has taken a particularly dim view: they claim that the Sinti (also known as Romani) are of mixed blood, and consequently believed to be both degenerate and criminal. Many are being forcibly sterilized. Ten-year-old Mirela is an orphan, and knows they're looking for her—not just because her mother was Sinti, but also because of her dreams. Mirela has dreams of the future, and they always come true… and she's had one three nights in a row about scary soldiers coming to the orphanage, taking away any child they deem not Aryan enough, and doing horrible things to them. Finally, she can take it no longer: she gathers together her six closest friends, and they leave in the dead of night, trying to sneak out of Berlin and toward the distant border of Austria. But Austria is over 400 miles away, and these seven children have no money. They also don't have blond hair or typically Aryan features. They must avoid soldiers and anyone who still thinks Jewish blood and dark hair are responsible for Germany's struggle. Mirela's dreams help, but she has no powers of protection. What follows is a daring, heart-rending journey of many nights, of loss and tears and triumph, and in the end, none of them will really be children anymore.
- Fourteen years ago, Stan cheated on his brand-new bride of four months. It was just a one-afternoon fling, a reaction to a silly fight he can no longer remember, and he gave the girl in the club a fake name, anyway, so who cares? Now, he's general manager for a profitable beer company; his wife and four kids are well-provided-for, with college funds and all the amenities they could desire. Stan's in line for CEO, if he can keep up his business ethic until old Paul retires, and he intends to… until she comes in for a job interview. Stan recognizes Delilah Bond, oh hell yes, he does, but she doesn't seem to recognize him. Slightly shaken, he plays dumb, treats her with complete professional cool, and goes about his day. The next night, his youngest daughter waxes eloquent about her new music teacher, Ms. Bond… who matches the description of Stan's fourteen-year-old mistake. He tries to ignore this until he sees her outside his window, trimming the hedges, wearing an ordinary landscaper's uniform. And again, in his favorite bar, where she's slinging drinks like a pro and conspicuously avoiding his eyes. In fact, he starts to see her everywhere, impossibly everywhere—touching the life of each of his children, involved with his wife (her new tennis partner), and hired at his company, though not in his division. Is he going crazy? No; it's worse. Delilah Bond is one of four quadruplets, or she was. The girl Stan slept with fourteen years ago got pregnant, miscarried badly, and died. Her three sisters took a long time to figure out who'd taken their sister from them, and they have every intention of making him suffer the way they have… and they've had a really long time to plan.
Which of these stories speaks to you? Let us know in the comments.
It's your turn! Take fifteen minutes and tackle any one of these prompts at any point in the story. Once you pick a prompt, you can continue the tale, or take it from the beginning, or jump into the middle, using any character you please.
When your time is up, post your scene in the Pro Practice Workshop here. And when you're done, check out others who have shared their scenes. Let them know what you think!
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Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.