Megan Miranda: What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

Tips for Plotting a Thriller

MMiranda_HysteriaFor some people, the term thriller might conjure up thoughts of a fast-paced, heart-pounding, action-packed plot. For others, a thriller might be twisty, ominous, and full of quiet menace. There are so many different types of thrillers, from the action-heavy plots to the unsettling psychological thrillers. And I’m a fan of them all.

For me, a thriller needs to have that sense of danger, whether real or implied, to keep readers on the edge of their seats—or just on edge.

Here are three elements I think about when developing a thriller:

Whether developing a big plot or a smaller scene, I often ask myself: What’s the worst that can happen?
In Hysteria, I had the idea for a character who committed a crime in self-defense, and therefore couldn’t be charged. To find the bigger story, I asked myself: What’s the worst that can happen, for this character, in this situation. I came up with this list:

  • She’s framed for another crime
  • The family of the victim wants revenge
  • She doesn’t know if she’s guilty

Each of these answers helped turn the premise into the bigger pitch for the book, which was: A girl who can’t be charged for a killing she does commit is then framed for one she doesn’t commit, all the while being haunted by something that may or may not be real.

MMiranda_FractureBut this is also a tool you can use within a scene itself to find the mini-cliffhangers that keep a reader unable to put the book down at the end of each chapter.

In the opening scenes of Soulprint, a girl is on the verge of escaping from a lifetime of captivity. She’s been held on an island her entire life, and she’s planned for this day for years. She successfully reaches the cliffs at the edge of the island—all she has to do now is jump.

What’s the worst that can happen?
She doesn’t know how to swim.

Tension is the thing that keeps me turning pages as a reader, that makes me unable to put a book down. According to the dictionary, tension is a state caused when two forces act in opposition to each other.

I try to find as many of these opposing forces as I can in my story to create more tension and conflict. In Fracture, one character wants to stop death, while another wants to speed it up. Their goals are at complete odds. This is the pivot point for the book, and the place from which the story grows.

MMiranda_VengeanceBut there are many opportunities to add tension in smaller moments as well: What does a character fear, and what must they face in light of that fear? Are their internal goals at odds with their external goals?

See if you can find those elements already in your story. If you don’t have them, see if you can create some more by complicating relationships, or putting motivations at odds.

As a reader, I love to be surprised.

There are books that have a big twist—maybe a character is not who you thought they were, or maybe you suddenly realize nothing is as it seems—but there are also plenty of opportunities to use a smaller twist mid-scene, something that surprises the reader and keeps them on the edge of his or her seat. That moment when the danger jumps out at us, or, possibly, when the danger hidden in plain sight is finally revealed.


  • For your pitch, or a character, or a scene, ask yourself: What’s the worst that can happen?
  • Make a chart of opposing forces in your story. Can you add even more tension?
  • Find your moments of surprise to keep the reader hooked

And happy thriller writing!



Megan Miranda is the author of the young adult novels Fracture, HysteriaVengeance, and Soulprint (all from Bloomsbury). Her debut adult suspense novel, Disappear, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2016. Megan has a degree in Biology from MIT and currently lives near Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband and two children. You can read more about Megan online or over at  Twitter / Facebook / Instagram

Megan is giving away signed copies of FRACTURE and HYSTERIA. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Megan’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

115 comments on “Megan Miranda: What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

  1. angelcat2014 says:

    What great pitches you give in your examples – the tension and suspense suggested, now I want to read them! Thank you for the reminder to ask ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ 🙂


  2. Judy says:

    Thanks. I clearly haven’t been making my characters suffer enough.


  3. “What’s the worst that could happen?” is a great question to ask for any genre. Thanks for your insight.


  4. Jeanine Potter says:

    Great questions. Thank you!


  5. Thanks for sharing your insights!


  6. I look forward to creatign a chart of opposing forces to create more tension in a story. Thank you, Megan.
    ~Suzy Leopold


  7. Thank you, Megan, for your inspiring post and tips on thriller plotting. That’s a genre I’d love to attempt some day!


  8. Susan Schade says:

    Thank you for the helpful tips. Adding tension can help any story. Great advice!


  9. writersideup says:

    Megan, as of yet I’m sorry to say I haven’t read your work yet, but after reading your PERFect advice on how to create tension in plotting, I’ll be looking for your books! Thanks! 😀


  10. writeknit says:

    I love the twists and turns in a good mystery, thank you for showing me ways to add tension and make it a book my readers can’t put down.


  11. donnacangelosi says:

    Love the idea of asking, “What’s the worse that can happen?” Thank you for a great idea to add tension and suspense.


  12. MaDonna says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and tips on writing suspense. Great questions to ask for adding tension.


  13. Priya says:

    Thanks for sharing. Will try these questions in the next story I’m going to write


  14. ptnozell says:

    Megan, your tips on adding suspense, surprise & tension are useful whether in a YA thriller or a PB bedtime story. While the stakes may not seem as high as the life/death scenarios you discuss, I can see where considering what’s the worst that could happen will help complete even the quietest of these PBs. Thank you!


  15. Lauri Meyers says:

    I have to tell you, you write a thriller blog post, too! I got goose bumps from all the killing and framing and not-quite-remembering.


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