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. Zainab says:

    Thank you Megan for the great advice. I love how you build suspense and tension.


  2. laura516 says:

    As a PB writer, I’ve never considered writing a thriller. But this article has piqued my interest. CREEPY CARROTS would be a good mentor text. Thanks!


  3. carolofparis says:

    I like the question. “What is the worst that can happen?” I think that is a good thing to ask myself with each book not just a thriller. Thank you for the great post!


  4. Heather Pierce Stigall says:

    Thanks for the helpful tips!


  5. Lori Dubbin says:

    “What’s the worst that can happen?” Such a great question to ask when writing in any genre. Thank you for your helpful post and worksheet inspiring writers to build more tension and inflict page-turn-itis upon the reader.


  6. Traci Bold says:

    Megan, I was so excited that you gave today’s lesson! I just finished your book, FRACTURE, this weekend while I was on vacation and LOVED IT! Now I will have to get all the rest you have published. 🙂 As for the lesson, ghost stories and thrillers are my favorite to read and write but right now i am concentrating on my picture books and have shelved my young adult writings. I wrote down everything I learned from today’s lesson to apply to my shelved YA’s. Fantastic tips; thank you so much. 🙂


  7. Nancy says:

    Thanks for the great post, Megan. I need to work on this for my character. I am afraid of getting him in the worst situation because I’ll have to write him out of it but it certainly builds more tension in the story and would keep my reader hooked.


  8. Megan, thank you for these terrific tips to build tension and moments of surprise into a thriller.


  9. JEN Garrett says:

    Keeping a reader on edge and turning pages is so important for every manuscript. Thanks for the tools to help amp up the tension and surprise!


  10. megcason1 says:

    I admire people who can write novels. There’s so many times you think it sounds like fun, then you realize how hard it really is! You tip on “whats the worst that can happen,” will be very helpful in plotting! Thanks Megan!!


  11. Laurie Young says:

    The worst thing that can happen? I don’t finish my novel. This is giving me new ideas to proceed. Thanks!


  12. Catherine says:

    I love the idea of considering what the worst can happen is – thank you for giving me an idea for my current WIP 🙂


  13. Emily (Veela) Walzer says:

    Like the chart of opposing forces. Good idea.


  14. Kara Stewart says:

    Ooo! These sound great! Thank you!


  15. kirsticall says:

    I love the question, “What’s the worst that can happen?”


  16. mona861 says:

    Oh dear, what’s the worse that can happen!?!??! Thanks for a great post.


  17. hmmmmm says:

    Looking forward to applying these strategies to the simpler structure of a pb — thanks!


  18. Val McCammon says:

    Great question re: What’s the worst that could happen, which I know I can apply in PB writing in building the tension of the plot. Thanks, Megan.


  19. Sarah Rosenthal says:

    Thank you for your suggestions


  20. Mary McClellan says:

    Megan, I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to write a mystery, so your post was especially good info for me. Thanks for the great writing tips.


  21. Sandy Perlic says:

    Excellent points! The question “What’s the worst that can happen?” sounds like a great plotting tool.


  22. The right question asked can reveal so much.
    “What can be the worst thing that can happens”


  23. kpbock says:

    Great pointers! And I love your books!


  24. Thank you, Megan. Three steps that will help us all add tension and keep our readers turning those pages. 😉


  25. Building tension is important in any genre.


  26. sherryhoward says:

    I love to predict worst case scenario and then top that. It’s amazing how much trouble you can get your characters into when you really try!


  27. Kathy Levy says:

    Thanks, Megan. That question, “What’s the worst that can happen?” can certainly keep a character digging out of problems–as well as keeping the reader guessing.


  28. Michelle Leonard says:

    Great tips, Megan!


  29. Heather H. Rhodes Writer says:

    Great post…thank you!!!!


  30. Tension… too much can kill you, but too little could kill your story, right? One of life’s funny ironies.


  31. Caroline says:

    I think this question you pose could work for so many genres, too: “What does a character fear, and what must they face in light of that fear?” Just asking that helps figure out what conflicts our characters can face. I’m definitely putting that question front and center for my current WIP I’m plotting! Thank you!


  32. Christine says:

    Good stuff! Thanks!


  33. Maria Marshall says:

    Great tips and an awesome chart. Thank you. 🙂


  34. Thanks, Megan. I loved the “I can’t swim” example. Good stuff!


  35. Stacey jacobs says:

    Thanks for your post. Tension is an element that I enjoy in reading adult books and I appreciate how you explained how to build it for your genre.


  36. Valerie Larson-Howard says:

    I love the tips on how to add tension in scenes and smaller situations. Thanks.


  37. Writing a book – what’s the worst that can happen? Great idea… because once you get past that, you’re safe. At least until the next chapter.


  38. Asking, “What’s the worst that can happen?” is something I need to push myself harder to do. I think it’s easy to stop when the first few ideas come. I’m inspired by your post to dig deeper into my stories and see if I can’t amp up the tension. Thank you.


  39. gweddle says:

    Has the August 11 post been posted? I have not received it. Everything has gone smoothly up to this point. I am loving this and don’t want a glitch to cause me to miss Week 4. Thank you, Ginger Rock Weddle

    Sent from my iPad



  40. Margaret Greanias says:

    Love these tips for creating tension. Looking forward to using these in my WIP to make it more interesting!


  41. Charlene Steadman says:

    Tension is definitely a great thing in a story!


  42. Rachel H says:

    Thanks, Megan. I like this advice–asking, “What’s the worst that can happen?”


  43. julicaveny says:

    These sound like great books/stories, Megan! I love reading thrillers but haven’t tried writing one (yet)! Thanks for the tips!


  44. Debbie Vilardi says:

    Sometimes it’s hard not to treat our characters like our kids, but we can’t protect them. They won’t grow from that. Thanks for this reminder.


  45. Nadine Gamble says:

    Sometimes finding the “worst that can happen” and is a little less obvious is tough….thanks!


  46. If I ever try my hand at a thriller I’ll be sure to try these techniques.


  47. martymi6 says:

    Good solid tips for all genres. Thanks, Megan.


  48. Andrea B says:

    I’ve been wondering the same things. What’s the WORST that can happen? Some pretty scary … um …. STUFF. That’s what. Not sure if I’m up to the task! But I’m trying! Thanks for the tips. 🙂


  49. Jenifer says:

    Liked post from beginning to end. – What’s the Worst That Can Happen –


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