80 Thriller Prompts To Get Hearts Racing
Thrillers are commercially one of the most competitive genres to write in. Walk into any bookstore or visit any online shop and you’ll see bestseller tables covered with thrillers. So how do you make your thriller stand out from the crowd? How can you ensure your story idea is unique and engaging and able to stand up against the greats?
We’ve reached out to some of the best thriller authors around for their story ideas, as well as adding some writing prompts of our own. Whether you’re writing a psychological thriller, a thriller suspense, murder mystery, crime drama, historical or contemporary, we have something for everyone.
Why Use Thriller Prompts?
The key to all successful thrillers is creating a sense of suspense. Your reader wants to be kept on the edge of their seat while they fly through the pages of your novel because they simply can’t put it down.
Thrillers don’t tend to have many (if any!) comedic events, instead you must maintain a level of suspense, excitement, and interest throughout. Your aim is to pull your reader in, and keep them there, with your suspenseful and plot-driven narrative.
Although ‘thriller’ is the over-arching term, there are a number of sub-genres you might choose to explore.
- Psychological thriller
- Crime thriller
- Mystery thriller
- Spy thriller
- Action thriller
- Political thriller
- Legal thriller
- Historical thriller
- Sci-fi thrillers
Why Are Thriller Writing Prompts Helpful?
Thriller writers find the interesting in the ordinary, everyday things. But sometimes the pressure in making the ordinary into the extraordinary is overwhelming. That’s where our thriller writing prompts come in – here to help break you out of the self-imposed pressure to find the right twist and simply encourage you to start writing.
So welcome to our 80 writing thriller prompts!
These won’t necessarily be the basis of your next novel, but what they will do is inspire you and help you break through the writers’ block and think outside the box. They may even remind you of something, maybe a character will resonate with you, or perhaps all they’ll do is encourage you to write your own prompt.
Psychological Thriller Prompts
If your thriller focuses on the psychology of its characters as well as a pacy and plot-driven narrative, then it’s likely you’ll find these psychological thriller writing prompts helpful. If you’d like to see some comparable titles then try Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn), Misery (Stephen King), and The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins).
- On the third Friday of every month, you switch off your phone and disappear for 24 hours. No one knows where you go, until now……
- When clearing out your late husband’s things, you discover a list of names titled ‘conquests’. The first name shocks you to the core.
- When your daughter doesn’t come home on Friday night, the last person you want help from comes to your aid.
- Two women catch the same 7:20am train every day, never talking. Until one day when one desperately needs the other…
- You barely knew your neighbour. So why did they have your name on a note in their pocket the night they died?
- Your daughter says a man has hurt her. You know she’s lying because that man is dead – except no one but you knows that.
- It’s 10pm on Monday night. You haven’t left the house in 271 days. If you don’t leave before midnight tonight, you never will.
- An email lands in your inbox with instructions for how to save a life. But the email was never meant for you.
- You’re walking through the city centre when a woman hands you a package then flees. What’s inside turns your stomach.
- You’re a happily married father of two. So why has no one seen your wife for 36 days?
Crime Thriller Prompts
A crime thriller tends to focus more on the premise that a future crime hangs in the balance, while your characters work to prevent it. Think: Both of You (Adele Parks) and The Thursday Murder Club (Richard Osman).
- A man gets off the Eurostar in Paris. His luggage seems oddly heavy. Opening his suitcase in the taxi, he finds a severed limb. Whose is it?
- The old ghosts club: A detective, a judge, and a hitman can’t go to heaven – they haven’t learned enough on earth. But figuring out crimes and making people pay? That’s easy for them. Not just easy, it’s a pleasure. And maybe they’ll learn something on the way …
- Eight years ago, a young woman disappears from a Welsh valley. A sexual crime is suspected, but no body is ever recovered. Today, a different woman is found, dead, in a nearby village. There are no marks of violence. The first incident suggests a crime without a corpse, the second one suggests a corpse without a crime. What’s going on? (This is the actual premise of Harry Bingham’s The Dead House, by the way, but you’re welcome to use it.)
- The IT guy keeps himself to himself. But he used to work for the Pentagon. His coding skills are exceptional. He’s a highly skilled diver and a judo black belt. And what exactly does he get up to at the weekends?
- Cally had truly loved him. It had taken her years to get over his death in a train wreck. Her marriage to Noah now always seemed like a bit of a second best. But why does she have a letter from him today? And how the hell could he be quoting yesterday’s newspaper headline?
- The British Crown Jewels are the best defended precious objects in the world. No one in the world could steal them. No one except …
- Moriarty’s Story: Sherlock Holmes always gets all the publicity, right? But Moriarty’s story is darker, older and more interesting. It all began one foggy London night in 1889 …
- A man wakes up in Texas / Wolverhampton / at the end of your street. It is a starlit night. He has what looks like a bullet-wound in his thigh. A scrap of paper in his hand, with an address on it. No name. The man remembers nothing except for one word – “run.”
- Wall Street’s most famous hedge fund manager, Ponzi Scheme owner and all-round bad guy is finally in court facing a 150-year sentence. But one juror isn’t who he claims to be. For the juror, this isn’t business, it’s personal.
- The first paragraph of your story: “The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” I stare at the court and the judge. “You must know by now that I am an expert liar. It’s my superpower. I’ll raise my hand if you want me to, and say whatever nonsense you have on this paper, but truth? No. I’ll lie and lie and make you believe me anyway. So help me God.”
- The last paragraph of your story: “Reader, I murdered him.”
- Detective Inspector Ryan Jackson is diligent, successful, hard-working, boozy, and sometimes a little too prone to use his fists. What worries him, though, is these memory blackouts he tells no one about. Ten of fifteen minutes, to start with. Then an hour or two. Once a whole weekend. And why are his fists sometimes red and blooded? And why did his shotgun smell of powder?
- She’s the perfect wife, with the perfect home, and the perfect husband. There’s nothing wrong with them, nothing. Her husband isn’t too controlling. And that’s definitely not arsenic in the cleaning cupboard.
- “A murder club?” I asked. “Do you mean solving it?” It was Davina who answered. 16 years old. Pretty, pouty, preppy: all the Ps. “Don’t be boring, darling,” she said. “Solving it, committing it. We go both ways you know.” She kissed the tip of her finger and ran it down my face, over my lips to my heart.
- A detective in recovery from Cotard’s Syndrome – a real life condition in which sufferers believe themselves to be dead. (That’s Harry’s detective character, by the way, but you’re welcome to take the idea and use it however you want.)
Mystery Thriller Prompts
Mystery thrillers tend to work in the opposite direction to a crime thriller: revealing a crime, and then working backwards so its characters can solve it. You could try You (Caroline Kepnes), Sharp Objects (Gillian Flynn), or The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Stuart Turton) for inspiration.
- No-one believes you, but you are certain the daily newspaper crossword is spelling out a warning… or a threat.
- You check into a secluded hotel where you’ll sleep in a luxury stilted hut on the private beach. The first morning that you wake up, someone has written ‘DO NOT TRUST THEM’ in pebbles.
- From the comfort of your bed, you check your video doorbell to see if a disputed delivery was left yesterday and who took it. Instead, you see a stranger letting themselves into your house. You do not see them leave.
- Someone is sending you diary extracts, a new one every day…
- You go to collect your teenager from school, but they aren’t there. When you ask in the office, they are confused – they’d agreed you could take your child out of school for a holiday, they show you the form with your signature on it and look at you strangely. But you didn’t sign that form and you had no plans to take them anywhere…
- You move into a new house and start to dig in the garden. You find bones and they look human. But there’s a reason you can’t call the police…
- Your father died when you were still a baby, but you’ve just been sent an obituary for him, dated last week.
- You wake in the night and can’t find your partner. There is no trace of them in the house and no-one knows where they are. When you report them missing to the police, they say there is no record of them existing. So who is the person you’ve been living with for five years?
- When you turned 10, your parents died in mysterious circumstances. On your 20th birthday, your best friend was murdered. It’s your 30th next week…
- Best friends are both accused of murder. Each insists the other one is innocent. Who is to blame?
Spy And Action Thriller Prompts
Spy and action thrillers tend to focus on secret agents and espionage. Packed full of action-adventure, suspense, and spy stories – think race against time to uncover an unseemly plot or overthrow a coup! Try Jason Bourne’s The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum, or Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy for some background reading in this sub-genre.
- You’re a special agent, chasing an international art thief across Europe. Finally, you find something in Prague that leaves you wondering: is the art theft a cover for something even more heinous? And are you the right person for the job?
- You’re a probationary special agent. The lowest of the low on the career ladder. You’re charged with research and filing. When you find something that could finally bring in an international arms dealer, no one believes you. It’s up to you find the proof needed to bring him in.
- 8.07 am on the tube was always an experience. Commuters crammed into carriages. Hot air emphasising the distinctive sweaty, stale smell of the Circle Line. While a tinny voice proclaimed “Euston Square” over the tannoy. A pair of eyes found her through the crowd. They trailed her as she hopped off the carriage, narrowly avoiding the gap between platform and tube. They followed her as she ran up the escalator; clearly late, again. And surveyed the path she took as she made her way through the commuters, her red hair glinting in the sun. A different route this morning. It could only mean one thing.
- It was a short walk back to the house after Lou’s surprise birthday drinks, but it took an age. Blisters threatened to render Kat’s toes useless for days to follow. Toes throbbing and head dizzy from the vodka lime and sodas, Kat reached for the door. Before the tip of the key could graze the lock, the door swung open. Stepping over the threshold, a neon yellow post-it note caught Kat’s attention. Sitting on the hall table, beside a lidded sharpie, a note lay expectantly.
- You’re the victim of a crime, but you don’t report it. Why? Are you guiltier of something worse? What are you hiding? Who are you hiding from?
- James is a creature of habit. Everyday the same routine. Until one day he starts running…in the wrong direction.
Political Thriller Prompts
Your political thriller should be set against a political backdrop – perhaps a power struggle or political intrigue with suspense and high stakes throughout. Try reading The Sum of All Fears (Tom Clancy), or House of Cards (Michael Dobbs) for some ideas.
- There in the tree line a gloved hand waited; a finger poised and ready to take the photo they’ve come for. Crunched-up leaves and broken branches litters the ground beneath their feet. Biding their time. Waiting. Patience has always been his gift.
- You’re a journalist and receive a tip that could change everything in the election next week. But first, you need to validate it.
- An assertive knock on the inner door announced the visit she’d been dreading.
- COBRA’s been taken hostage.
Legal Thriller Prompts
Similar to the crime thriller, a legal thriller focuses on the procedures and investigation, whether that’s the police procedural or the court case. Think The Partner (John Grisham), The Devil’s Advocate (Steve Cavanagh) or You Don’t Know Me (Imran Mahmood).
- “Decisive” was not a word you’d use to describe DC White. Changeable; dim; easily manipulated. But “Decisive”? Not at all. Or at least that’s what they banked on.
- After finishing work late one night, you find a brown paper packet neatly tied with red string on your passenger seat. Alongside a note: “He’s innocent.”
- The cell door clangs shut behind you. Looking down at your hands you see dried mud, dirt, and something that looks a lot like blood.
- You arrange to meet your client in your office. When they don’t arrive, you go out to find them.
- 12 years, 17 days, 6 hours and 32 minutes. That’s how long she had been locked away for. Away from her family. Away from her child. Away from the world as she knew it. But, 12 years, 17 days, 6 hours and 32 minutes is also how long she’s had to plan her revenge. And in 12 minutes she’ll finally be free to do it.
- There’s something not quite right about Mr Hallow.
- They’re hiding something. You can’t put your finger on it, but you know. Your 30 years on the force is telling you there’s something they’re not saying.
Historical Thriller Prompts
The historical thriller is just that, a thriller set in the past. Make sure to research how to write historical fiction novels too, so you can get the balance between embedding the story within the historical period and keeping the narrative pacy and suspense filled. Titles for background reading could include The Alienist (Caleb Carr), The Doll Factory (Elizabeth Macneal) and Liar (Lesley Pearse).
- The rain came early that year. Forcing Fowler and his farmhands to sprint back to the field to bring the rest of the harvest in. It was now or never. Stealing out from behind his hiding place beside the carriage, he headed towards the house. Tucking himself into a dark corner of the entry room, he waited.
- The truth behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: who was the real Frankenstein and how was he injured so unrecognisably?
- The year is 1536. A time when everyone was at risk of losing their head, even the queen. Clay did what he had to do to survive, even if that meant he was the executioner.
- Her masque hung listlessly on a seat in the corner of her bed chamber. The blue damask gown she had ordered specifically for the masquerade that night lay ruined at her feet. Tinged with the brownish-red hues of now dry blood. What had she done? What was she going to do now?
- Somewhere in the French Quarter a saxophone serenaded the inky night sky. The streets thrummed with music and laughter, while colours rebounded off the buildings and along the streets. New Orleans in 1932 was something to behold. But here, in this tiny side street taunted by the distant celebrations, a private investigator was finally closing in.
- The funny thing about not attending your wife’s execution is that you didn’t actually witness her death. In Henry’s case, his wife is back and she’s ready for revenge.
- Life in Victorian London is hard, but especially so when your fiancé has been accused of murder and you have to fight to find the true killer.
Science Fiction Thriller Prompts
A science fiction thriller tends to place the action in an alternative reality – whether that’s a dystopian society or a different planet all together – the action and intrigue of the thriller will be heavily laced with Sci-Fi themes but will remain within the confines of existing science to create a believable risk scenario. Think 11/22/63 (Stephen King) or 1984 (George Orwell).
- Fairgrounds are normally bright and colourful, alive. But today, today it feels different. Cold. Empty. Dark.
- You’re on a carousel. High up above the crowds you spot something in the distance. Unsure what you see, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust, but when they do, you realise things will never the be same again.
- You run a Detective Agency with a twist: specialising in paranormal crimes and activity.
- Liam is tired of being called a conspiracy theorist, but nothing will stop him from proving that the president is not from this earth. His proof? He isn’t either.
- Some might want to use a time machine to see the future, but I know where I’m going. Back to 7th February 2004 to find out who really killed Suzy.
- In a post-apocalyptic world, all that stands between building a new future and certain death, is you.
- In a dystopian world technology has become the currency that life depends on, that is until something threatens the very core of that technology.
- No kissing is allowed in this world, let alone sex. Babies are made by machines and love is against the law. But one couple have fallen for one another and she’s pregnant. Will they escape before it’s too late?
Ten Bonus Prompts
68. Two non-identical twins are separated at birth. One of them is murdered and the other twin’s DNA is found all over the dead body.
69. Sarah Daniel’s credit card is rejected at a coffee shop. She calls her bank who tell her she isn’t Sarah Daniels. Sarah Daniels is dead.
70. A stranger hands Michelle a phone before jumping off a building to her death. The phone contains a voice message from the stranger accusing Michelle of her death.
71. Tania’s best friend Mariah disappeared fifteen years ago. Her body was never found. A young woman moves in next door who looks exactly like Mariah did, back then. But then she vanishes too.
72. Rachelle wakes up to her sleep talking husband confessing to a murder.
73. A man lies on his death bed in hospital. He whispers into the nurse’s ear. ‘I know what you did and your son will pay.” Her son doesn’t return home from school that afternoon.
74. You come across a news story about a missing person. A woman in her forties, with mid-length black hair, brown eyes, 5’5. It’s you. Your face, your description, only… a different name. The story is dated with tomorrow’s date. But you’re safe. Aren’t you?
75. You’ve been getting away with minor crimes (fraud, theft, a little arson) for a while now. And you’re ready for something more challenging. But what will it be? Maybe you could do something about your rude neighbour…
76. Your cat saunters in, carrying what you imagine is yet another mouse in her mouth. Only it’s not a mouse. It’s a finger.
77. A woman returns home after a work trip away. She opens the front door and there is a strange family sitting in her kitchen, at her table. They claim to be her family, but they’re not the family she remembers at all.
78. A woman tweets ”Live or die”. The votes are 65% in favour of death. The next day she is found murdered in her home.
79. A recent widow takes a sole cruise around the Atlantic. One by one passengers start to go missing. Scraps of paper found in their rooms spell out the name of her dead husband.
80. A woman wakes up in a stranger’s bed with no memory of what happened last night. Then she sees the dead man lying next to her and his blood on her hands.
Follow The Footsteps Of Top Thriller Writers
A huge thank you to our guest contributors for sharing some of their psychological and crime thriller story ideas and prompts. Find out more about them and their latest projects here:
Harry is not only the founder of Jericho Writers, but he’s also the bestselling author of a dozen thriller novels and multiple works of non-fiction. Published all over the world, his work has been adapted for TV, he’s been on prize short- and long-lists, and had worldwide critical acclaim. Click here to discover his books.
Holly’s first thriller novel, TRY NOT TO BREATHE, was published in 2016 and went on to be a bestseller in the UK, Ireland, Germany and Australia. A USA Today bestseller, it was also an audiobook, paperback and e-book bestseller in various countries. Her second novel, DON’T CLOSE YOUR EYES, was published in July 2017 in the UK, USA and in many other countries. In May 2018, it hit number one in the audiobook charts. LOVE WILL TEAR US APART was published in June 2018 and THE WOMAN ON THE BRIDGE is out March 2022. She’s also one half of the Honest Authors, co-hosting a fortnightly podcast on the realities of life as a published author. Click here to pre-order her new book!
Sophie is a Cotswolds based psychological thriller author with an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes. Her debut novel ALL MY LIES was published by Simon & Schuster in April, 2021. Alongside writing, Sophie is also the Head of Marketing at Jericho Writers.
Meera Shah is a psychological suspense writer based in London, UK. Her debut novel will be published by Hodder Studio, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, in Spring ’23. To follow her journey to publication you can visit her author website or Twitter page.
More Thriller Writing Tips
I hope these thriller writing prompts helped you fight off your writers’ block and sparked a source of inspiration for you.
If you want to learn a little more about thriller writing, check out our favourite Jericho Writers thriller articles below.
- How Crime Writers can Research Police Procedure
- Tips for Writing Crime Fiction and Thrillers
- How to Get an Agent for Your Thriller
- 7 Top Tips for Writing Gripping Thrillers
- How to Plot a Novel (Using our Easy Plot Template Technique) – Jericho Writers
- How to Create a Great Inciting Incident – Jericho Writers
And remember, even the very best thriller writers started out staring at a blank white blank page. So don’t worry if you haven’t hit upon the perfect idea yet; start out by looking through the story ideas we’ve listed here, or better yet, start listing your own prompts from inspiration you find in everyday life.
You never know, a tiny spark of an idea may inspire you to write something you weren’t expecting and you will be joining the greats at the bestselling thriller table at your favourite bookstore!
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