I'm trying something totally new and writing an eco-thriller serial for the website of an ethnic museum/organization I'm connected with.

I'm more of a traditional mystery gal and my favorite reading tends to be in this subgenre. So I need some help from your thriller fans out there--do I need to show my nemesis doing his nasty deeds early in my story? Or can I slowly reveal his identity further into the story? I'm commissioned to write 12 installments, so I was thinking of at least introducing him in maybe the second or third installment, but not really showing how he's behind a food poisoning epidemic until much later.

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Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
--Kurt Vonnegut

The opinions are probably going to vary greatly here, but I pretty much agree with Vonnegut where thrillers are concerned. I would show him doing his nasty deeds up front. Silence of the Lambs is a good example. We know right away what we're dealing with--a killer who skins his victims. What we don't know, and what generates much of the suspense, is if he's going to succeed with his latest victim.

Good luck with the project, Naomi!
I tend to think it's good to build the tension in a thriller. I like it when they start out as sort of - dum di dum di dum, just a normal day, oh, something's a little amiss, hmmm it's worse than I thought, OH NO! I think that the spiraling out of control scenario works pretty good for thrillers - makes them more thrilling. I wouldn't draw it out too long, but a slow descent into madness that happens over the course of as many as three to six chapters, isn't a bad thing. At least not to me.
I agree with both Jude and Eric. It really depends on what you want the outcome of the story to be, or where you think the outcome is headed.

My personal preference is for tension that builds. I'd probably drop a few hints that this character *might* be the nasty deedster, but not make it overt until necessary (like his deed is about to poison his family, with whom we already identify by that point in the story).
Naomi--

You might want to check out J.A. Konrath's latest, Dirty Martini. It deals with the same subject matter. And, btw, the bad guy is seen injecting poison into an apple on page one.
In media res works well for me. Another way I've seen it expressed, by the author of 'The Nine-Act Structure,' is "Someone works late through the night." The idea is that events are in motion before we join the story. I think it creates tension sooner and gets readers involved sooner.

But I think the less you explain about the cause and the more the effect is itself a mystery, the higher the tension will rise.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a very good example. So is JAWS.
What the heck, I'm going to disagree with Kurt Vonnegut and suggest the exact opposite - give your readers as little information as possible as late as possible. However, despite that I would agree with the final sentiment that the reader should still be able to finish the story should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I don't see any harm in revealing the nemesis until the very last chapter, provided the reader is clear that this is story that's going to end with a hero-nemesis confrontation and it isn't a thriller where the bad guy is actually the faceless bureaucracy of government.

Take the classic comedy-thriller 'Charade' as an example. Until the final act, the audience is left guessing as to who the true bad guy is. Throughout, both the audience and Audrey Hepburn are given incomplete, misleading or plain wrong information, but at no point are you ever confused about what kind of film you're watching. In contrast, Jeff Abbott's book 'Panic' starts with the hero's mother getting killed by person or persons unknown. A few chapters in and you know exactly who did it and while the 'why?' remains unanswered, the mystery has gone and everything else seems a bit mundane as a result.

As another example, you get two letters through your letterbox. One reads:

I am going to kill you... soon. Signed, Anonymous.

The other reads:

I am going to kill you with a rusty axe next Tuesday at 6pm. Signed, Theodore Plank, Amateur Proctologist and Member of Little Biggin Amateur Theatrics Society, Flat 11b, Gustav Square, Little Biggin, East Virginia.

Now, both can work in a suspense thriller, but I'd say the first one has a little more mystery to it.
My feeling is that the dirty deed (the first dirty deed?) should start the ball rolling. I introduce my perpetrator right away, but he remains anonymous (there are several POVs) and appears from time to time in the story, getting more deeply involved and becoming increasingly dangerous to the protagonist.
I am going to kill you with a rusty axe next Tuesday at 6pm.

To me, this would be a great first line for a thriller. Whoever gets this message only has a certain amount of time to prevent a gruesome and visceral end. If I opened a book and read this, I would have to read on.
I must admit, after I wrote it, I did see the possibilities there. Instead of the non-specific paranoia that would come from the first letter, it instead raises the question of who is this person and why does he want to kill me? It even raises the intriguing possibility of the protagonist sitting down to lunch at a café with Theodore Plank on the Monday and asking him to his face 'why?'

If I actually wrote anything these days I could probably get a short story out of that.
It really raises the question why the axe is rusty. Apparently great significance attaches to this. Let me see you come up with a satisfying reason. :)
In Dustin Hoffman's Rainman voice:

Yeah. 'Course we have rusty axes on Tuesday...
Unfortunately, it's coming up with a satisfying reason - not too mundane, not too predictable - that stymies most of my writing, but that would apply to the motive more than the rustiness.

"But why a rusty axe?" I asked, shaking my head.

Theodore Plank did not answer straight away. He leaned back in his chair and sipped at his tea whilst watching pedestrians passing-by outside the café window. Then his cup clinked back down on its saucer and he stared at a point two inches to the left of my nose.

"The pain," he replied. "A pristine blade cuts clean and true. A rusty blade... it's like you - unfit for purpose. It snags on the flesh, its blunt edge splinters bone but does not break it, not the first time, not the second. You have to keep hacking, again and again and the blood and skin does not slide from the metal, it clings... clings to the rust... clings as if grateful for..."

Plank's voice trailed off and his gaze fell away. I was suddenly aware of the sounds of the café again: the conversation at the table to my right, the clunk of the cash register drawer, the coffee percolating behind the counter. That these sounds continued on, innocuous, heedless of the would-be murderer in front of me, made my skin crawl almost as much as the way Plank's eyes rolled back and forth in the sockets. Finally his eyes became still, their focus fixed on the plate set down in front of me.

"You haven't touched your donut," he remarked.

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