A thriller is designed to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, sweating and salivating to see what happens as dark fantasies, violence, and other high-stakes scenarios play out. For some, it is the ultimate genre high and thrillers are definitely designed to unsettle readers, keep them nervous, and desperate to see what happens next.
Let’s take a closer look at thrillers.
Thrillers are often confused with mysteries and suspense and are often grouped together. The reality is there’s probably not a huge difference, and many aspects of the genres overlap, but perhaps a thriller is more about taking a reader on a journey to see if the threatening element or crime will actually be prevented, stopped or halted in some way.
Reedsy editor Anne Brewer described further differences this way: “In a mystery, the plot is driven forward by the protagonist, a sleuth, who is investigating a murder … In a thriller, the action is driven forward more generally by elements beyond the protagonist’s control.”
Another defining characteristic is that there is often no mystery about who the bad person is in a thriller. We may know who the culprit is from the get-go, but the tension in the plot is about if the protagonist can manage to keep a step ahead of them.
Whatever the definition, a good thriller must create hair-raising plot twists, page-turning tension and horrifying bad guys or scenarios that keep the reader on a desperate mission to finish the story to find out what happens.
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Types of thrillers
A psychological thriller delves into the inner workings of the mind. This might be of the main protagonist themselves, like in Stephen King’s Secret Window, so you might not actually get a sound idea of what is really happening until the end. Or it might involve a character that is mentally disturbed, like the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, who FBI Agent Clarice Starling interviews in order to apprehend another serial killer.
In these thrillers, there is far more physical danger and the characters may face a shootout, car chase, fist fight, or other action sequences to stay ahead of the game. In an action thriller, these are the focus of the story.
In these thrillers, there are plenty of terrifying paranormal elements. Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is an excellent and disturbing example of a family that discovers a mysterious graveyard in the woods that is capable of resurrecting the dead.
In a crime thriller, crime features prominently, like a murder or other serious crime. John Grisham wrote plenty of these stories where both crime and legal elements help form the plot.
Assassination plots are key components of political thrillers. Excellent examples would include Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, when the crew of a Soviet submarine try to defect, or Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate about a Korean war veteran and political nominee is brainwashed into becoming an assassin.
In a mystery thriller, the plot focuses around solving or unravelling a mystery. The environment is always fast paced and intense. Theft, murder or suicide are often common themes.
In these plots, court cases or the legal system are a key feature. John Grisham wrote many of these kinds of stories, like The Firm, about the corporate corruption of a big law firm and The Client in which a young boy hires a lawyer after he witnesses a suicide and needs protection from the Mafia.
Secret agents, surveillance and geopolitical tension are all great ingredients in a spy thriller. Think of a plot like Robert Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy and the shadowy groups, assassination attempts, and covert agencies of the U.S. government involved and you’ve got a recipe for a great spy thriller.
Science fiction thriller
The science fiction genre comes into play in these kinds of thrillers. Mutation, zombies, monsters, scientific experimentation, mad scientists or something similar may all come into play. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park novel, that became such a global movie success, is an excellent example of how “scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should” as character Dr Ian Malcolm says.
A historical thriller is set in a time period considered historical in which the plot involves a mystery or crime. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is an excellent example of how a thriller can weave through the past and present.
This thriller uses real or fictional wars as part of the plot, with military objectives or technologies often a key feature and military personnel featuring as main characters.
Tips for writing thrillers
Choose your genre
Once you’ve selected from the options above, you’re ready to move into the next stage of writing a thriller.
The next phase in writing any novel is to brainstorm ideas. You may wish to see our blogs Writing a Novel: 5 Things You Must Know or Advice for first-time novel writers to help get you started. Think about the kind of characters you can develop, what their goals or motivations might be, and how you can develop conflict, mystery, or suspense into the story.
Keep the reader engaged
Whatever the types of characters, genre, or suspense you opt for, you must keep your reader engaged throughout. A thriller is thrilling by definition, so if your story has plot holes, character goals are achieved too easily, or the characters’ story arcs are too flat, you will not keep the reader hanging on a knife’s edge. Make nothing too easy to achieve and keep raising the bar and shifting the barometer within the story and you should achieve this end.
A key to any good story is pacing, but more so with a thriller. You want to keep action scenes quick, so the high stakes are always clear. But there are times you may want to shift the pace, bring in a twist, and vary the amount of action so it’s balanced, but continually moving forward. And finally, you want all that pacing to lead to a climax where everything comes to a final crescendo and is resolved.
Study the best thriller writers
Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, Robert Ludlum and John Grisham are all renowned for their thriller plots. Read and learn how they develop suspense, create the right kind of mood and tone, continually shift the plot so the reader is forever challenged, suspense is kept heightened, and the pacing is fast and active.
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A lot of examples have been mentioned above in the types of thrillers, but here are some classics.
Stephen King’s 1980 psychological thriller became a film starring Jack Nicholson. The story focuses on the central character of Jack Torrance, a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic. He becomes the caretaker of a secluded hotel in the off-season, accompanied by his wife and son Danny, who possesses psychic abilities referred to as “the shining”. These enable him to see past tragedies at the hotel that become increasingly more powerful and dangerous. They also influence Jack’s sanity, which ultimately threatens their lives.
And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie’s best-selling crime novel delves into the mystery thriller genre, following strangers invited to a solitary mansion off the British coast, where they are murdered one by one, apparently according to a rhyme that hangs in every guest’s room.
The Bourne Identity
All the novels in Robert Ludlum’s three-part trilogy featuring Jason Bourne deserve mention as an excellent spy thriller, but here’s the first at least. The premise of the first book is that Bourne is seeking to uncover his true identity as a deep cover agent and it is packed with plenty of action, violence, incredible survival ability, shadowy agencies and intrigue it’s no wonder the films made Matt Damon a star.