What is a thriller? What makes it different from similar genres?
September 12, 2018
Madison Wheatley, JL Author
Last week, we talked about the action genre. This week, guest writer Madison Wheatley is here to tell us about the thriller genre.
What is a thriller?
They keep up us reading well past midnight. They hook us in and keep us engaged with their dark, twisty plots. They keep us guessing (or even dreading) what will happen next. In some ways, though, the thriller genre is hard to define. After all, don’t stories of all genres have the potential to thrill us in one way or another? And what’s the difference between a thriller and a mystery or a thriller and a horror story? Nonetheless, the thriller is a distinctive genre with unique traits that both set it apart from other types of literature.
According to many experts, this genre dates as far back as ancient Greece, with Homer’s The Odyssey being the first example of a thriller; throughout the epic tale, the reader follows Odysseus as he battles the raging sea, faces dangerous creatures, and overcomes challenging obstacles on his journey home. Despite its archaic form, The Odyssey exemplifies many characteristics of the modern thriller.
While stories like The Odyssey, fairy tales, and other early legends have thrilling elements, the thriller novel as we know it would not emerge until the mid-1800s with “revenge thrillers” such as The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. In the early 20th century, spy fiction by authors such as Edgar Wallace and Robert Erskine Childers helped to further define the thriller genre.
Today, the thriller is one of the most popular genres among adult readers, and some young adult thrillers are gaining popularity, as well.
Elements of Thrillers
What makes a thriller a thriller? Well, it’s all in the name. While a thriller can center on a number of different scenarios, its primary purpose is to thrill the reader. Authors do this by employing a variety of tropes and literary devices.
- Suspense: Suspense is a natural part of everyday life; whenever we find ourselves hoping that something will happen and fearing it won’t at the same time (or vice versa), we’re in a state of suspense. This mixture of fear and hope is what Plato refers to as the Paradox of Suspense, and it is an effective motivator to keep readers turning the pages.
- Plot twists and red herrings: Good thrillers have plots that leave the reader shocked. While a skillful author may drop hints pointing toward a plot twist, she may also include red herrings to intentionally mislead the reader. Plot twists and red herrings keep the reader guessing, never knowing what will happen next.
- High stakes, danger, and adventure: Although not every thriller will include car chases or serial killers, all thrillers are known for having high stakes and a sense of danger. Danger can take many forms, some violent and concrete and others more psychological and abstract. Regardless, in a thriller, authors will ramp up the tension as the story progresses, making it all the more readable.
- Emphasis on plot over character (sometimes): While good fiction depends on good characterization, some genres emphasize plot over character. This is the case with many thrillers; it’s the twisted plot threads and the action that keeps us reading. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, though, and there are plenty of exceptions. Psychological thrillers, for example, heavily rely on character.
Thrillers vs. Horror and Mystery
While many people confuse thrillers with horror, again, the difference between the two is all in the name: the purpose of horror is to horrify you while the purpose of a thriller is to thrill. The two genres may share similar elements, but they each evoke different literary moods. In the same way, thrillers and mysteries are not interchangeable; a mystery novel may have thrilling elements, but it will focus on the mystery itself more than a thriller would.
While there are plenty of things that set the thriller genre apart from others, I found in my research examples of books that are called thrillers by some and horror novels by others. Genre is not always clean-cut, though, and is ultimately up to the reader’s interpretation.
The thriller is a genre with a number of unique subgenres. Here are just a few examples:
- Crime Thriller/Forensic Thriller/Police Procedural: These are examples of fiction that center on a criminal investigation. Crime thrillers, however, are often written from the criminal’s point of view while forensic thrillers and police procedurals center on detectives or forensic scientists trying to catch a criminal. (Example: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.)
- Psychological Thriller: As its name suggests, the conflict in this subgenre exists within a character’s own mind. While psychological thrillers may have scenes of action or violence, the main problem should be solved by a protagonist’s wits and mental stability. (Example: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.)
- Action Thriller: While psychological thrillers emphasize mental conflict, action thrillers on the other hand heavily utilize physical action. This subgenre, more commonly seen in movies than in novels, is known for its fast-paced, action-packed plots. (Example: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.)
- Spy Thriller: One of the first examples of the modern thriller, this subgenre is known for combining the high adventure of an action thriller and the mental elements of a mystery. (Example: The Bourne Trilogy by Robert Ludlum.)
- Supernatural Thriller: Supernatural thrillers include otherworldly elements; a protagonist may have a psychic ability, or the antagonist may be an entity from another realm. This subgenre is a good example of one that blends fantasy and reality. (Example: The Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz.)
- Disaster Thriller/Eco-Thriller: In a disaster thriller, the protagonist must protect himself from or prevent a natural disaster. Similarly, in an eco-thriller, the protagonist must stop a threat to the environment. (Examples: Twister and State of Fear by Michael Crichton.)
In addition to these subgenres, there are also examples of thrillers combined with other popular genres. Examples include romantic thrillers, mystery thrillers, sci-fi thrillers, and others. There are also thrillers that center on specific professional fields, such as financial thrillers, political thrillers, and legal thrillers.
Although thrillers can be difficult to classify and are easily blended with other genres, remember that their mood is what sets them apart from other books. When writing a thriller, keep the reader on the edge of their seat with plenty of twists and turns, engaging conflict, and an exciting conclusion.
About the Author
Madison Wheatley is an author and middle/high school English teacher from Northwest Indiana. When it comes to writing, she has a love for genre-blending; her current projects are an urban fantasy police procedural and a paranormal psychological thriller novel. Her YA horror short "All That Glitters" is published in Seven Deadly Sins, a YA Anthology: Avarice. When not writing, Madison enjoys reading, video games, and spending time with her husband and her Mountain Feist. You can connect with her on Twitter or on her website.
Join our email newsletter to keep up to date with all things books and publishing!