Not a traditional mystery and not quite horror, a thriller has its own defining characteristics.
By Jessica Dukes
What would you do if you had 30 minutes to save the world, or had to hide in your basement from a serial killer? Leaving our routines and escaping into these exciting (and sometimes scary) situations — that’s why we read thrillers. Here’s how we define the thriller genre, its history, types of thrillers, and how to write a thriller of your own.
A thriller is a type of mystery with a few key differences. As its name suggests, thrillers tend to be action-packed and fast-paced with moments full of tension, anxiety, and fear. Without fail, they are plot-driven stories. Whereas a good mystery may provide a deep dive into the clues that lead a detective to solve a crime, thrillers give you just enough information to provide a convincing motive for the characters to get back to the action. All thrillers are mysteries — readers want to know how the world will be saved or how to escape a serial killer — but not all mysteries are thrillers.
History of the Thriller
Pointing out the mysteries of life and facing the fears that they create is as human as it gets. No surprise, then, that when considering the history of the thriller, we start with the earliest recorded epic poems. The oldest surviving work of literature comes from Sumeria. The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 B.C.) is the story of a king and his challenger who become friends and journey to other lands where they fight a number of supernatural messengers on Earth. Homer’s Odyssey (c. 8th century B.C.), a thriller from Ancient Greece, follows the 10-year journey of Odysseus, as he and his shipmates battle mortals and immortals alike to return home to Ithaca. Around the same time, One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folklore, contains murder mysteries, courtroom dramas, and haunted houses.
Twenty-five centuries later, the Brothers Grimm published (1812), a retelling of much older German folk tales that absolutely qualify as thrillers. Heroines and heroes fight villains, risk their lives, and solve mysteries that leave readers on the edge of their seats. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy (1821) is considered the first literary thriller novel, as it follows an American agent into British territory during the Revolutionary War. From Odysseus to Little Red Riding Hood, and One Thousand and One Nights to the #1 New York Times-bestseller The Silent Patient—the thriller genre’s roots run deep.
Types of Thrillers
If a situation could cause a panic in real life, it would most likely make a great thriller. While many thriller sub-genres overlap, these are the types of thrillers that have emerged since Gilgamesh.
Psychological thrillers are terrifying because they shine a light on the dark side of the human mind. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides explores why a seemingly happy woman would murder her husband. Emma Donoghue’s Room shows how strong a mother’s love can be when it comes to saving her child by outwitting a violent kidnapper.
Crime, conspiracy, and spy thrillers take place in the shadowy corners where crimes are investigated and intelligence is a currency of its own. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré is full of international intrigue that pits spy against spy. Tana French’s In the Woods follows detectives in Dublin as they search for a returned serial killer.
Science fiction or paranormal thrillers skirt the edges of what’s considered real, creating anxiety about the unknown. Alex North’s The Whisper Man features an unexplainable new set of crimes, decades after their original perpetrator went to prison. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, questions the limits of technology when a serum turns a mild-mannered scientist into the sinister criminal.
Political or legal thrillers focus on large conflicts that play out on a battlefield and smaller ones that play out in a courtroom. In The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon, a prisoner of war is brainwashed to become an assassin when triggered. M.T. Edvardsson’s A Nearly Normal Family takes us to the courtroom as a family struggles through their daughter’s murder trial.
Action-adventure thrillers hearken back to the Odyssey, with our heroine or hero struggling through a life-changing journey. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick follows Captain Ahab’s obsession with hunting a white whale despite the risks. In The Martian by Andy Weir, a stranded astronaut must find a way to survive on a hostile planet until he can be rescued.
Historical thrillers capture all the action and the drama of the past. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer introduces us to Hiram Walker, a secret agent in the Underground Railroad. Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept is the story of two CIA secretaries with an impossible assignment: smuggle the Doctor Zhivago manuscript out of the USSR during the Cold War.
Disaster or Armageddon thrillers task the characters with nothing less than saving lives, and doing it on a deadline. In The Tsunami Countdown by Boyd Morrison, one man has one hour to save millions from a rogue wave in the Pacific. Stephen King’s The Stand is a horrifying tale about the end of the world, and how the remaining 1% of the Earth’s population survive the fallout.
How to Write a Thriller
Do you have a story burning a hole in your imagination? Here’s how to tackle writing a thriller.
Know your subgenre. While a certain amount of overlap is inevitable, your book will be more focused if you pick a lane and stay in it. Once you have a subgenre, look at similar titles and identify what makes your story unique.
Pick one dramatic question and answer it. For example: How will Odysseus get home? How will the family rescue their child? The entire plot should create the problem, build obstacles for the characters, then solve the problem.
Create a hero/heroine and a sidekick. Readers don’t need a perfect protagonist but they do want someone to care about, especially when it looks like they may fail to save the day. The sidekick is there to help the heroine/hero, either by keeping them focused or rescuing them in tense moments.
Create an antagonist. Your hero/heroine needs a crisis, and this is where a villain comes in. It can be another person, a natural disaster, a secret organization … anything that causes the one dramatic question. Make your villain as complex as your hero. Readers need to understand the villain’s motives to care about the coming battle.
Timing is key. Readers want drama, suspense, anxiety, and fear to leap off the page. To create these emotions, make a plan for which details to reveal and when to reveal them. Revealing too much too soon kills the suspense. One antagonist that should always be present: time. Whatever the hero has to accomplish, crank up the apprehension by putting them on a do-or-die deadline.
Add plot twists, cliffhangers, and misdirection. Readers love to feel like they’re figuring out your mystery, only to have a surprise plot twist put them back at square one. Red herrings — clues that turn out to not be clues — are a useful tool, as long as you don’t add too many. Insert a few cliffhangers throughout the book at the peak of an action scene.
A mind-blowing ending. Answer the one dramatic question in an equally dramatic way. Here, if the hero/heroine doesn’t necessarily win, they should at least live to fight another day. Also, make sure you leave no questions unanswered. Perhaps the sidekick went missing, or a killer escaped from prison — explain these. Readers love a satisfying ending, especially after a few hundred pages of heart-pounding thrills.