In my earlier posts, I’ve looked at the differences in mysteries, suspense, and thrillers. Today, I want to take another look at thrillers: what they are, their components, and some of the different types.

Like any post I do on a literary genre, I feel I need to give some caveats. Just because a story is put in a certain genre doesn’t mean it has to have all the usual parts. Having all the parts doesn’t insure a great read. And missing some of the regular components doesn’t mean the story is inadequate. And once the critics feel they have a genre pegged, an author is going to come and put a unique spin on the category, blurring the lines once again.

What is a Thriller
Reacher TV series on Amazon
Lee Cobb’s Reacher

A thriller is a crime fiction story where the reader is more concerned with the how than the who. Instead of trying to answer a riddle, they follow the action to see if the hero or heroine captures the criminal, stops a crime, or saves the world. Think Jack Reacher. These stories are often a combination of mystery and horror.

Instead of being caught up in a mystery’s clues, a thriller grabs you by the neck with tension and anxiety and forces you on a wild ride.

According to the International Thriller Writers, a thriller is characterized by “the sudden rush of emotions, the excitement, sense of suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant breakneck pace.”

Mysteries use facts and information, thrillers use emotions. Often in a thriller you know who is doing what at the beginning. But how are they stopped or captured, or are they?

Some of the earliest thrillers are our fairy tales. Little Red Riding Hood goes to see her grandmother. But the evil old wolf stops her and wants to eat her—meal she is taking to her grandmother. So how does the wolf plan to take the meal? And how does Red Riding Hood survive in the creepy woods?

Now if this was a mystery, she would meet the tin man, the scarecrow, and the wolf and we would try to figure out which one wanted to steal Granny’s lunch before they revealed themselves by jumping out of the closet.

A mystery is often character driven. The writer makes us care for the sleuth, then we want to see how she discovers the criminal. A thriller is more plot driven. They make us sit on the edge of our seats, munching more popcorn.


The Components of a Thriller

In every genre, there are literary devices, tropes, that the reader expects to find in the story. Dan Brown, in his Masterclass on thrillers, names three things every thriller should contain.

  1. The Contract. At the beginning of a thriller, the author implies some promises of what is coming to the reader. And the author has to deliver on all of them.
  2. The Clock. Whether it’s a literal or figurative clock, there is a deadline when the protagonist must achieve their goal. In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice visits the cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal Lector, to undergoing a bizarre psychoanalytical session. But she needs to information from him so she can find another serial killer because he or she strikes again. Several James Bond stories have the ultimate British secret agent trying to stop a sinister plot before a nuclear bomb goes off.
  3. The Crucible. The story has something that constrains the main character, offering them no escape, and forces them to act. In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs and the scientists are all on an island. In many of the stories, the writer strips the protagonist of all his or her allies and resources, until they are forced to face the mastermind face-to-face.


Types of Thrillers

In Thriller, a 2006 collection of short stories by some of the genre’s top writers, James Patterson writes in the Introduction, “Thrillers provide such a rich literary feast. There are all kinds. The legal thriller, spy thriller, action-adventure thriller, medical thriller, police thriller, romantic thriller… The list goes on and on, with new variations constantly being invented. In fact, this openness to expansion is one of the genre’s most enduring characteristics.”


In 2018, Forbes Magazine said that crime fiction accounted for the vast amount of printed books. And thrillers don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. As our world gets more overwhelming and stressful with politics, global warming, war, and health concerns, many are desperate for something that will give them a break. A temporary escape. A refuge.

The stories can also be a window into our society. A view into how current news stories can affect the people involved.

Thrillers crime fiction @TimSuddeth @OpeningaMystery #mysteries Share on X

Let’s let best-selling author, James Patterson, have the last word.

“(W)hat gives the variety of thrillers a common ground is the intensity of emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness, all designed to generate that all-important thrill. By definition, if a thriller doesn’t thrill, it’s not doing its job.”

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