Below, I list a collection of thought-provoking tips on writing the thriller genre. It’s not that easy to pinpoint what a thriller is, because a lot of descriptions focus on the tone. But this doesn’t help writers much. From a writing point of view, the thriller must contain certain things, otherwise it’s not a thriller.
Thriller is a hybrid genre of mystery and horror with crime and action elements. Each thriller story will have its own balance of these things. This explains why we can still be surprised by a thriller, even though the genre conventions are so strict.
The thriller is difficult to write. You’re writing characters who don’t tend to act as people do in real life, yet the audience has to believe they could behave like that, given the same outlandish circumstances. So when writing a thriller you have to come with all the reasons why the hero doesn’t just call the authorities.
Raison d’être of a Thriller
Thrillers are first and foremost entertaining. Thrillers heighten the audience’s moods, producing anticipation/ultra-heightened expectation, surprise, anxiety and terror. Thrillers tend to be adrenaline raising, gritty and fast paced.
Thrillers are simultaneously terrifying and reassuring because the villain almost always gets killed or arrested. Thrillers uphold surprisingly conservative values, but only if you watch them right until the end. The thriller is basically a Cautionary Tale For Adults.
Thriller and Genre
Thrillers are typically the most emotional of the suspense genres. Thrillers focus on the fear, doubt and dread of the main character as they face some form of what Dean Koontz has deemed “terrible trouble.”
The thriller shares a literary lineage with the epic and myth. Monsters, terror and peril prevail. Thrillers emphasise the dangerous world we live in, the vulnerability of the average person, and the inherent threat of the unknown.
Thrillers have an atmosphere of menace, violence, crime and murder.
Primary THRILLER Sub-genres
Different people divide thrillers differently. Here’s how Shawn Coyne divvies them up. The nice thing about Shawn Coyne’s taxonomy is that any thriller can be made to fit into at least one of his categories:
- SERIAL KILLER THRILLER — About police officers doing their jobs (Silence of the Lambs)
- LEGAL THRILLER — About lawyers doing their jobs (A lot of John Grisham novels)
- MEDICAL THRILLER — About doctors doing their jobs
- MILITARY THRILLER — About army personnel doing their jobs
- POLITICAL THRILLER — About politicians doing their jobs (The Killing is an interesting blend of political and serial killer thriller). The pure political thriller is not as popular with audiences. (John Truby explains why in this post.)
- JOURNALISM/CONSPIRACY THRILLER — About journalists doing their jobs
- PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER — These emphasize the unstable psychological and emotional states of their main characters. There are similarities to Gothic and detective fiction:
- A dissolving sense of reality.
- The setting is usually domesticated.
- The main characters are usually obsessed, tortured or sociopathic.
- Unreliable narratives are common. e.g. Psycho, Homeland, pretty much everything by Stephen King, Henry James, Patricia Highsmith.
- FINANCIAL THRILLER — about investors doing their jobs
- ESPIONAGE THRILLER — About spies doing their jobs (The Americans)
- WOMAN IN JEOPARDY THRILLER — From the point of view of a vulnerable woman who must find her way out of a life and death situation
- CHILD IN JEOPARDY THRILLER — From the point of view of a vulnerable parent (usually a woman) who must risk her life to save her child
- HITCHCOCK THRILLER — If you’re using many of the same techniques used by Hitchcock, you’re probably writing a Hitchcock thriller. Techniques include: the Macguffin as inciting incident, the sense that you’re a voyeur into someone’s private life, the sense of psychological unease running throughout, and the false ending (or ‘climactic plot twist’).
Woven through all and any of these, there might be a romantic hook. (Despite using the term, I have a problem with the concept of subplot.) Often, in any of the suspense genres, there’s a romance between a couple which gets ‘suspended’ (amping up the romantic suspense along with the life and death suspense) due to more pressing issues relating to the action, adventure or crime situation of the film, e.g. Speed.
CHECKLIST FOR THRILLERS
Are you writing a thriller or a mystery?
The mystery genre is very wide and encompasses many other genres. In a thriller, the nature of the mystery is quite specific: In creating thrillers, writers do not have to outsmart the reader (as they do in a straight, Agatha Christie style mystery story). In a thriller mystery, the characters have to outsmart each other.
Are you writing thriller or detective genre?
As in the detective genre, thriller involves detection, but in a thriller there are typically far fewer suspects. Just one really terrible villain, usually.
ARE YOU WRITING THRILLER OR HORROR?
In a thriller, the worst that could happen to your main character is death. In horror, the worst that could happen is ‘a fate worse than death‘. The horror genre is heavily based on Christian symbolism, and often, the ‘worse than death’ consequence is damnation, or a version thereof.
In horror, the opponent is way more powerful than the hero. The hero really stands no chance. The opponent is not just a monstrous ‘villain’ — it’s an actual monster, or supernatural. (They might have the body of a human, but they’re not human.)
In horror, the opponent commits an escalating series of crimes whereas in a thriller there might be just one big crime. In horror, the opponent is on a path of destruction and devastation, whereas the villain in a thriller has a logical (if not empathetic) human reason for wanting the hero dead.
STORYWORLD OF A THRILLER
- Whether as small as a cottage in the woods or as large as the planet, the arena the hero seeks to protect represents everything she values. The stakes are ultimate.
- The storyworld is an outworking of your hero. Detective stories, crime stories, and thrillers often set up a close connection between the hero’s weakness — when it exists — and the “mean streets,” or world of slavery in which the hero operates.
- Thrillers show society as dark, corrupt and dangerous.
- The storyworld is atmospheric — the writer gives plenty of detail. Writers also use tricks to make the setting feel like it’s ‘alive’. If you want to know more about those tricks, see: How Can Setting Be A Character?
PLOT AND CHARACTER WEB OF A THRILLER
- A life and death situation from the designing principle onwards. (One of the main differences between thrillers and mysteries concerns the amount of danger the main character is in. The hero in a thriller will come much closer to death.)
- There’s probably a single main character.
- The inciting incident will be the crime of the master villain (ie. your main character’s opponent).
- This crime must be devastating.
- This devastating crime is about to be committed, or has been committed with the threat of an even worse one to come. (This is why serial killer thrillers are so popular — we know there will be another one.)
- A thriller has a villain-driven plot. The villain presents obstacles that the hero must overcome.
- The hero has to solve the puzzle of overcoming the villain, getting one step ahead.
- Basically, the main character is saving their own life and probably others’ lives by escaping from a person who wants to kill them.
- KEY POINT: The forces of the villain embody the weaknesses in the hero. This is known as The Shadow In The Hero.
- The ‘main character’ will be your typical hero, or ‘the character the audience roots for’. Using terminology proposed by Northrop Frye, they may at first appear to be low mimetic, but then they rise to an incredible challenge and prove themselves high mimetic, or even almost superhero. This allows an audience the wish fulfilment fantasy as we imagine that we, too, might rise to any challenge to save lives.
- The difference between a hero and a villain: the hero wants to save themselves, others and the world, whereas the villain is interested only in power or personal monetary gain.
In the simple thriller form the opponent is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community. More often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun. In a more politically correct age, the physical flaw (clearly an outer manifestation of inner damage) has been scaled down to a level society finds acceptable. If the antagonist is internal, the same principles apply: the enemy within works in opposition to the host’s better nature — it cripples them. It stands in opposition to everything they might be.
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
Tears for Fears wrote a song about your typical desire of a villain.
- The hero wins out of goodness, not because they are smarter than the villain, though they will eventually prove smarter (or more lucky) than the villain, otherwise the villain will win!
- The thriller hero is often quite vulnerable—not just physically but psychologically. They more vulnerable they are psychologically, the more likely you’re writing a ‘psychological thriller’.
- As your villain is cleverly planning to wreak havoc, your hero is cleverly planning to thwart them. They’re both smart.
- No one in the audience wants the hero to miss a clue. That’s what suspense readers are really looking for. The audience wants the comfort of seeing everyone doing their best, even as the villain rises up to meet their efforts. (The last thing you want the audience to say is ‘Why don’t they just…?’)
- At some point, the hero must realise what the villain wants. (An external object of desire.)
- At some point, the hero becomes the primary victim. The villain’s crime must become personal to the hero.
- In the best thrillers, the villain either targets the hero specifically from the outset, or learns the hero’s particular weaknesses and desires over the course of the story, then targets them ruthlessly.
- Thriller heroes don’t behave like people in real life, who are likely to simply call the police. They often have an element of crazy, or their situation makes calling on help impossible.
- The opponent will typically be your archetypal villain. (In other stories the opponent might be a parent or teacher or someone who basically cares for the main character.) But thrillers will often contain other types of opposition as well — the full web, from officials who stand in the hero’s way simply by doing their job, to, well, the murderous villain.
- All psychological weaknesses are on display, and that creates tension.
- Each character holds a hand of ‘cards’ — tools and knowledge at their own disposal. The tension builds as these cards are revealed, and every character –- villain, hero, police, everyone -– every character’s tools must be revealed to the others.
- The villain is known to the hero, but their guilt is not absolutely certain—or the hero wishes not to accept the truth of their guilt. (Uncertainty enhances the suspense.)
- The hero is under constant attack as they try to prove the villain’s guilt and/or stop the next atrocity. (In contrast, the villain of a mystery typically remains hidden until the end.)
- The hero’s Plans to overcome the villain initially fail. They must then modify their plans. (This is true for pretty much every film or novel-length story, actually.)
- The Battle sequence will lead to an ‘all-is-lost’ moment where the hero is completely at the mercy of the villain. At this moment, the hero unleashes their ‘gift’, which might be a newly realised inner strength or a super power they didn’t know they had, or pure willpower which derives from past traumas, or having a lot at stake.
- Before the actual ending there will be a false ending. There will be a scene that SEEMS to mark the resolution, but the villain comes back to challenge the hero again. This is why thriller is a mystery + horror blend — this is from horror (and also from comedy, interestingly). The villain is revealed to be inhuman, coming back and back like a mechanical killer or robot.
- So as well as a Self-revelation (in which the hero learns something about themselves e.g. Clarice Starling learns she’ll be a good detective, and so does her boss), the audience enjoys the plot revelation that this wasn’t the ending after all.
- As for the New Equilibrium, thrillers tend to have a happy ending in which the villains are killed or arrested. Though sometimes we’re left with an uneasy feeling (as in Happy Valley) in which the hero will never be able to relax again. (Note that Happy Valley is a serial killer thriller + drama blend, which means the ‘classic thriller’ beats have been extended and modified.)
A Difference Between ‘Internal’ and ‘External’ Thrillers
This is from an episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast.
Internally Motivated Thrillers
This is really weird when it’s first pointed out (by the Narrative Breakdown podcast, for me), but there’s a type of thriller which maps exactly onto the structure of comedy.
Both thrillers and comedy relies on the ‘mask’. I have written an entire post about Masks in Storytelling.
Matt Bird calls this the Transgression, Noir, or Wrong-Man Thriller. Hitchcock was a fan of these. Its structure looks like this:
Discontent – someone is unhappy about something
Transgression with a mask – peculiar to comedy and thrillers
Transgression without a mask – midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off
Dealing with consequences
Spiritual Crisis – happens in almost every story
Growth Without a Mask
As you’ll have noticed, this is an ‘internal’ subgenre because it starts with the psychological weakness of the hero — the hero’s ‘discontent’. The standout Transgression Thriller is Double Indemnity, from the 1940s.
Externally Motivated Thrillers
This type of thriller is often called the Conspiracy Thriller. (In The Narrative Breakdown podcast this starts at 17.50.)
Injustice (externally motivated)
Overconfident Investigation Begins
Overconfident Investigative Crusade
A Series of Betrayals (again, these are external to the hero’s psychology)
Revelation — the conspiracy is exposed or the mystery is solved.
Since I’m a fan of John Truby’s way of structuring a story, I can see exactly how the 22-steps map onto this. The ‘Plan’ is overconfident (because it’s a bad plan and doesn’t work — the rule for initial plans). The hero changes the plan (Changed Desire and Motive), and the betrayals equate to a combination of Truby’s separate steps, such as ‘Attack by Ally’, the revelation that your ally is actually your opponent, and includes the Battle sequence. Obviously, the main psychological weakness of heroes is overconfidence (which may bleed into their moral weakness, as they disbelieve people who have information).
The standout conspiracy thriller is The Maltese Falcon (also from the 1940s). Other examples include: L.A. Confidential, Crimson Tide, All the President’s Men, China Town.
Other Writing Techniques Typically Employed In Thrillers
- A MacGuffin often begins the plot (The MacGuffin must be plausible and valuable object of desire that will push the characters to obtain and fight for it. the quest for the MacGuffin must create conflict, tension, and emotion. — Shawn Coyne.) Hitchcock invented the word. If you’ve started with a McGuffin, you may be writing a Hitchcock Thriller.
- The writer will make use of techniques like reveals, and possibly a reversal
- Narrative drive — Characters and setting serve the pace of the narrative rather than the other way round. You still need to texture the pace. Even fast-paced stories need down moments.
- Deferment. The reader wants to know what happens next but don’t tell them right away. Withhold information for as long as possible without it seeming contrived.
- In thriller novels, balance on the page tends to be: lots of dialogue plus the occasional two-inch paragraph of narration. For more on that distinction, see Parts of Prose.
Ticking Clock technique is most common in action genres (Speed), thrillers (Outbreak), caper stories (where the characters pull off some kind of heist, as in Ocean’s Eleven), and suicide mission stories (The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen). There are many variations on the ticking clock. Panic Room invents a variation in which the daughter’s watch is a number showing her blood sugar levels. The specifics are meaningless unless you’re familiar with Type 1 diabetes, but any audience gets the idea. The watch is shown in close up when the daughter rolls over to settle down to sleep.
Thrillers Written From The Villain’s Point Of View
Most thrillers are told from the hero’s point of view, but some are told from the point of view of the villain.
- The whole Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith is an example of this kind of thriller. Tom Ripley is our main character who both solves murders and murders his own people.
- There’s an Agatha Christie book which does this. (She tried it, but didn’t stick with it.)
- Dexter — the TV show diverged a lot from the books. He only kills criminals who have gotten away with things. It’s an interesting reverse because we know who’s committed the crime. It’s the process of him working backwards from that and planning the kill.
- 20 Books With Villain Protagonists from Bustle
Thrillers and Feminism
A lot of [thrillers] have the classic “male cop investigating murdered woman” plot. […] When the women aren’t being “brutally murdered” and raped, they sometimes get to be the main characters. […]
We need to start describing characters and blurbing books better. Seriously. In 100% of books with male and female cops/detectives as co-protagonists, the woman occurs second in the description as such: “Man, with Woman by his side”, or “Man, teamed with Woman”. Karin Slaughter’s Triptych features this gem: “Male veteran cop and Female beautiful vice cop.” In Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, two men set out on a mission but when “they are joined by Sara Howard, a brave and determined woman who works as a secretary in the police department,” their team becomes “unlikely.” Sue Crafton’s M is for Malice, written by a woman and featuring women doesn’t even have GR description.
Let’s talk more about these female protagonists, which either accidentally stumble upon the murder/crime or are unlikely suspects in the plot; they are rarely formally established and celebrated cops or detectives. Sample this description I Let You Go, with a female protagonist: “Desperate to escape, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of a cruel November night that changed her life forever. Slowly, Jenna begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her, and the consequences will be devastating.” It is tough to read this, keeping in mind that this is opposed to their male counterparts, who get to be “brilliant geniuses” and “brave” and “veteran”, while women remain “lonely”, “desperate”, or at most “the first in their fields”.
I’ve mainly learned about thrillers from the following sources:
- The Anatomy of Story by John Truby (a book and audio course)
- Secrets of the Thriller Genre by Shawn Coyne
- Thriller Types and Tropes from The Narrative Breakdown