Suspense, intrigue, daring escapes, adrenaline dosed sensations of extremely heightened apprehension, on the edge-of-your-seat heart pounding nervousness; these are all defining emotions that embody an ideal thrilling piece of literature. James Patterson, one of the most popular modern thriller genre writers today, once said “Always expect the unexpected.” This is what a thriller is all about. Not knowing exactly what ‘s going to take place next, but still having an idea of what could happen, is an aspect of the thriller genre that makes it exciting.
The hard part about categorizing thrilling writing as a genre is that every other genre has, or should have, an element of “thrill” that keeps people reading. Without a fundamental experience that incites the “thrill” in us all most stories might as well be read by Tom Shane. So what separates an all-out thriller from any other genre that simply incorporates the essence of a thriller to keep readers reading?
In a thriller novel or story the protagonist should be pitted against a dilemma or problem such as some sort of escape, a constant aim or objective, or a mysterious crux such as is often depicted in the Indiana Jones novels. There are several sub-genres in the thriller category. Regardless of the sub-genre a thriller will always have an emphasis on the jeopardy the champions of the story must face. The trepidation and tension with the main issues of a thriller story or novel should be constructed and built up through-out the story until leading to a highly nerve-racking climax. Hiding important information from the reader until key moments, battles, violent fights, and action packed chase scenes are common themes to a successful thriller. There are several sub-genres, such as mystery, that having varying factures that are used to heighten the thrilling nature of those types of stories. Regardless of this the aforementioned descriptions are most evident in the majority of thriller stories.
Although I have described the foundation of most thriller stories and novels, it still leaves the definition itself rather ambiguous. I think some excellent examples of what makes a thriller story stand out as a thriller are:
- The main character or champion of the story is confronted with his or someone else’s death and must save him or herself or the other.
- The aggressor or “bad-guy” is usually more crafty, intelligent, or powerful in the beginning.
- The major theme for the protagonist is either a mission or a character that cannot be defeated.
- The focal point of the plotline may focus on solving some sort of mystery.
- Usually the narrative build of a thriller novel or story is focused mainly on the protagonist’s perspective.
- In a thriller novel the characters and actions are often represented in a semi-believable and realistic fashion.
- The craving for justice, truth, and moral righteousness are some of the major themes that are used as the foundation of the thriller genre.
- It may seem insignificant, but a very important part of a thriller story is the existence of some sort of innocence in what can be seen as a mostly corrupt system or civilization.
- Often in many thriller novels and stories the champion and antagonist will challenge each other physically or mentally.
- Typically in a thriller the characters are drawn in to detrimental situations that they are not ready to resolve. This can happen through their own ignorance, curiosity, simple chance, or force.
- The main characters of thriller stories are often men who become
- The main character is often a man or a woman who is either used to danger and thus a “hardened” individual, or not used to danger and gets thrown in to a dangerous situation.
A true thriller will carry many of these attributes, if not all. These factors held alone are simply not enough to build the required theme and plot to create a tried and true thriller story. As I described initially, most stories contain content that lies within the boundaries of the thriller genre. Although another way to identity a thriller story is to make note of the type of characters within. A lot of thriller stories will include characters such gangsters, a character that stalks others, mercenaries, harmless victims of the antagonist, damsels in distress, characters that have haunted pasts, demented characters, mass murders and killers, secret agents, terrorists, police officers, convicts that have escaped, private detectives, insurgents, taboo relationships, fiendish psychos, tired and world worn men or woman, and much more.
As you can see, there are so many facets to the thriller genre it can become difficult to pinpoint at times. I believe that this article approaches the thriller genre from an analytical point of view. If a book or story has powerful elements of what you have read in this article than it should be considered a member of the thriller genre. I hope that this article helps you in identifying, defining, and even assigning a genre to your own story or stories you have read.
As a note, if you have written a story and are trying to determine you genre please refer to the context of this article to determine whether or not your story is a part of the thriller genre.
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