Updated August 2023
In previous posts, we identified several genres and subgenres of fiction (See Genres Defined, Part I and Part II.) Here we’ll answer the question “What is a thriller?” and examine some of this popular genre’s subcategories.
What characterizes a thriller novel?
This genre is known for the intensity of emotion it creates. Apprehension. Exhilaration. Anxiety. The main character (MC) has a goal, a nearly impossible one at times, and a heroic effort and/or sacrifice is required to overcome obstacles and reach that goal.
Time is almost always a huge concern, as the MC must accomplish some feat (rescue his girlfriend, find the antidote, stop the terrorists) before disaster strikes.
The level of intensity can either build slowly throughout the book or hit the reader from the very beginning, but the novel must generate a level of tension that keeps the reader turning pages. Most importantly, good thrillers keep up an intense pace, and the reader is swept along for an incredible ride.
If the author has done a good job with accurate research and an intricate plot, the reader will also come away emotionally satisfied and having learned something. Thrillers, by their very definition, create a thrill, but they also provide good information about the legal system, medical procedures, the inner world of Soviet espionage, military weaponry, etc.
Patricia Cornwell writes a series of medical thrillers based on her knowledge of the medical examiner’s world—a world that fascinates her fans, who are sophisticated and want accurate facts, not vague explanations or made-up procedures.
Thrillers are often lumped together with mysteries, but there are key differences between these genres. In mysteries the MC is presented with a puzzle (a murder, for instance) and must look for clues to solve that puzzle. In thrillers the MC faces a nightmare of a situation (impending disaster, serial killers, airborne viruses) and must learn new skills to cope with the circumstances.
Most, if not all, of the “clues” are provided in a thriller, and the reader expects twists and turns and surprises rather than answers. Thrillers appeal more to the senses than an intellectual exercise in detective work, considered too “tame” for true thriller aficionados. It’s the emotional connection that counts.
Popular Thriller Subgenres:
Medical thriller. Modern medical technology is used to harm rather than heal. Robin Cook is the master of this genre.
Legal thriller. Usually, a lawyer or someone associated with the law takes on the legal system, often putting their own lives at risk. John Grisham and David Baldacci are well-known in this category. Forensic thrillers are a popular offshoot of both this and medical thrillers.
Disaster thriller. The town’s dam is going to burst in 24 hours or less. A ship innocently heads to port, carrying a bomb that could wipe out half of California. A meteor hurtles toward Earth. Any natural or man-made disaster that affects a large group of people can become a disaster thriller.
Action-Adventure thriller. Difficult to successfully pull off, thanks to the huge amount of action and plot required, this is nevertheless a hugely popular genre, especially when translated to film. It’s characterized by physical action, bravery, and violence, and you’re likely to encounter high-tech weapons and remote, dangerous locations. Think The Bourne Identity.
Horror thriller. Silence of the Lambs is a good example of this subgenre, emphasizing mental, emotional, and physical trauma for the MC as he/she battles a monster, human or otherwise. This also ties in to Serial Killer thrillers, in which the MC must track down a killer who threatens a group of people. Lots of blood and gore; lots of suspense.
Techno thriller. This usually focuses on military technology of some sort, and the technology is essential to the plot. Tom Clancy’s work comes to mind immediately.
In the rich literary banquet of the thriller genre, the reader can also choose from police, spy, romantic, historical, supernatural, political, erotic, and conspiracy thrillers. It’s a wildly popular genre overall, thanks to the adrenaline rush, complex plots, and big storylines.
Thrillers are exciting. They are dangerous. And they should leave us feeling satisfied that not only did the MC save the world from (insert global threat here), but we learned a little something in the process. And even if we’ll never need to know how to detect a false heart attack in an autopsy, it makes us feel smarter if we do.
If you’ve written a thriller (or a novel in any other genre), Writer’s Relief can help prepare your manuscript for submission and target the best-suited literary agents for your book. We’ve been helping creative writers connect with agents and editors since 1994!