Articles / On Genre

I love thrillers, so when we selected the genres we wanted to write about, I claimed this one immediately. From Homer’s Odyssey and Little Riding Hood to Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and American Assassin by Vince Flynn, the thriller genre is one of the most popular in fiction books today. Books in this genre are designed to thrill readers, to keep the suspense and anxiety high, and to keep readers on the edge of their seats until the very end.

The subgenres are as varied as they are numerous. Some of the more popular subgenres of thrillers today are psychological thrillers, spy thrillers, crime thrillers, political thrillers, legal thrillers, and mystery thrillers.
Why do we like thrillers so much? They are an emotional roller coaster attached to a riveting story that the reader cannot put down. No character is safe and the climax, if the author is good, will be something the reader didn’t see coming. The characters are usually fighting for the greater good, and the villains can be a single person or part of a larger scheme. But one thing is certain, the antagonists in a thriller are always a worthy adversary to the protagonist.

While there are no hard rules for thrillers, all thrillers have the following characteristics in common.

  • Thrillers use narrative and high levels of emotion such as fear, anxiety, anticipation, tension, and excitement to drive the pace. In other words, it thrills the reader.
  • The protagonist almost certainly faces impossible odds and must make a heroic effort and face death to stop the forces of evil before more death and destruction occur.
  • The protagonist and many of the characters face death and are not always prepared the solve the problem.
  • The antagonist can be an individual or something on a larger scale such as terrorism or conspiracy. He or she is smart, well equipped, and a formidable threat to the protagonist and, often times, to the greater good.
  • These books are typically told through the point of view of the protagonist.
  • All characters and situations must be realistic, with situations that often times hit too close to home.
  • The story is usually plot drive, but the villain can drive the plot.
  • The plot is intricate.
  • A mystery keeps the reader hooked.
  • Thrillers often times use red herrings, cliff hangers, and plot twists.

If you would like to write for this genre, there are a few tips to help you along the way.

  1. Know why your characters do what they do, what makes them tick, and how they will react.
  2. Do you research, specifically for the sub-genre you are writing for. If it doesn’t make sense, the threat for the characters in the book and for the reader will not be plausible and will lessen the emotional impact.
  3. The story should satisfy the physical, emotional, and psychological needs of the reader.
  4. The pace is fast.
  5. Emphasize the danger the protagonist is in.
  6. There are often moral dilemmas.

James Patterson said is best in the introduction to his book Thriller released June 2006 by MIRA Books.

“…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, historical thriller, political thriller, religious thriller, high-tech thriller, military 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. But what 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.”

So what are some of your favorite thrillers? Share your favorites and any experiences you’ve had writing for this genre.


  1. Some other thoughts I had as to what makes thrillers popular is the fact that a thriller is one of the few genres in which there a targets finite goal to achieve. Thrillers = fixed goals. Romances, to take an opposing example, have a target that has something to do with a nebulous outcome of love – not pointed or measureable with any metrics – just a good aim at something that begins and ends with fuzzy gradients. The fact that in a thriller the goal is black and white (to survive or die, to catch the killer or not to catch the killer) appeals to goal-targeted folks. At the risk of red-flagging misogyny, it explains why statistically 65% of the readers of thrillers are male. Males, according to psychologists, need life structures that support achievable, finite, pointed goals. Without these specific targets, men get restless, listless, bored, and depressed. The fact that you, Janine, rushed to write about thrillers in a site signals either a shift or an anomaly. Lol. I hope it’s a shift, because as far as I’m concerned the more readers of thrillers the better. 😉 Thank you!

    • Ha-ha! I guess I am a goal-oriented gal who loves the thriller genre. I always did like running with the guys. That being said, I do like to read a romance now and again. When it comes to writing, though… hands down, I’m writing a thriller! Thanks for reading and commenting. I’ll continue to hope that 35% increases.

  2. I think perhaps I was leaning more towards a Thriller genre instead of mystery! Thank you so much for bringing this up for me! To be honest, it makes it seem very hard to write. And the tips that you’ve given are wonderful, but I don’t suppose you’d have any further resources for a girl attempting to break into that genre? Good blogs that might have resources?

    I’m hoping to start a new subgenre. An Urban Fantasy Thriller. Die hard meets Torchwood! Only with Fae instead of aliens.

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