What is a thriller?

Recently I’ve read a few books marketed as thrillers and which didn’t thrill me at all. I think the definition is more concrete than for those nebulous categories such as classics or literary fiction, but maybe there is room for doubt? Or are publishers and promoters misleading us, persuading us to pick up books by describing them as thrillers?

There are many kinds of thrillers, such as psychological, spy, techno, action, gothic, legal, mystery, crime… in fact, you could add ‘thriller’ on to any descriptor, providing it has these elements common to all thrillers:

  • Secrets or mysteries to uncover and / or solve. Quite often, this will be in the form of murders, missing people, conspiracies, or shady events from characters’ pasts coming back to haunt them.
  • Suspense. The building of tension throughout the story will have the reader on the edge of their seat. This often includes characters being stalked, the outcome of legal cases, sinister settings or violent confrontations.
  • Unreliable narrators / characters. If you can’t trust anyone, even the person telling the story, this increases the intrigue, makes all the characters suspects and keeps the reader guessing.
  • Fast pace. New information, snappy dialogue or action scenes crop up very frequently to keep the reader turning the pages and racing through the book.
  • Plot-driven. A focus on the events of the story, rather than detailed character development. The best thrillers will have good character development which doesn’t get in the way of the plot.
  • Twists. Readers like to guess and are impressed with thrillers that are very unpredictable. In my opinion, the more shocking and out-there the twist is, the better! As is demonstrated in my book We Watch You – the twist certainly divided opinion!

How would you define thrillers? Have you encountered any falsely marketed ones lately? Let me know!

9 thoughts on “What is a thriller?”

  1. I agree with your list! And yes I almost finished reading The Love of My Life by Rosie Walsh and one of the tags on Goodreads is thriller but I find it lots of things but not a real thriller. There is someone missing in the course of the story but there isn’t even any real tension building up.

    1. Thanks – yes, I think thrillers are often confused with mysteries. It appears that books are now being categorised as thrillers to encourage people to read them, but this can backfire when readers are disappointed.

  2. Just abandoned one today, billed as an espionage thriller. Espionage yes, thrilling no. I agree with your points, especially fast-paced and tension, and I’m afraid the current habit of having books be 400-600 pages long makes fast pace well-nigh impossible. So yes, I have frequently said that thrillers are supposed to thrill and that books marketed as thrillers often don’t.

    1. Oh dear. sorry you experienced a non-thrilling thriller today. I totally agree with your point about the page numbers. I think twice about reading any book, let alone a thriller, that approaches 400 pages. The longer it is, the more difficult to keep the reader turning the pages! Seems to be a problem with the marketing and is not necessarily the writers’ fault, unless of course they are aiming for a thriller.

  3. I tend to define it simply as a book that has a large section of “crazy things happening at a rapid pace.” Lol. But that’s very simplistic definition. This is definitely something to think about as you are right – sometimes books are listed as thrillers and there isn’t anything thrilling about the plot.

    1. That’s a good definition, I like it! I think pace is very important, I mean there are slow-burn thrillers but they’re more difficult to get into.

  4. I like your definitions, but also wonder how subjective calling a book a thriller might be. A story that keeps me up all night might bore you.

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