According to 2018 statistics, thrillers are the most popular genre among U.S. adult book sales. And although thrillers aren’t for everyone, if you happened to love your first thriller, chances are you couldn’t wait to pick up the next.
What makes thrillers so addictive? Is it the adrenaline rush that mimics the feeling of riding the park’s tallest roller coaster? The suspense of not knowing what’s behind the next corner?
Thrillers offer us a way to experience vicarious thrills of racing off cliffs, staring death in the face, and uncovering valuable secrets, and all from a safe environment, which is why millions of readers can’t get enough.
The following tropes are not required of the thriller genre, nor are they exclusive to it, but if you see more than one of these in a story, there’s a good chance it’s a thriller.
1. The Unreliable Narrator
What better way to keep a reader on the edge of their seat than making them doubt whether they should trust the narrator or main character?
From the seemingly perfect Amy from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl to the charming Joe from Caroline Kepnes’ You, unreliable narrators win our sympathies then take us on a wild ride by revealing their true selves—and sometimes their true self is a sociopath or a serial killer.
And even when they aren’t so bad, but just severely flawed or complicated—like Rachel in The Girl on the Train—the fact that you doubt them at key moments is still what makes the adventure so thrilling.
2. The Psychiatrist
Though they’re not present in every psychological thriller, the presence of a psychiatrist or other relevant expert to walk us through the twisty channels of the other characters’ minds can certainly be an interesting (and insightful) addition.
And when they’re both an expert and unreliable—like Mr. Hannibal Lecter—we’re really put in a corner and forced to trust our only guide through the scary mess, even though they’re anything but trustworthy.
3. The Grouchy Detective
Sherlock Holmes wasn’t always the most patient with Watson, but fortunately his brusque manner couldn’t drive his loyal companion away.
Leading investigators like Holmes or Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon may be a little short-tempered—and perhaps more than a little arrogant—but they do have a lot of pressure on them, if we’re being fair.
The protagonist of a thriller could be anyone, from an unsuspecting husband to a hungover train passenger—but in crime and action thrillers, the lead character is often someone accustomed to danger, such as a police officer or detectives.
They’ve seen a lot in their years on the job, and they’re focused on one thing only: cracking the case, or finding the missing person or thing. They don’t have time for small talk.
4. The Missing Person
It’s hard to think of a thriller where someone doesn’t go missing at some point, and for many thrillers, the disappearance sets the whole premise. (I mean, one of the most famous thrillers in recent history is literally called Gone Girl.)
Sometimes the vanished person is found safe and alive; sometimes their doomed fate is made clear right from the beginning. Sometimes their disappearance is the story; sometimes it’s just part of a larger mystery that the protagonist must unravel. In any case, the missing person trope is a tried and true favorite of the thriller genre.
5. The Helpless Witness
When the protagonist isn’t a hard-boiled detective, he or she is likely an innocent bystander who gets sucked into some sort of sinister situation.
They’re just going about their everyday life, dealing with their own problems, when all of a sudden, they see something they weren’t supposed to, or find something planted in their bag.
One famous example is found in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller, Rear Window. The protagonist, L.B. Jeffries, is confined to a wheelchair in his Greenwich Village apartment after breaking his leg. He finds entertainment observing his neighbors, who keep their windows open to stay cool. That’s when he notices his neighbor, Thorwald, acting very suspiciously, and sees enough to convince him that Thorwald murdered his wife.
Similarly, the troubled protagonist from The Girl on the Train also observes a couple, whose home she passes on her daily train ride. At first she idealizes their life, but what she witnesses turns out to paint a different picture.
6. The Obsession
In the thriller genre, obsessions are almost as common a trope as the missing person. They can manifest in countless ways, and there are no rules about who can have the obsession.
The protagonist might be obsessed with cracking the case, or have some darker obsession, like with a past or current lover. And of course, the antagonist can also easily be obsessed, and usually their infatuation has something to do with the protagonist.
Obsessions are especially common in psychological thrillers because they speak our weaknesses as humans and reveal the psychological tendencies that can bring about the downfall of good and bad alike.
7. The Mysterious House
Notice that I didn’t say the haunted house—although a house can certainly be haunted in a thriller, that’s usually more of a gothic horror thing.
In thrillers, the house might be the most quaint, elegant, or chic dwelling that you’ve ever seen, but there’s something… off about them. Even an idyllic country house might become an oppressive, isolated nightmare under the “right” thriller conditions.
8. A Breathtaking Location
Even the most breathtaking locations in the world aren’t immune to danger, murder, espionage, and other themes that will make your heart race.
Just take any Bond novel as an example. From the beaches of Jamaica to the elegant canals of Venice, the world’s most charming spy evades death, imprisonment, and emotional entanglement in some of the world’s most beautiful cities.
Author Agatha Christie was also an avid traveler and famous for setting her mystery novels in some of her favorite locales, from a cruise along the Nile to a luxury train traversing Europe.
There’s something about a vibrant location full of life that can make a thriller all the more exciting, especially when the protagonist is thrown into a foreign land and the setting serves as a character all its own.
What Are the Conventions of the Thriller Genre?
Again, none of the tropes outlined above are required in a thriller, and you’ll rarely come across one that contains all of these hallmarks.
However, thrillers can be classified by a few common characteristics that make the genre unique and immediately recognizable. You can learn more about what makes thrillers so exciting in our introductory guide to thrillers.