Good thrillers are a lot like bad romances: they pull you in from the very start, take you on a wild ride filled with rising tension, and keep you guessing until the very end.

But is there more to thrillers than just the thrills? As one of the most popular fiction genres, it seems there must be a magic formula that keeps readers addicted. In this post, we’ll take a look at the key characteristics of a killer thriller, along with examples of popular thriller subgenres.

What Makes a Story a Thriller?

Thrillers are characterized by their use of suspenseful, plot-driven stories—the higher the stakes, the bigger the thrill.

While many novels of different genres can create suspense and excitement in their readers, thrillers are unique in that suspense and thrills are the primary goals of the genre, not a side effect.

Thriller Subgenres

The following are popular thriller subgenres that incorporate different themes, such as crime or politics, into their thrilling narratives.

  • Psychological thrillers explore the psychology of their characters, who are often unstable. The biggest questions revolve around the character’s mind and behavior.
  • Action thrillers focus mostly on physical scenarios, such as a risky heist, a kidnapping, or an ongoing battle between characters.
  • Crime thrillers involve criminal elements, whether it be a mafia
    war, a violent perpetrator who can’t be caught, or some other villain who commits crimes.
  • Political thrillers are set against the backdrop of a political struggle.
  • Mystery thrillers are all about the puzzle readers must solve, and also often involve a whodunnit.
  • Spy thrillers are set against a backdrop of espionage and deception.
  • Legal thrillers focus on unfolding legal proceedings, from investigations to courtroom drama.
  • Science fiction thrillers mix sci-fi elements with those of a thriller, often exploring the possible conflicts between man, science, and the unknown.

Key Elements of a Thriller

There are some elements that are common among all thrillers. Here are some signs that you’re most likely reading a riveting thriller novel:

A Determined Protagonist: The protagonist should have a clear goal and be determined to reach it. They will be faced with a dilemma that offers them no escape and forces them to act. The stakes are high: maybe they need to solve a crime, clear their name, or save a life. The protagonist shouldn’t be perfect, but they must be likeable—otherwise, readers won’t care whether they fail or succeed in their mission.

A Formidable Foe: A formidable antagonist must stand in the way of the protagonist’s mission. The antagonist need not be human; it could be a deadly virus, a ticking bomb, or an alien invasion.

A ticking clock: Thrillers often involve a race against time, usually with someone’s life or freedom on the line. The time constraint is what adds pressure and moves the story along at a fast-paced rate.

A series of trials: Throughout their mission, the protagonist will have one hurdle after another thrown at them. Their tasks will become increasingly difficult, and ultimately lead them to the most serious trial of all. If readers begin to feel that the journey is becoming easier, they’ll lose interest.

Red Herrings: Readers shouldn’t be able to easily guess where the story is going. Send them several false clues, or “red herrings,” to make them suspect a different culprit or outcome. This will ensure that the readers are surprised at the end, but writers shouldn’t overdo it: readers of thrillers enjoy a little misdirection, but not being outright lied to.

Plot Twists: Red herrings also help to create epic plot twists. Again, this is something you shouldn’t overdo, but good plot twists will keep readers on their toes and leave them wanting more.

Cliffhangers: Adding a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter will leave readers eager to keep reading, even if they told themselves they would only read one more chapter before bed or getting back to work. They just need to know what happens next! However, cliffhangers won’t work well at the end of the story: you need to answer all the most important questions, unless you’ve decided to write a series and the next installment will come soon.

Answers: And on that note, every question that the writer has planted in the readers’ minds should be addressed by the end of the novel. Yes, thrillers are packed full with shocking revelations and twists, but they must be explained. Things can’t just magically happen with no explanation, even if the story features actual magic. For example, in Gone Girl, we see exactly how Amy faked her disappearance and death, even if the idea seems outlandish.

Examples of Thriller Novels

Below are three examples of thrillers that show the diverse range of stories you can find in this versatile genre.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

In this 1955 psychological thriller, the suave but amoral Tom Ripley is sent to Italy with the task of bringing back a prodigal young American back to his wealthy father. But Mr. Ripley grows quite fond of Dickie Greenleaf, and wants to be like him—exactly like him. So the question is, will anything be able to stop him from achieving his goal?

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The big question that’s posed early on in Gone Girl is whether or not Nick Dunne killed his wife, Amy. But when the story shifts to Amy’s perspective in Part 2, we learn that both spouses are unreliable narrators. We learn that after learning of Nick’s affair, she spent the last year planning extensively to fake her own death and frame Nick. Her supposed pregnancy, year’s worth of diary entries, and other evidence were all fabricated. Now the question is how Nick will get out of all this, and whether or not Amy’s elaborate deception will be discovered and stopped.

Contempt by Michael Cordell

In this legal thriller, a lawyer just released from prison for a crime he didn’t commit is out to find the real killer, and also clear his friend’s name in a different case. The two burning questions here are who really committed the murders, and will Thane be able to uncover the truth and convince the jury before it’s too late?

Why Is Thriller the Best Genre?

According to a 2018 Statista report, thrillers were the most popular genre based on U.S. adult book sales. So why are thrillers so popular?

All the elements we outlined above make good thrillers impossible to put down, and while they’re not for everyone, thrillers delight millions of readers for the same reason that so many people love roller coasters and amusement parks.

Thriller novels take you on a wild ride and give you a vicarious, thrilling experience from the safety and comfort of your home, so you can experience the adrenaline without any real danger.