Thursday, September 18, 2008


by Joyce

Over the last couple of days, our local chapter of Sisters in Crime has been having an ongoing conversation on our listserv about thrillers. We started out talking about one thriller in particular that was getting a lot of buzz in the industry, then we got onto the topic of thrillers in general. Some of the chat spilled over into my critique group meeting last night. It's been interesting, and I thought it might make a good blog topic.

So, what exactly is a thriller? It seems like an easy question, but if you ask ten people, you'll probably get more than one answer. It used to be that thrillers were "spy books" or similar books with catastrophic consequences on a global scale, but now the genre covers a lot more than that. There are now serial killer thrillers, domestic thrillers, police thrillers, etc. Some books are labeled thrillers that in the past would have just been called mysteries.

If you walk into any Walmart or Target store, most of the books you see are thrillers. I'm sure there will always be a market for these books, but won't it get to the point where readers are looking for something different? And what can the authors of these books do to distinguish their story from the thousands of others on the market? Some do it by stretching the limits of what has always been acceptable, like using serial killers for protagonists. Some are using graphic torture scenes. Others are writing sex scenes that not only border on erotica, they are erotica.

In my opinion, the best thing an author can do to distinguish their book from all the others is good writing and great characters. If I don't care about what happens to a character, I'm not going to care about anything else. Plot can only take a book so far. I want to think about the characters long after I finish a book.

What does everyone else think? Are some books going too far to be different? How should a writer distinguish their book from all the others?


Annette said...

With the major publishers cutting back on their mystery acquisitions, I'm pondering the whole thriller issue for my own work. Can I add thriller aspects to my mystery (and, yes, my wip is definitely a mystery, but don't tell anyone!) so I could market it as a thriller to an editor?

The only thrillers I tend to like are those that I don't really think of as such. I don't like the serial killer with a heart of gold character that has become so popular lately. Senseless blood and sex don't do it for me in books OR movies.

Joyce Tremel said...

Annette, I've thought of that too, for my Summer series. The problem with labeling it a thriller is that as soon as an agent or editor reads it they'll know it's a procedural. I started just calling it crime fiction and agents seem to be okay with that.

On one of the agent blogs I read (I can't remember which one) the agent said writers worry too much about labels. Just write a good book and the rest will fall into place.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Well, now you're talking my topic. One of the major differences in thriller and mystery seems to be the fact that in thrillers, the reader knows the bad guy and what they're doing most of the way along the course of the story. I sometimes confuse suspense and thrillers.

I know the difference in the emotions, suspense and thrills. Like the difference in going in a commercial haunted house and a roller coaster. Or the difference in a slasher movie and a movie like The Kingdom.

I would look at Tom Clancy and his Jack Ryan series as being the typical thriller. A plot-driven story that has high tension. Normally the stakes are high, like the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Clancy's novels were beefy enough (600+ pages) that he could devote time to characters.

Since I'm writing thrillers, I find that character development is more difficult than in other genres. You have to weave in the character development in such a way that you don't slow down the plot.

Vince Flynn said once that a great story trumps great writing. I think that if you have a great story, readers will overlook a lot in the writing. Look no further than Vince's first book Term Limits and Dan Brown's DaVinnci Code.

I'm a bit biased, but I think my first book is a great story. As a first book, I look back and probably could have written it better. But I wouldn't have changed the pacing or the story or the characters.

Jenna said...

Yes, some books go too far in an effort to be different. Some books go too far for other reasons.

I don't read a lot of thrillers because, as Will touched on - good answer, Will! - the character development tends, in most cases, to be less than in certain other genres of books. I read for character. A good story helps, certainly. Fair writing helps. A compelling voice helps (and in my opinion, that might be the most important thing of all, but maybe that's just me...)

I agree with you, Joyce. Compelling characters that readers can care about, a strong voice, and a good story is definitely the way to go. And I wouldn't worry too much about trying to write to a certain genre. Thrillers are hot, hot, hot, right now, but mysteries certainly sell well enough. Just write the best book you can and start your own trend, huh?

Annette said...

Will, I've heard that description of thriller before (reader knows who the bad guy is), but I just finished Rebecca Drake's DEAD PLACE and did not know who the bad guy was until near the end. However, it definitely is a thriller. I had sore shoulders and a stiff neck the entire time I was reading it from being so tensed up.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

There are more and more rule-breakers out there. It seems that breaking rules can get you noticed.

I think with thrillers, unless the author is really skilled, oftentimes it takes several books in a series to REALLY get to know your characters. It's just hard to do and stay within a reasonable word count while keeping the intensity.

I try to inject short scenes within chapters to build characters. And then build on it with the character's actions and dialog.

Dana King said...

I don't think this is the "official" definition, but I tend to think of thrillers as races. The good guy has to get to the bad guy before something happens. It might be the end of the world, or before he kills another character, but there's an elemt of event-driven urgency. Mysteries, on the other hand, need to be solved. There may be some urgency, but the suspense in this story can wind itself out over a more disjointed pace.

I don't think publishers are too fussy about their labels, though. I'm currently reading a book that is definitely a precedural, even though it says "thriller" on the cover. Maybe something changes farther along, but right now it looks like they appended the sexiest label and called it done.

Joyce Tremel said...

That's a good definition, Dana. And you're right about the labels. I've noticed that Michael Connelly's books are labeled as thrillers, but they're really not. The Harry Bosch books are definitely procedurals.