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Thriller

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English Literature

We all wish to be entertained by the stories we read. Sometimes we may seek something whimsical or fantastical. Sometimes we want an armchair mystery. Other times, we may want something more exciting, like a nail-biting thriller! But what makes a good thriller? Read on to find out!

Thriller: meaning

Thriller refers to a genre of fiction where the style of writing evokes a sense of excitement, suspense, and anticipation in the reader. Thrillers often involve the protagonists being at constant risk and thus keep the reader on the edge of their seat.

An example of a thriller is Killing Floor (1997) by Lee Child.

Thriller: genre and examples

Thrillers often overlaps with other genres, such as detective fiction or urban fiction. The sense of urgency typically found in thrillers elevates the reader's excitement as they progress in the story.

Detective fiction typically features a professional or amateur detective who attempts to solve a crime, usually murder. An example of a detective fiction thriller is Thomas Harris' The Red Dragon (1981).

Urban fiction refers to a fictional narrative set in a major city, or a neighbourhood of a major city. An example of an urban fiction thriller is Moth to a Flame (2010) by Ashley Antoinette.

Thriller genre characteristics

Typically, a thriller would include the following features.

Underdog protagonist(s)

Usually, the protagonist or group of protagonists in a thriller are underdogs. This means that they are ordinary people, and are usually at a disadvantage against a powerful enemy. This makes it easier for the audience to root for them. The protagonist(s) in a thriller has limited resources and often faces serious threats, elevating the sense of anxiety and anticipation in the reader. Often, the author will have the protagonist meet with characters who end up spying on them or betraying them, leading to 'edge of the seat' situations.

In Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005), the protagonist, Lisbeth, is at a constant disadvantage. She is abused by members of her family as well as other men, and is placed in the care of a public guardian who also abuses her. The constant threat and violent abuse she faces makes the reader root for her and hope that she succeeds in her missions.

The overpowering antagonist

Thrillers present the reader with not only a disadvantaged protagonist but also a strong antagonist, who makes the threats faced by the protagonist seem 'real'. The strong antagonist not only jeopardises the plans of the protagonist but is also likely to kill them, thus evoking a sense of fear in the readers. Antagonists in thrillers often have a large pool of resources to draw from, such as wealth, ammunition, contacts in governmental agencies, and close association to people in power.

'Ben' in Before I go to Sleep (S.J. Watson, 2011), is an example of an overpowering antagonist. In the novel, a woman named Christine suffers from amnesia. Each morning, a man named Ben, who claims he is her husband, explains her life to her. He claims that a car accident injured her, which is why she can't remember anything. She takes his word for it until one day she finds a note that states, 'Don't trust Ben'.

In this story, it is seemingly 'Ben' who calls all the shots and manipulates Christine, as she has no recollection of her life before the accident.

Chapter cliffhangers

In a thriller, the chapters often end with cliffhangers that heighten the suspense of the story. These works are often called 'page-turners', as they provoke the reader to complete reading the narrative in one sitting because of the suspense.

An example of a novel with cliffhangers at the end of chapters is Lucy Foley's The Guest List (2020). Since detailing the cliffhangers would spoil the plot for you, it is recommended that you discover these for yourself.

Pace, and race against the clock

Another way that thrillers heighten the reader's anxiety and create a sense of anticipation is by having the protagonist race against the clock. Let's say that our hero, a government agent, discovers a terrorist threat - a bombing that takes place in a week. The audience is anxious for the protagonist to unmask the perpetrators and prevent the catastrophe from taking place. The race-against-time also adds to the pace of the book, as it is filled with action to progress to the climax.

In Emma Donoghue's Room (2010), the protagonist is a woman imprisoned in a room with her 5-year-old child. The woman must plan an escape with the child as she fears that their captor will starve them and cut off their electricity. This elevates the sense of urgency in the novel, as the woman's plan must succeed if she wants herself and her child to live.

Multiple narrators or points-of-view

Some thrillers offer multiple points of view to give a different perspective of the narrative. Most of these include the narration of the villain to increase the feeling of 'dread', especially when the villain has determined their next victim. The multiple points of view also aim at confusing the reader, especially if there is a narrator in the mix who cannot be relied upon to tell the truth. These thrillers may end with a 'tell-all' or a confession towards the end that unravels the plot and the narrator's true intentions.

Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl (2012) switches the narration between the point of view of Nick, the protagonist of the novel, and his wife, Amy, who has disappeared without a trace. Nick is suspected of having a hand in her disappearance. Nick and Amy's marriage is seen as a troubled one, but the audience is never quite sure who the real victim is right up until the climax.

Other examples of thrillers

Further examples of novels belonging to the thriller genre:

The Woman in Cabin 10 (2016)

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware follows a travel journalist aboard a cruise where a murder has taken place. In her investigation, the journalist learns that all the guests are accounted for. As she continues to investigate the murder, she begins to question her state of mind.

You (2018)

Caroline Kepnes' novel series You has been adapted as a successful series on Netflix. The novel follows a man named Joe Goldberg who uses questionable means to get close to women he is infatuated with.

They All Fall Down (2019)

In Rachel Howzell Hall's novel, seven strangers, including the protagonist, have been invited to a luxurious private island, promised as 'the trip of a lifetime', under false pretences. Each stranger seemingly hides a terrible secret. These are uncovered as the novel also reveals the dark agenda of their mysterious host.

Thrillers today

The fast pace and elevated sense of anxiety, mystery, and suspense make thrillers appealing for readers, especially those who enjoy a story packed with action. Thrillers also hold great appeal for readers who wish to dive into the psyche of a sociopath or a psychopath, and to learn what triggers them to do terrible things and commit serious crimes. Thrillers today continue to be widely read and also adapted into films, shows, series, and podcasts.

Thriller - Key takeaways

  • Thrillers are fictional narratives that evoke a sense of excitement, suspense, and anticipation in the reader.
  • Thrillers often overlap with other genres of fiction such as detective fiction, crime fiction, and urban fiction.
  • In thrillers, the protagonist is often at a disadvantage, while the antagonist is often overpowering.
  • Thrillers include cliffhangers and are packed with action.
  • Thrillers enjoy a wide readership and are adapted into films, shows, series, and podcasts.

Thriller

A story is said to be a thriller when the style of writing evokes a sense of excitement, suspense, and anticipation in the reader. Thrillers often involve the protagonists being at constant risk and thus keep the reader on the edge of their seat.

Thrillers are fictional narratives that evoke a sense of excitement, suspense, and anticipation in the reader.

A thriller evokes a sense of excitement, suspense, and anticipation in the reader. 

A horror novel evokes fear and a sense of the uncanny in the reader. Horror novels may or may not feature paranormal entities and occurrences.


It should be noted that there is often an overlap between the genres of thriller and horror.

The elements of a thriller include:

1. Underdog protagonist(s)

2. Overpowering antagonist

3. Chapter cliffhangers

4. Race against time

5. Fast-pace and full of action

6. Multiple narrators and perspectives.

The fast-pace and elevated sense of anxiety, mystery, and suspense make thrillers appealing for readers, especially those who enjoy a story packed with action. Thrillers also hold great appeal for readers who wish to dive into the psyche of a sociopath or a psychopath, and to learn what triggers them to do terrible things and commit serious crimes.

Final Thriller Quiz

Question

A thriller evokes a sense of __________

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Answer

suspense or mystery

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Question

A thriller is fast paced and packed with _______

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Answer

action

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Question

True or False: a thriller can never overlap with other genres

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Answer

True

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Question

The Red Dragon is an example of a genre overlap between thriller and ____ fiction

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Answer

fantasy

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Question

In a thriller, the protagonist is _________

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Answer

the underdog

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Question

In a thriller, the antagonist is ________

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Answer

the underdog

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Question

True or false: thriller fiction typically includes multiple points of view

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Answer

True

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Question

In a thriller, the sense of dread is due to:

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Answer

the protagonist facing a constant threat

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Question

In which of the following thrillers is a woman imprisoned in a room with her 5 year old child?

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Answer

The Guest List

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Question

Which of the following thrillers is a successful Netflix adaptation?

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Answer

They All Fall Down

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