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The Technique Behind Creating the Perfect Thriller Book
It’s close to midnight
Something evil’s lurking in the dark
Under the moonlight
You see a sight that almost stops your heart
Thriller, as a literary genre, is dark, intriguing, captivating, full of suspense and tension, and (if well-done) highly unpredictable – these are your typical page-turning-can’t-put-down-but-just-one-more-chapter books. Thriller books keep you guessing, leave you breathless, and draw you completely into the plot, making you desperate to find out what comes next (and then when you do find out, you’re like WTF!?). Full of suspense, surprise, anxiety, anticipation, and the roller-coaster effect, thrillers are SUPPOSED to thrill you – and if they don’t, it’s probably because you’re not reading a thriller 😉.
For a little background knowledge taken from MasterClass and yours truly (aka StudySmarter), thrillers can be divided into sub-genres, including psychological thrillers, action thrillers, crime thrillers, political thrillers, mystery thrillers, legal thrillers, and science fiction thrillers. So, based on all these sub-genres, you can’t tell me there’s nothing that doesn’t take your fancy! Thrillers also often overlap with other genres of fiction such as detective fiction, crime fiction, and urban fiction. And fun fact: One of the first thrillers dates all the way back to 725 BC with Homer’s Odyssey!
If you want to know how thriller authors are capable of producing such spell-binding work, it’s because they include the following elements in their work:
- Suspense. Thrillers and suspense go hand-in-hand. Thriller writers are very good at ‘controlling information [choosing] how much [they] reveal, and when and how [they] reveal it.’
- A hero and a sidekick. The hero is the character you root for – although, I must admit, some really good thrillers I’ve read have made me root for the villain or even empathise with the killer instead?!
- A villain. Of course … what would a thriller be without a sick, twisted, or even psychologically brilliant villain?! In thrillers, the villain is typically introduced quite early on, and as the reader, you’ll know they’re the villain from the get-go (although I found Gillian Flynn’s brilliant Gone Girl made me initially question who the real villain was, as did Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train).
- Important: Often in thrillers, the protagonist is the underdog and under constant threat, and the antagonist is typically overpowering and has plenty of resources to try to undo (or even kill) the protagonist.
- Plot twists. These are a staple of thrillers, as are red herrings (getting the reader to draw false conclusions about what happens), cliffhangers, and the climax, which is when the WTF moment typically comes. Thrillers are also action-packed, fast-paced, and urgent.
PS If you were curious, there is a slight difference between thrillers and mysteries. Mysteries are more about your ‘whodunnits’ where the protagonist (typically a detective) sets out to crack the case and the villain is (usually) revealed at the end of the book. Thrillers, on the other hand, are dedicated to ‘suspense, dread, and the fear of a future crime’ where the reader pretty much knows who the villain is from the start and ‘the main characters must work to stop [the villains] from doing evil’ (or, in many cases, more evil).
Best Thriller Books
You try to scream
But terror takes the sound before you make it
You start to freeze
As horror looks you right between the eyes
OK, now that we have the background info out of the way (and now that you are more knowledgeable about what makes a thriller a thriller), let’s look at some of the best thriller books of all time. I’ve divided them into their sub-genres, too.
Best Psychological Thriller Books
A lot of the books I mention below fit into more than just one sub-genre of thriller. For example, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan can be seen as both a psychological and romantic (albeit obsessive romantic) thriller. A psychological thriller is typically concerned with madness, paranoia, addiction, and even mental illness.
- The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith. According to the team at Penguin Random House, Highsmith was the ‘grand dame of the psychological thriller’ who, in Tom Ripley, ‘created one of literature’s most fascinating characters – charming, intelligent, utterly ruthless, and amoral.’ The Talented Mr. Ripely is the first of five novels, so if you’re looking for a gripping, deliciously dark series, then this is a good start.
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Perhaps you’ve watched the movie already (starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, and Neil Patrick Harris), but whether you have or haven’t, you NEED to read the book! It is one of my ultimate favourite reads. The novel follows Nick and Amy’s relationship, starting with their wild, loved-up courtship to their destructive marriage to Amy’s sudden disappearance. Did Nick do something to Amy? Is he telling the truth? Did Amy run away? So many questions … and trust me, you won’t see the ending coming!
- Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors (one of my best reads is his Saturday featuring my all-time favourite poem, ‘Dover Beach’), and Enduring Love is a fascinating (and disturbing) look into the psychiatric syndrome erotomania, also known as de Clérambault’s Syndrome. The novel is based on a true story, and trust me, you will be hurriedly turning those pages to see what Jed, our villain, does next.
- The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. A fantastic, gripping book about Rachel, a woman struggling with alcohol addiction who is positioned as an unreliable narrator. The novel also follows two other prominent female voices and their stories. With flashbacks, blackouts, binge-drinking, lies, deception … find out who kills who in this edge-of-your-seat thriller.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. I read this book during my undergrad degree and let me tell you, it left an indelible mark somewhere in the recesses of my brain. Set in a psychiatric hospital, the novel takes a hard look at oppressive structures and the practice of psychiatry itself. The narrator is half-Native American, which already hints at the theme of oppression, and undoubtedly, one of the villains is Nurse Ratched – a tyrannical force who wields her power recklessly. The novel was published in 1962 in the USA when attitudes to psychology and psychiatry were changing drastically. And to this day, this book continues to cause some controversy as readying material in schools (?). I would highly recommend it 😉.
And if you don’t feel like reading? You can get the thrill while listen to the books on Audible.
Best Crime Thriller Books
Crime is a very popular sub-genre of thrillers (I, personally, am obsessed with true-crime videos on YouTube).
According to MasterClass, ‘crime thrillers are often centered around the fear of a future crime. In a thriller, the bad guy is often established early on, and the main characters must work to stop them from doing evil.’ Here are my top picks in this sub-genre.
- Finders Keepers by Stephen King. I haven’t mentioned too many of renowned author Stephen King’s books here because many of them sit better in the horror genre. But Finders Keepers, one of King’s more recent works, is a crime thriller about ‘a reader whose obsession with a reclusive writer goes far too far.’ Discover more about this vengeful reader, what becomes of him, and how 35 years later, his crime still wreaks havoc.
- The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides (can also be categorised as a psychological thriller). I’m pretty sure someone recommended I read this book, so I’m going to take my writing about it as a sign I should actually read it. Why does the protagonist, Alicia Berenson, who seems to have an ideal, comfortable life, decide to shoot her husband five times in the face one night? And even more bizarrely, why does she never utter a word again after her crime? And can Theo Faber, the criminal psychotherapist, eventually get her to talk?
- The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). OK, no matter what your feelings are on Rowling (I’ll also take this opportunity to refer you to our article on LGBTQ+ rights and LGBTQ+ celebrities, including trans celebrities), I do believe that in some cases, we can separate the art from the artist. And I do have to be honest and say that Rowling really is an exceptional writer. The Ink Black Heart follows Edie Ledwell who has had success creating a YouTube cartoon called The Ink Black Heart. Ledwell is accused of racism, ableism, and transphobia … and is later found dead. Will detectives be able to find out who did it? This novel also takes a good look at cyberbullying and cybercrime (and despite what Rowling has said, she has been cyberbullied, too).
- Next in Line by Jeffrey Archer. This is a brand-new offering (2022) from bestselling author Jeffrey Archer. If you’re a fan of the British Royal family, Scotland Yard, and undercover operatives, then this one’s for you!
- Anything by Harlan Coben! Like The Match or The Stranger.
- And you can try a very recent book called The Guest List by Lucy Foley, which makes excellent use of cliffhangers!
Best Romance Thriller Books
As you can guess, romantic thrillers have some element of romance at their core. But in some of the books I’ve chosen, the romance isn’t red roses and walks along the beach – the ‘romance’ is dark, obsessive, and terrifying (which can also place these books in the psychological thriller category).
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. So, this book was published in 1938, and over 80 years later, it is still in print, which is a testament to its literary prowess. Interestingly, the novel draws inspiration from Jane Eyre (the mad woman in the attic). In Rebecca, the narrator marries a playboy and moves into his lavish home … only to be haunted by the memory of his dead wife. There is a 2020 adaption of this book on Netflix, too, if you’re interested.
- Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough. OK, so this is technically more of a psychological thriller, but it does contain destructive/obsessive dark romance if you will. Nevertheless, I want to feature this book because it is an EXTREMELY interesting albeit weird read. If you’re curious about astral projection, body swapping, and a very twisted romance … well then I suggest you give this one a read!
- You by Caroline Kepnes. If you thought Netflix’s You with Penn Badgley was just a TV series, you’d be wrong because it’s based on a book of the same name by Caroline Kepnes! I am absolutely obsessed (for lack of a better word) with You, so I’m looking forward to reading this novel, including her follow-ups (Hidden Bodies where the chaotic Love Quinn first makes an appearance and You Love Me). Discover Joe Goldberg and his quest for true love … and the depths of depravity he sinks to on this quest. And what I actually love most about the series? The fact that sometimes, you want to root for Joe despite him being a literal serial killer!
- We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz. A Reese Witherspoon Book Club recommendation, this new novel is all about a backpacking trip gone wrong (more like deadly). Two backpackers dead in the space of a year … in a very similar manner. Could it be Emily’s best friend who’s now committed murder twice? And just how safe is Emily herself? Guess you’ll have to find out …
- The Obsession by Jesse Q. Sutanto. So, this book is apparently a classic love story … with a deadly twist. Logan is obsessed with Delilah, evident in the way he stalks her (although he calls it romantic). But then Logan sees Delilah do something bad … so, now what? And what exactly has Delilah done?
Thriller Books for Adults
You hear the door slam
And realize there’s nowhere left to run
You feel the cold hand
And wonder if you’ll ever see the sun
Here are some other thriller books (of different subgenres) that I just had to throw in! I would also like to add Stephen’s King It here (you know the one with the notorious and utterly frightening clown, Pennywise). Although it’s categorised as a horror novel, I’d say we can also throw it into the horror thriller category.
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I found myself voraciously reading this book, desperately trying to figure out what has happened to the missing Lydia Lee, the middle child of the troubled Lee family. This novel takes a deep dive into complicated family dynamics, the pressure to be a high-achiever, and the destructive power of not communicating. You’ll be left guessing what happens to Lydia right until the end.
- The Martian by Andy Weir. You’ll probably recognise the movie of the same name starring Matt Damon. If you’re a science fiction lover, then this thriller is made for you. With Elon Musk (in real life) planning to send humans to Mars, maybe just maybe this book won’t be fiction one day?! Discover what happens to astronaut Mark Watney six days after landing on Mars …
- For a political thriller book, try Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. Follow the tale of a hunter who wants to murder a dictator … but is then captured by said dictator’s bodyguards and tortured. See how the hunter becomes the hunted in this novel infused with political commentary.
- The Collector by John Fowles. Delve into the psychotic mind of the protagonist, Frederick Clegg, who becomes obsessed with an art student. The novel is split into two perspectives, that of Frederick, and that of the art student he kidnaps. Explore the perpetrator-victim (or predatory-prey?) dynamic in this twisted, claustrophobic, gripping book. And based on this review from The Guardian, this book is not for the faint-hearted (or those who love butterflies!).
- Those Bones Are Not My Child by Toni Cade Bambara. This book was edited by one of my all-time favourite authors, Toni Morrison. This is a heavy book about the real-life kidnappings and murders of Black boys in Atlanta and is told from the perspective of a fictional character. I’m very much into books that deal with marginalised characters or forgotten stories, and this one is an important one to tell.
And if you want some much older books, try The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) (classified as a revenge thriller) and The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childer (1903).
Thriller Books for Young Adults
You close your eyes
And hope that this is just imagination
Girl, but all the while
You hear a creature creepin’ up behind
You’re out of time
A lot of the books I’ve chosen in this section may be better characterised as mystery rather than thriller, but they still have elements of the thriller genre!
- Killer Content by Kiley Roache. Six TikTok influencers. One mansion in Malibu. Tons of money from sponsorships. Sounds perfect, right? Well … that’s until one of the TikTok teens is found dead in the infinity pool. Who is the killer?
- The Fear by Natasha Preston. Social media, a viral meme, and lots of deaths. What IS it about this viral meme? And can the protagonist, Izzy, find the killer before it’s all too late?
- Trigger by N. Griffen. If you liked Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, then you might be interested in this. Trigger deals with a teen and her father who teaches her chess and hunting – but not because he’s a good person. Find out why her abusive father teaches her these things in this intriguing but dark tale.
- Dragonfly Girl by Marti Leimbach. If you like science, top-secret labs, experiments gone wrong, and the ability to resurrect the dead, well then you better get started on Dragonfly Girl.
- All Your Twisted Secrets by Diana Urban. When your high-school stereotypes get invited to a scholarship dinner that turns out to be a trap where they have to choose someone to kill, what happens? How are these six high-schoolers connected? What secrets are they hiding? And, the biggest question of all, who do they choose to kill?
Oh, and honourable mention to the Fear Street series by the author of my childhood, R.L. Stine (also the creator of Goosebumps – WHAT a flashback to my childhood!).
Thriller Books: Take Your Pick
So, I hope I’ve given you enough recommendations to get you ready for spooky season (or any other time of the year). There’s nothing quite like reading a book you absolutely cannot put down. So, enjoy the recommendations! I’ll leave you with this quote from American author James Patterson:
‘… Thrillers provide such a rich literary feast. There are all kinds. The legal thriller, spy thriller, action-adventure thriller, medical thriller, police thriller, romantic thriller, historical thriller, political thriller, religious thriller, high-tech thriller, military thriller. The list goes on and on, with new variations constantly being invented. In fact, this openness to expansion is one of the genre’s most enduring characteristics. But what gives the variety of thrillers a common ground is the intensity of emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness, all designed to generate that all-important thrill. By definition, if a thriller doesn’t thrill, it’s not doing its job.’ — James Patterson, June 2006, “Introduction,” Thriller