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Thriller Genre: Definition, Examples, and Writing Tips

thriller genre

What is a thriller?

On the face of it, this seems like a really easy question to answer. Thrillers are meant to be thrilling… the clue’s in the title.

But there’s more to it than that.

What is a thriller

Thriller Definition

There are a few things to consider when defining the thriller genre.

Thrillers are Fast-paced

If we consider a thriller author like James Paterson, he writes 80,000 to 90,000 word novels with 100+ chapters in them (and his chapters are so short, they can be considered single scenes).

what is a thriller

The short length of Patterson’s chapters aren’t an error, or a technique he happened upon by accident. They’re short by design. Shorter sentences, paragraphs, scenes and chapters speed up the pace and keep readers flipping pages into the early hours.

Thrillers Deal with Dark Themes

Because thrillers contain high stakes, another thing you must consider when answering the question, “What is a thriller?” is the darker themes you find in thrillers.

Some of the themes you find in thriller novels include:

  • Corruption
  • Coercion
  • Torture
  • Murder
  • Abusive relationships

But this list isn’t exhaustive.

Take the hugely successful psychological/legal thriller Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan.

what is a thriller

The story begins with Kate (our lawyer protagonist) getting ready to prosecute on a sexual assault case (dark theme). Vaughan takes the novel to an even darker place when readers discover the defendant is a man who raped her at university, when she went by another name.

Thrillers Contain Suspense

That’s right, folks!

Thrillers are suspenseful. What do I mean when I say this? As well as conflict, thrillers rely on tension. Part of the fun of being a triller reader is being constantly on edge… wondering when the bad thing is going to happen.

If we examine Memory Man by David Baldacci, we can see it’s rich with tension, and therefore packed with suspense.

what is a thriller

In one particularly suspenseful scene, Baldacci set up a sequence where Amos Decker (the novel’s protagonist) is about to take his own life and, because of the nature of the story, readers genuinely worry that he might do it.

This is tension: the threat of something bad happening.

Now we know what the thriller genre is, the next thing we need to do is examine thriller sub-genres.

Thriller Meaning

All thrillers have five similarities. If you start with these five things, you’ll write a thriller guaranteed to keep readers engrossed.

#1: Suspense

We covered this up top, but thrillers must be suspenseful. Think about how you can keep tension high in order to do this. How much will you reveal and when will you reveal it?

#2: Plot Twists

Unexpexted twists in thriller novel will keep readers engaged. It’s what they expect. Check out James Gallagher’s fantastic article on How to Write Plot Twists if you want a detailed look at this topic.

#3: A Hero

Don’t make the mistake of thinking your hero has to be perfect. Most (if not all) thriller heroes are flawed, and in some cases, they’re anti-heroes. The important thing is to put them through the wringer to make them tougher and braver.

#4: A Villain

When I ask you to create a villain, I’m not looking for twirly moustaches and evil cackles. That’s cliche. You need to create antagonists with good motives behind what they do, and a moral code (however twisted it might be) to back up those motives.

#5: Conflict

A thriller without conflict is like a pizza with pineapple… wrong… on so many levels. So, every great thriller needs conflict. The sub-genre you’re writing in will determine the type of conflict (e.g., car chases, or psychological torment) you include in your novel, but conflict is essential when answering the question, “What is a thriller?”

What Are the Thriller Sub-genres?

The word thriller is a very broad term.

Yes you’re writing a thriller, but what kind? The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is a different kind of thriller to John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.


Because they’re in different sub-genres. Some of the popular thriller sub-genres include:

  • Political thriller (e.g., The President is Missing by Bill Clinton)
  • Action thriller (e.g., Manhunter by Chris Ryan)
  • Supernatural thriller (e.g., The ARKANE series by J.F. Penn)
  • Crime thriller (e.g, The Past We Run From by Meg Jolly)
  • Psychological thriller (e.g., The Therapist by B.A. Paris)
  • Spy thriller (e.g., The James Bond Novels by Ian Fleming)
  • Legal thriller (e.g., The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly)

Again, this list isn’t exhaustive, but it gives you a good idea of what the thriller sub-genres are.

what is a thriller


What Is a Thriller Example?

Thrillers are a popular genre, and there are so many awesome examples out there. However, we can’t list them all, so here are just a few on them:

  • The Housemaid by Freida McFadden: A young woman starts working as a housemaid, but there is something deeply wrong with her new employer. She needs to discover why before she becomes a victim.
  • A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson: Pippa decides to study a 5-year-old shut case about a murder because the police reports don’t add up.
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: Every day, Rachel sees a perfect couple from the train on her daily commute. Then one day she sees something she shouldn’t have and decides to investigate.
  • Big Little Lies by Liane Morriarty: A group of upper-class mothers have seemingly perfect lives. But that all have secrets, and one of them is so big that it leads to a murder.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson: The story centralizes around the investigation of a girl who dissappeared from a wealthy family over 40 years ago.
  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie: Ten strangers are invited to stay at an island by a stranger. And then they start to die, and they realize, the killer must be one of them.

How to Write in the Thriller Genre

As with any genre you choose to write in, I would always suggest reading a lot in that genre.

By doing this, you’ll discover common:

  • Tropes
  • Themes
  • Character archetypes

A thriller is a story filled with suspense, conflict, and believable characters who have motives for what they do. Garnish your thrilling tale with a well-placed plot twist or two, and you’re sure to delight your readers.