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What is a thriller? Definition and Anatomy

what is a thriller

What is a Thriller?

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

Defining the Thriller Genre

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.

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: The Anatomy

So, what should all thrillers include?

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 is a thriller

Bonus Tip: Read a metric-ton of thrillers

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

And more…


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.

Article written by Shane Millar

Fictionary Certified StoryCoach Editor

Shane Millar is a Fictionary Certified Story Coach and the author of the Write Better Fiction craft guides. He is also the author of the Myth & Magic and Chosen Vampire urban fantasy thriller series.

Shane holds a BA in journalism and is a member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). He lives in Buckinghamshire, England.

He has taken too many writing courses to count and enjoys reading as much as possible. Shane is obsessed with five things: the writing craft, mythology, personal development, food, and martial arts movies.

Want to hire Shane to edit your novel? Visit:

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