I grew up on summer blockbusters starting with George Pal science fiction spectacles like “When Worlds Collide” and the early James Bond films. I was drawn to danger and soon was captivated by the Outer Limits and the Green Hornet. Big ideas fascinated me and I read a lot of Asimov and Herbert, but I was always drawn back to stories about danger. By high school I was reading Crichton and Cook. I misspent my youth playing and writing FRPGs. It was no surprise my first novel was an epic fantasy that looked a lot like Star Wars and Harry Potter. By then I recognized my love for thrillers, so I focused on how to work that genre. My first published novel, The Chosen, and its two sequels are all thrillers.
So what defines this genre, and why is it so enticing? Thrillers are about danger. Other genres use danger to heighten conflict. Adventure stories take you places you can’t go in your ordinary life, and sometimes those places are dangerous. Science fiction or fantasy often have elements of danger. But while adventure, science fiction and fantasy stories are taking their readers to new places, thrillers provide a different, more intense escapism. Thrillers can take you out of your comfort zone without leaving everyday life. Courtroom and medical thrillers work best when they look ripped from real headlines. Other genres focus on taking you out of your comfort zone too, like horror or erotica. Like those genres, thrillers leave the reader glad to have visited, but even happier to come back to the safer real world.
Any of these other genres can be made into thrillers if the thematic emphasis is on danger. You see marketers use the term thriller most often along with a more established genre name to parse a more receptive audience. Medical thriller, supernatural thriller, courtroom thriller, political thriller, erotic thriller, military thriller, all clue the reader about the setting and conventions used, but it is the thriller part that tells them what kind of ride they are in for.
Characters in thrillers are under greater duress. You get to know them faster because you see how they react under extremes. The conflict in any story brings out the personality of the characters. So when you turn up the heat, you get to the essence of the characters quicker. Personally I think the world needs more selflessness and heroism, and the situations thrillers put characters in show them to either rise to the occasion or not.
Introducing danger also makes the suspension of disbelief easier. Science fiction, for example, has been described as the literature of ideas. Science fiction writers need to make the introduction of their big ideas believable. If the story is told from the vantage of a dangerous situation, like a mad scientist making threats, then the science fiction elements are more easily accepted. Military and medical thrillers can push the limits of today’s technology almost into science fiction by focusing on the dangers these new advances pose. Legal thrillers unravel puzzles that would go unsolved in real life. Psychological thrillers can dance right up to the supernatural and still be believable, again because the reader is along for the dangerous ride.
Solving the unsolvable and overcoming the insurmountable also gives a more satisfying ending. The science fiction author and writer coach Algis Budrys said the last thing an author does, the last step in writing a book, is to give the reader permission to leave the story and go back to the real world. The characters live on in their lives, but this story is over, so the reader can leave now. Finding this ending point, this parting of the ways when the reader can leave, is pretty easy in a thriller. It happens when the danger is over. This clarity also leaves the reader feeling better about the ending too.
One word of caution. Folks either like a thrill ride of they don’t. When people ask me what my book is about, I first ask them if they like thrillers. If they don’t, then we have a very short, courteous conversation and move on. If they say yes, then I can go into why they would like mine. Just like roller coasters, folks either do or do not go there. You are not going to convince a Jane Austin fan to read your medical thriller, no matter how good your book is, just as you are not going to convince someone who does not like roller coasters to try yours, even if it is the best. Thrillers are by definition intense, so thriller writers need readers who like that intensity.
So take a walk on the dangerous side. You’ll be glad you did.
Jay Hartlove is the author of The Chosen, a supernatural thriller published by Damnation Books in 2011. He is currently seeking representation for the two other books in the Sanantha Mauwad mystery series, Daughter Cell (a medical thriller) and Isis Rising (a political thriller). Jay shares his research for The Chosen at www.jaywrites.com.