Well, since I seem to be going through a phase of reading thriller novels, I thought that I’d look at one thing that these novels seem to have in common – their length. Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man” is 524 pages long, Tess Gerritsen’s “The Sinner” is 416 pages long and the novel I’m currently reading, “Origin” by Dan Brown, is 538 pages in length.
Long thriller novels are hardly a new thing, with – for example – Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy novels from the 1970s-90s often being fairly weighty tomes. But, if you go back to the precursors to the modern thriller genre – early 20th century British adventure novels like John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps“, Sapper’s “Bulldog Drummond” etc… and hardboiled US crime novels by authors like Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett, brevity seemed to be the order of the day.
So, why are thriller novels so long? Well, I’ve got a few theories.
The first is the idea of “value for money”, that a larger book means that the reader gets more “bang for their buck”. And, although longer thriller novels often focus on quality as well as quantity, there seems to be more of an emphasis on quantity these days. In the past, this was probably because of how these novels were seen as “airport novels” – long stories intended to pass long journeys. These days, of course, they also have to compete with both physical and digital TV boxsets.
You can even see this trend in cinemas with, for example, films that would have been lean and efficient 90 minute things in the 1980s/90s often bloating to two hours or more these days. If even something like a superhero movie can regularly pass the two-hour mark these days, then it shows that length is popular.
Secondly, thriller novels might be slightly longer in order to compensate for their pacing. Modern thriller novels are usually written in the kind of fast-paced, ultra gripping way that allows the reader to blaze through the story at the kind of speed that other genres can only dream of. Because the reader will be reading more quickly, the book will seem shorter than it actually is. And, since we live in an age where “short” seems to equal “bad”, this is a way of making sure that the reader has what they consider to be a “full-length” experience, even though a 400-500 page modern thriller might only take them as long to read as a 200-350 page novel in another genre.
Thirdly, longer thriller novels allow for more complex plots, multiple plot threads and other features of the modern thriller genre. For example, Tess Gerritsen’s “The Sinner” contains at least two or three sub-plots in addition to the main plot – which itself consists of the detective solving more than one murder case. Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man” starts with two plot threads and also includes an intricately-orchestrated series of plot twists too.
In addition to making thriller stories more gripping, all of these more modern techniques are also useful in making a thriller novel stand out from the crowd. After all, there are only so many variations on “the main character saves the world” or ” the detective solves a crime” that writers can use. So, thriller novels need to make these familiar old tropes interesting – and this is usually done through things like more complex plots, multiple story threads etc… which all add length to the story when compared to the more streamlined stories of older thrillers, adventure novels etc…
Fourthly, changes in publishing probably have something to do with it too. One of the reasons why older novels were often shorter was because it was apparently difficult or expensive to print longer novels back then. Add to this the fact that novels were sometimes printed in magazines and/or had to contend with things like WW2-era paper rationing and shorter novels tended to be preferable in the past.
Of course, with modern printing techniques, it is a lot easier for long novels to be printed cheaply. Likewise, the popularisation of e-books over the past decade or two has meant that length has become less of an issue for publishers. E-books don’t take up expensive shelf space in shops and they also avoid the “oh god, I’ll never finish that!” reaction that people can often get when seeing a particularly hefty novel in a bookshop.
Finally, following on from this, attitudes towards typesetting have changed. In other words, font sizes are often larger these days – so there are fewer words on each page. Back when I was a teenager, I remember finding and reading an old second-hand 1970s edition of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”. It seemed like a substantial, but not ultra-long, novel that was maybe three centimetres thick. Then, sometime later, I happened to see a more “modern” early-mid 2000s reprint of it. This book, telling exactly the same story as the one I’d read, was at least a couple of centimetres thicker due to the print not being the kind of microscopic 10-point font used in the 1970s edition.
Add to this the fact that thriller novels are often first published in hardback, which often has a lower page count due to the larger pages, and it’s easy to see why the average modern paperback thriller novel tends to be a little bit on the bulky side of things.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂