Four Sneaky Tricks That Thriller Authors Use To Make Their Stories More Gripping

Well, since I’m reading a fast-paced thriller novel at the moment (“Area 7” by Matthew Reilly), I thought that I’d talk about some of the sneaky tricks that thriller authors use to make their stories more gripping. After all, just like how videogames will often have hidden mechanics/rules to increase the player’s enjoyment, there are a few sneaky tricks that thriller authors can use to make their stories feel more gripping.

You’ve probably seen these techniques before and may not even have consciously noticed them. So, what are they and why are they there?

1) Time limit trickery: Time limits are inherently suspenseful. After all, there is nothing more frightening than the feeling of time running out. It is evocative of impending doom, inevitable death and all sorts of other terrifying things. When there is a time limit, every moment suddenly matters a lot more. The ticking clock is constantly at the back of the reader’s mind as they wait for the other shoe to drop.

However, in books at least, these time limits are actually a really clever illusion. After all, unlike a ticking clock in a film or a videogame that moves at one second per second, time moves as quickly as the author wants it to in a novel.

What this means is that – when the ticking clock is a background thing and/or has a time limit of longer than a few minutes (eg: longer than the reader can directly keep track of) – you can cram in hours of story events whilst still making the reader feel like the characters only have tens of minutes left. Yes, you need to remind your reader of the time limit every now and then, and to show it decreasing in a way that feels just about realistic – but you have a lot of leeway when it comes to the actual passage of time in your story.

As long as the time limit feels convincing to the reader, then you can secretly disregard it and cram in slightly more story events than would realistically happen in that time period, whilst maintaining a high level of suspense. And, when the time limit gets a bit lower, you can ramp up the suspense even more by reminding the reader of it more frequently than you did earlier in the story. As long as all of this isn’t done in an obviously unrealistic way (eg: showing characters travelling across the world in less than five minutes etc…), then you’d be surprised at how many hours of suspenseful story events can happen in just one urgent hour of in-universe time.

2) Segmented chapters: Although short chapters are a very well-known technique for making thriller stories more gripping (since they allow for lots of mini-cliffhangers, they allow faster jumping between multiple plot threads and they also make the reader think “I’ll read just one more little chapter…”), there is a much cleverer and more subtle variant of this that you’ve probably seen in quite a few fast-paced thriller novels without even consciously noticing why it is there.

I am, of course, talking about segmented chapters. This is when a short chapter is actually two or three even shorter chapters. For example, a four-page chapter might begin with a 1-2 page scene set somewhere and then there will be a line break and then another 1-2 page scene set somewhere else.

But, of course, this can be used in even more creative ways. To give you another example, a single page of Matthew Reilly’s “Area 7” that I read shortly before writing this article contains two 4-7 line micro-chapters sandwiched between parts of two other 1-2 page mini-chapters. The whole chapter is just six pages long.

Yes, micro-chapters should only be used occasionally (since too many of them too often can be disorientating) and you should not to include too many mini-chapters per chapter, but this technique is basically a souped-up version of the traditional short chapters that you’ll find in a thriller, but less noticeable than traditional short chapters are. If short chapters make your reader think “Just one more chapter”, then segmented chapters help to propel the reader through that “one more chapter” and into the next one.

3) Injuries, invulnerability and empathy: Although the technique of showing the main character facing and surviving “impossible” situations (using strategy, trickery, knowledge etc… rather than just brute force) is such a well-known way to make a thriller story feel more complex and gripping that there are even entire TV shows (eg: “The A-Team”, “Burn Notice” etc…) based around this idea, I thought that I’d talk about something else that you’ve probably seen in thriller novels but might not know why it is there.

I am, of course, talking about the classic thriller novel thing where the main character has several broken bones, is bleeding profusely from several injuries and has a concussion and yet still somehow manages to outwit and defeat the villain. Although the reader knows that the main character will survive and win despite lots of injuries, this still makes the novel even more gripping – even though the equivalents in other mediums (eg: regenerating health/”infinite health” cheat codes in videogames, superhero characters in films/comics etc…) have the exact opposite effect. But, why?

Well, it is all to do with how books can tap into a reader’s feelings of empathy more deeply than any other mediums can. Although the main character in a thriller novel might secretly be invincible, the audience gets to feel their pain (via vivid descriptions) as they survive injuries that they realistically wouldn’t. This creates the sense that they are genuinely struggling against adversity or are so determined that not even incredible agony will stop them – and, because the audience actually feels how the characters feel, this is much more convincing than it is in visual mediums like games, films etc…

4) Technical details: If you’ve read a fast-paced thriller novel, you’ve probably seen something like this. You’re right in the middle of a dramatic part of the book, when the narrator and/or author suddenly stops and gives you an explanation of some piece of technology, science, transportation, weaponry etc… When done badly, this can break up the pacing of a scene and/or result in reader boredom. However, when done well, it can actually make a thriller story more gripping.

But, why? Well, it all comes down to knowledge. Not only do these segments make the reader feel like they’re being let in on some interesting secrets or insider knowledge (which makes them curious enough to read more), but it also creates the impression that either the writer and/or the main character are intelligent. This subtly hints to the reader that the rest of the story will be intriguingly unpredictable and/or that the main character will later come up with some kind of brilliantly clever plan that will be really fun to see.

And, even with clearly fictional things, these kind of technical descriptions/explanations also add a hint of realism to the story – which makes everything feel a bit more intense, grounded and logical. It shows the reader that there are rules and limits to a story’s “world”, which increases their feeling of immersion in the story.

However, these sections only “work” when they are as concise as possible, when they are directly relevant to the plot and – most crucially – when they are about something that is extraordinary/unusual in some way or another (eg: something “secret” or “high-tech”).


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Good Action Sequences In Thriller Novels Are Like Puzzles – A Ramble

Although I’ve almost certainly written about this before, I thought that I’d take a look at thriller fiction today. In particular, one of the most important parts of writing action scenes that can often get overlooked by people who are new or inexperienced with the genre.

Simply put, good action sequences are puzzles.

Yes, they might contain dramatic gunfights, martial arts, car chases, spectacular explosions and/or “special effects” that can easily surpass the average Hollywood movie, but even the most mainstream of published thriller novels aren’t actually really about this stuff. No, the real heart of any good action sequence is puzzle-solving, strange as it may sound.

In short, you need to make sure your main character is outnumbered and/or out-gunned enough that they can’t just rely on mindless violence in order to get out of this “impossible” situation. If your main character has to actually use their brain (eg: clever tactics, strategy etc…) in order to survive, then your action sequence will be about ten times more compelling than if you just write about them standing there and shooting at the villains.

But, why? First of all, placing your main character in an “impossible” situation where certain death awaits them builds suspense in the reader. But, since your reader has almost certainly read enough thriller novels to know that the main character almost always survives, this exciting feeling of suspense then quickly turns into curiosity. How will they survive? And then the reader gets to see how and this feeling of satisfaction is enhanced by the fact that it involves a “weaker” person defeating a stronger enemy (eg: the “David and Goliath” thing), which is one hell of a power fantasy.

So, the basic cycle of a good action sequence is suspense, curiosity and then satisfaction. And this cycle is very similar to watching someone solve a puzzle. After all, a puzzle might look challenging or unsolvable at first glance, but if you know that it can be solved then you’ll wonder how and when you either find or see the solution, there’s a moment of satisfaction.

This movement from suspense to satisfaction also enhances your reader’s feeling of satisfaction, because of the large amount of contrast between the two things. It’s kind of like how a cold drink feels a lot more satisfying in summer than it does in winter. So, action scenes that don’t put the main character in an “impossible” situation lose out on a lot of this, and watching the main character defeat the villains just feels less satisfying.

This also makes the main character appear even cooler or more formidable too. After all, it doesn’t take much intelligence to fire a gun or swing a punch. However, coming up with a clever way to escape from a squadron of heavily-armed henchmen whilst armed with little more than a toothpick and a piece of tinfoil requires a lot of skill and intelligence. And it’s a lot more fun to read about!

So, remember, compelling action sequences should be like watching your main character solve a fiendishly difficult puzzle.

A good metaphor for this can be found in computer games. Try playing a modern “AAA” first-person shooter game with a generous aiming system, regenerating health, plentiful supplies, weak enemies etc… and then try playing a classic FPS game from the 1990s like “Doom II”, “Blood“, “Quake” etc.. (or a modern 1990s-influenced one like “Devil Daggers” or “Ion Maiden Fury”) that has a strict health system, pinpoint aiming, limited supplies and/or powerful enemies.

Although the games from the 1990s might not look as fancy as the modern ones, they’re a hell of a lot more fun because they don’t wrap the player in cotton wool. If you mess up in those games, you’re going to lose very quickly. So, you have to learn tactics, search for hidden supplies, try different things, practice etc.. And winning feels a lot more satisfying as a result. Why? Because the player has to use their brain, they have to do more than just mindlessly hold down the “fire” button and wait for the level to end. When faced with a challenging situation, the player feels suspense, then curiosity and then satisfaction.

So, to recap again, compelling action sequences aren’t about big guns, gigantic explosions or even cheesy one-liners. They are about the cycle of suspense, then curiosity and then satisfaction. In other words, they are like puzzles.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How Scale Progression Makes Thriller Stories Gripping

Well, I thought that I’d talk about one interesting technique in the thriller genre that might be overlooked by people who are new to the genre. I am, of course, talking about scale progression. This is where the size of the crisis, drama etc… increases throughout the story.

This was something I ended up thinking about whilst reading Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man” (mild-moderate SPOILERS ahoy!) the night before writing this article. One of the interesting things about this novel is that at least the first third of it seems a little understated. Out of the two plot threads at the start of the novel, one is a police procedural detective story and the other involves a character being stuck in a car with three people that he doesn’t quite trust.

These aren’t action-movie style scenes filled with explosions and derring-do. They’re small-scale scenes that focus heavily on intriguing mystery and tense, claustrophobic suspense. Of course, as the novel progresses a little bit, the scale of the drama starts to increase gradually and things start to get a bit more action-packed and dramatic. And this gradual change meant that, every time I sat down to read some of it, I ended up reading twice as many pages as I’d planned to read.

So, yes, scale progression can be a way to make your thriller story a lot more gripping. There are two contradictory reasons for this. One is that it provides variation for your readers. It’s a bit like how, if a horror novel only contains one type of horror, then the reader will get used to it and it’ll become less scary. By including a mixture of small-scale drama, large-scale drama, suspense, mystery and action, you’ll be able to keep your reader interested. If they can’t predict what is coming next, then they’re going to want to keep reading.

The other reason is that, by progressing from small to large scale drama, you give the reader the sense that the story is becoming more and more dramatic. That, if they read “just a few more pages“, they’ll be rewarded with something even more gripping, dramatic, intriguing and/or suspenseful than what they’ve just read. Of course, once they’ve done this, then they’ll want to read “just another few pages” because they know that it will be worth their while to do so.

In other words, scale progression makes your thriller story both predictable and unpredictable at the same time. When done well, this provides all of the reassuring familiary of a predictable story and all of the edge-of-your seat intrigue of an unpredictable story. But, there is one important thing that you must remember if you are going to do this.

Using this technique means that you have to pay a lot more attention to the beginning of your story. If you have to start small and work upwards, then writing a beginning that subtly tells the reader “if you keep reading, then you won’t regret it” is even more important than ever. After all, if your reader is expecting a thriller story, then they might be a little bit puzzled or surprised when the opening chapters aren’t as epic, spectacular and/or action-packed as they might expect.

So, you need to use all of the techniques of the thriller genre in subtle, precise ways. Going back to Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man”, the very first chapter is split up into two short 1- 4 page segments that each focus on a different plot thread. This is like a distilled version of the “alternating chapters” technique used in many thriller novels. Even though the drama is fairly small-scale, the fact that an intense version of this technique is used in the first chapter tells the reader that this is a thriller novel.

Likewise, the narrative voice is the kind of fast-paced, matter-of-fact one that readers associate with thriller novels. Even though relatively little has happened, this writing style tells the reader that this is a thriller novel.

Then, there’s the fact that lots of intriguing mysteries and details (eg: an incomplete account of what could be a murder, a description of a scary-looking hitchhiker with a broken nose, a car stopping for said hitchhiker etc..) are thrown at the reader without a full explanation – giving the hint that they’ll need to read more in order to find out more. Needless to say, this also tells the reader that this is a thriller novel.

So, yes, although a careful progression from small-scale to large-scale drama can be one of the best ways to make your thriller story gripping, you need to pay extra attention to the beginning of your story. If the small-scale parts aren’t intriguing, suspenseful or compelling enough then your reader isn’t going to hang around for the more spectacular stuff later in the story.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Basic Tips For Making Your Thriller Story More Gripping

Well, since I’m reading a supernatural thriller novel (“Ghost Dance” by Rebecca Levene) and because the short story project I was writing at the time of writing this article has ended up including some thriller elements, I thought that I’d talk about a few basic techniques you can use to make your thriller story more gripping.

So, let’s get started…

1) Mini-cliffhangers: Whether your story just has one plot thread or a couple of interwoven plot threads, mini cliffhangers are one of the oldest and most important ways to make a thriller more compelling. They can include anything from ending a chapter in a suspenseful way to just having something mysterious happen in the middle of a chapter that isn’t fully explained or shown until later in the chapter.

This technique dates back to at least the 19th century, where novels would often be published as serials (in magazines, penny dreadfuls etc..). So, having a mysterious or suspenseful chapter ending meant that people had an incentive to buy the next chapter. But, although this was originally done for purely commercial reasons, it can really help to make a story gripping – especially if it is combined with the modern technique of using short chapters (which tempt the reader to read “just one more”).

But, mini cliffhangers aren’t just for the end of each chapter. In other words, don’t be afraid to include them in the middle or beginning of part of your story. Anything that makes your reader think “what will happen next?” or “what is that?” will make them want to read more of your story as quickly as possible. So, mini cliffhangers are really useful.

2) Brains, not brawn: Although thriller stories will often include dramatic fight scenes, don’t rely on them too heavily. When used occasionally, they can add some much-needed adrenaline to a thriller story. But, if used too often, then they can become really boring – especially if the main character comes across as being invulnerable (which, incidentally, is also why many modern superhero-style action movies aren’t very gripping or suspenseful).

So, if you want to make your thriller story really gripping, then make sure that your main character uses their brain more often than they use their fists. If your main character has to outsmart their enemies, then this usually means that the enemies in question are too powerful or dangerous to fight directly. This instantly adds a lot more suspense to your story.

Plus, if your put your main character in a dangerous situation that they can’t punch or shoot their way out of, then you also make the reader feel curious about how the main character is going to survive. And, as I mentioned earlier, curiosity makes people want to read more. So, strange as it might sound, scenes where your main character has to come up with a clever plan or strategy are often a lot more gripping than a simple fight scene.

3) Pacing: Although thrillers should be fast-paced, it is important to remember that this doesn’t meant that they should be fast-paced literally all of the time. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, having a few well-placed slower moments (with less actions, more descriptions, more dialogue etc..) will actually make the fast-paced scenes seem even more thrilling by contrast.

The thing to remember is that the slower moments need to do something. Whether they give the reader character information, describe an interesting location or help to build mystery or suspense, they have to be there for a good reason. Although you still need to include fast-paced scenes, you also need to make sure that there are a few of these slower moments between each of them.

If this still sounds strange, then think about a monster movie. In a monster movie, the monster will often only appear on screen for a relatively small amount of time whenever it appears. This is because showing the monster for too long makes it seem ordinary and less frightening. It also means that there’s less suspense between monster scenes too. And, well, the same is true for fast-paced scenes in thrillers. If there are too many of them too often, then they become ordinary and boring.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Differences Between Thriller Fiction And Horror Fiction

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about some of the differences between thriller and horror fiction. This is mostly because I tried to read a thriller novel called “The Storm” by Clive Cussler & Graham Brown a few days after re-reading a horror novel called “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson.

Surprisingly, I ended up abandoning “The Storm” (despite really enjoying Cussler & Brown’s “Zero Hour) after about forty pages and started to read a gothic vampire novel instead. One reason for this was probably that my expectations had changed after I’d got back into reading horror novels occasionally.

This then made me think about the differences between thriller fiction and horror fiction. Since, on the surface, these two genres have a lot in common with each other – they revolve around creating suspense and evoking strong emotions. They rely on clever pacing and good plotting. They rely on being a little bit “larger than life” in different ways. Plus, thriller stories will often contain horror elements and vice versa. Yet, there are differences.

1) Characterisation: Simply put, horror fiction will often devote more time to characterisation than thriller fiction will. This allows the horrific events of a horror story to have more of an impact on the reader because they “know” the characters and can empathise with them more.

Even splatterpunk horror fiction, which will often feature lots of grisly background character deaths, will still give those background characters a moderate amount of characterisation because their fate is more shocking when the audience can empathise with them.

On the other hand, traditional-style thriller fiction will often sacrifice characterisation in order to place more emphasis on fast pacing, gripping events and thrilling action. Although this may sound bad, it is one of the things that gives thriller novels their characteristic speed and energy.

Because the main characters in thriller stories are often a variation on the traditional “action hero” character, the audience knows what to expect – so the writer can spend more time on describing their thrilling exploits. This focus on events rather than characters also means that the violent events of a thriller novel will often come across as “thrilling fast-paced action” rather than “horrific brutality“. So, there are good practical reasons for the slightly less detailed and more stylised characterisation in thriller novels.

2) Mystery: Although “solving a mystery” is the engine that drives many thriller and horror novels, this is used in subtly different ways in each genre.

In thriller fiction, it is used to propel the characters into action and, in horror fiction, it is used to create a sense of unease and dread. In thriller fiction, the mystery is a puzzle to be solved and, in horror fiction, the mystery is an unknown threat to the characters.

The difference between these two things can be seen perfectly when comparing the early parts of Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and Clive Cussler & Graham Brown’s “The Storm”. In both stories, the solution to the mystery is made obvious to the reader (either directly or indirectly) fairly early on. But the effects that this has on the story couldn’t be more different.

In “Erebus”, it’s obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie that the story’s mysterious chemical company probably has something to do with the horrific events that are happening in the local village. Yet, this doesn’t really lessen the horror elements of the story. After all, the focus of the story is on the effects that the chemical company’s actions have and the chilling fact that they can do things like this. The only real mystery is “could it be worse than I imagine it might be?“.

On the other hand, almost directly after a rather mysterious horror movie-style scene during the third (?) chapter of “The Storm”, there’s a chapter where the novel’s villains gather together and explain exactly what happened and why it happened. This completely sabotages any sense of thrilling suspense that the story has.

After all, the main attraction of a story like this is watching a highly-skilled protagonist uncover and prevent a nefarious plot. Since the novel is part of a series, we know that the protagonist will prevail. So, the only remaining attraction is watching him find the solution to the mystery. And this only works if the audience doesn’t already know the solution…

3) Narrative style: Although I’ve talked about this before, it’s worth repeating. The narration in horror stories, even “low-brow” splatterpunk stories, vampire novels etc.. has a surprising amount in common with the more complex narration found in more “high-brow” literary fiction.

Both will often use vivid descriptions, emotional descriptions and pithy observations. They will also use a reasonably varied and complex vocabulary too. This also usually means that the pace of the story will be slightly slower.

Thriller novels, especially streamlined ultra-thrilling modern ones, don’t do this. Their approach to narration is much more “matter of fact” and has more in common with the classic hardboiled pulp detective fiction of the 1920s-50s. This isn’t “better” or “worse” than horror fiction, it’s just different.

But, why are they so different? Simply put, it’s because they need to achieve different things.

For a horror story to work properly, it needs to build atmosphere and suspense. It needs to create vivid, disturbing images in the minds of the audience. It needs to immerse the audience in the story, so that they feel like the horror is happening to them. In a splatterpunk novel, the writer also has to contrast beautiful narration with ugly events for dramatic effect. To be able to do all of this well, you need to use fairly “high definition” writing that may be slower to read, but has a lot more depth to it.

On the other hand, a good thriller novel needs to focus on speed. It needs to be something where the reader is furiously turning the page to see what happens next. It needs to be something where the writing doesn’t get in the way of the action. It needs to be something that the reader can’t put down because it’s really easy to read another chapter. It’s kind of like an older computer game running on a more modern computer – yes, the “graphics” might not look as good, but the game will run ridiculously quickly and smoothly! And, in a thriller novel, this is what you want to achieve.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How To Add Some Trickery To Your Thriller, Detective and/or Spy Story

...and a few household stationery supplies.

…and a few household stationery supplies.

Even though this is an article about writing thriller fiction, I’m going to start by talking about TV shows for a while. Trust me, there’s a reason for this.

Anyway, I was watching a TV series called “Burn Notice” on DVD recently and it made me realise something interesting about storytelling, particularly in thriller stories.

Although some of the stuff I’m going to talk about here is similar to an article about sci-fi/fantasy fiction I wrote last May, I’ll be looking at more “realistic” types of fiction in this article.

Anyway, “Burn Notice” is a show about an ex-spy who is trying to track down whoever mysteriously fired him from his job – he also solves crimes, helps people and/or outwits criminals in every episode too. It’s a really cool show, but this isn’t a review of it.

But, one of the interesting things about the show which could be useful to thriller writers is the fact that whenever the main character does something sneaky – he’ll usually explain what he’s doing in a voiceover. In other words, we get the illusion that we’re learning super cool secret spy tricks and this vicariously makes us feel like super-cool secret agents.

Sprinkling your story with cool-sounding “information” is a perfect way to keep your readers fascinated. But, since you’re probably not a spy or a detective, then how do you do do this?

For starters, you don’t actually need to talk to any real spies, detectives etc… about how they do their jobs and what tricks they use. Although if you somehow can do this, then this is probably a bonus.

Likewise, you should NOT look up information on the internet about exactly how people carry out activities that would be dangerous and/or illegal. Even though it might seem like an obvious way to do background research for your story, it is a really stupid idea! And, in some cases, it may even land you in legal trouble. So, don’t do this!

In other words, you don’t really have to know anything – since not knowing anything doesn’t mean that you can’t write about it in your story. The trick is to trick your readers into thinking that you know what you’re talking about. Still with me?

The best way to trick your readers into thinking that you know as much as a trained spy, detective etc… does is to start small. In other words, show your main character using a couple of small (non-illegal and non-dangerous) tricks that actually work in real life.

These can be spy/detective-related things (eg: like the main character finding a good place to hide a piece of paper). But they can also be totally random unrelated things that most people don’t know about (like how to extend the life of a marker pen).

As long as it isn’t illegal, violent or dangerous and it sounds like something that most people don’t know and would probably like to learn, then do your research and add it to your story.

A good place to start for researching cool obscure things is a site like Wikihow or, for more directly spy/detective-related things, then check out online articles about things like computer security, home security etc..

Showing you main character protecting himself or herself against the bad guys by using a realistic non-violent security technique that anyone can use is a great way to impress your readers.

For a good literary example, check out the first chapter of Lee Child’s “Gone Tomorrow” (an excerpt can be found here). In this chapter, the main character (an ex-military policeman) is able to spot a suicide bomber because he’s memorised a list of warning signs that tell him what to look out for.

Now, once your readers see these small realistic things, then they’ll probably assume that you know what you’re talking about. So, when it comes to the really dramatic stuff – you can just make it up or, even more sneakily, leave a few details tantalisingly vague. As long as it doesn’t sound blatantly unrealistic, most of your readers will probably believe you.

But what if they don’t? Well, this isn’t as much of an issue as you might think.

Chances are, any actual detectives, spies etc.. that read your story will probably be glad that you aren’t actually teaching the general public anything dangerous or secret.

Not only that, most people are smart enough not to imitate things that they read in thriller novels – so they’ll probably never check. At worst, if your story becomes extremely popular, then any films based on it might eventually appear in a segment of “Mythbusters” or something like that (and, let’s face it, having something based on your work appearing on a major TV show is hardly a bad thing).

So, remember, if you make sure that the small stuff is realistic, then you can just make the big stuff up and most of your readers will probably believe you.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Thriller Fiction Is A Smarter Genre Than You Might Think

2014 Artwork Smart Thriller Fiction sketch

If you haven’t really read many thriller novels, then it can be easy to assume that it’s a “dumb” genre. After all, it’s the genre with all of the gunfights, car chases and short chapters. So, obviously not that much of an intelligent genre, right?


Yes, thriller fiction isn’t exactly Albert Camus (although Camus’ “The Stranger” is written in the kind of minimalist style that thriller novels often use) or anything like that, but don’t be so quick to write it off as a “dumb” genre.

Yes, there are formulaic, militaristic “conservative” thriller novels out there but these don’t really represent the genre as a whole.

You see, thriller fiction actually developed as an offshoot of the detective genre – and this can be seen most clearly in early thriller novels like John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (where a man is framed for murder and has to find the real culprit, before the police find him).

But, even most modern thriller novels involve the narrator and/or protagonist having to solve a mystery of some kind or another. This is because coming up with a suitably intriguing mystery is one of the most effective ways to make your readers want to read more and read as quickly as possible.

Not only that, this also means that the main character of a thriller novel is usually a “detective” of some kind of another. In other words, they have to be someone who is smart enough to solve a crime or a mystery of some kind.

In other words, whilst action movies might do well with macho Arnold Schwarzenegger-like protagonists with an average IQ of 80, the average thriller novel protagonist is more likely to be slightly more of an “ordinary” kind of person, with a slightly higher-than-average IQ.

Yes, they might be ex-military (like in Lee Child’s thriller novels) or possibly have lots of academic qualifications (like in Dan Brown’s thriller novels), but they won’t usually be superhuman action heroes of any kind.

Usually, the main character of a thriller novel is pretty much alone too (or, at the very least, he or she only has a very small team of supporters) in order to increase the level of suspense in the novel too.

What this also means is that whilst the narrator might have to rely on their fists and/or their guns when faced with overwhelming adversity, they’re a lot more likely to rely on their wits and cunning to get out of tough situations.

So, yes, in most thriller novels, the protagonist’s brains are more important than their muscles.

And, yes, there are valid storytelling reasons for doing this. Whilst it might be dramatic and spectacular the first time that a thriller novel protagonist fights off a horde of bad guys with her fists and a large rifle, it gets kind of boring the fifth time that it happens.

However, showing the main character outwitting their enemies in lots of different ways adds a lot more variety to the story. Plus, it’s also a lot more satisfying because it sets up a “David and Goliath” kind of storyline, where the “underdog” always wins.

And, yes, at heart, a good thriller novel protagonist is an underdog – they’re a rebel, an outsider and an outcast. Not only is thriller fiction a more intelligent genre than you might think, it’s also a more subversive genre than you might think.

Even when the main character is a soldier, a cop or a spy – then they’re usually not completely liked or trusted by the “establishment” that they serve. They’re likely to break the rules in order to save the day and they might not even fully agree with everyone in the organisations that they work for.

And, let’s face it, people love an underdog. Why? Because there isn’t a person on this planet who hasn’t felt like they were an underdog at some point in their lives. And, well, underdogs are just more interesting than extremely conservative “ordinary” good guys too.

So, yes, the thriller genre is a surprisingly smart, and subversive, genre.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂