Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


The Joy of Thrillers

By Linda Adams
© 2005,
Linda Adams

I grew up reading mysteries like those of Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Kim Aldrich, but as I got older, I began to find mysteries a bit too... tame.  I wanted more action, and mysteries simply didn't provide that.  Enter the thriller.

It's a genre that has always existed, but it hasn't always been called “thriller.”  Books like Nick Carter’s or the Executioner series are listed as thrillers today.  The current thriller market began to define itself with several authors -- Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Robin Cook -- who all zoomed to best seller status and who are still publishing more than twenty years later.

Back then there were only a few recognized subgenres, and the authors were all male.  Today both subgenres and authors offer quite diverse selections. Popular subgenres include action-adventure, forensic/medical, military, political, romantic, serial killer, legal, religious, techno, and apocalyptic.

There's a common misperception that thrillers are a subgenre of mysteries.  This may be because there weren't many thrillers published at first, and the least awkward fit among available categories was mystery.  Whatever the reason, thrillers are often found at most bookstores under "mystery" -- though they are also found under general fiction and romance.

Because of its association with mystery, there have been few writing books or articles on the thriller genre.  Trish Skillman wrote a book a few years ago called Writing the Thriller, but there are few others.  That makes it difficult for writers to identify this genre when they're writing it.  For years, I worked on a project I could only identify as a mystery.  It had a crime in it, and there was a criminal who got caught at the end.  I studied mystery novels and books about writing mysteries, and the only thing I was able to conclude was that my book just didn't seem to fit into the mystery category.  It didn't fit because it was a thriller.

So what are the characteristics of a thriller?

Thrills.  Thrillers are exciting and dangerous.  The reader keeps wondering what's going to happen next, given the unexpected turns, and feels that no character is sacred -- a major character may die in the story. 

Big storylines.  A thriller isn't just about someone being murdered.  There is always something bigger and more important at stake behind the murder that may endanger more lives.  Where in a mystery the motive for a crime such as insurance fraud can be greed, in a thriller mere money doesn't come across as believable for all the terrible things the antagonist will do.  Can anyone imagine a low-key motive like greed for any serial killer book? 

Complex plots.  Because the storylines are bigger, the plot itself becomes more complex to help pull off the storyline.  Imagine a plot about assassinating a major world leader.  There isn't a way to do such a story in a simple way and have it be believable.  It would read like a newspaper story.  Dan Brown's Angels & Demons, a popular thriller, weaves a complex story to deal with the death of the Pope and how the new Pope is selected. 

Unique story structure.  A thriller may start out looking like it's about one thing and then take a sudden turn and become something else entirely.  In many cases, the reader does not know what's at stake until two-thirds of the way into the book.  Linda Fairstein's The Kills starts with a woman who is raped.  After she is murdered, the book appears to be about solving the murder, but instead takes a sharp turn into something quite different -- and more interesting.

Credibility.  Thrillers often push the boundaries of credibility.  Again, this goes back to the storylines needing to be bigger and more complex.  Imagine that Abraham Lincoln died on an escaped Confederate ironclad that made it into the Sahara instead of at Ford's Theater.  That's in Clive Cussler's Sahara.  Readers sometimes need to suspend belief a little more for a thriller than they might for a mystery or a romance.  But it's worth it!

Action.  And, of course, where would a thriller be without the action?  Clive Cussler's Sahara also has two battles on rivers, a gun battle at an airport, escaping on a train, and fights in mines, to name just a few of its action scenes.  The action of thriller stories makes it perfect for feature films.  Sahara itself was recently made into a film.

Because thrillers have so many diverse possibilities, there is something for everyone -- and especially for readers who love action.  There are always at least two or three thrillers -- if not more -- on the best seller lists every week.  Of the fifteen most checked out books, as reported by the Library Journal (, thrillers usually comprise about half the list.  USA Today reported that there were only five authors who had had two million copies of a book for a first print run, and four of those were thriller writers: Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and co-writers Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The fifth and last was J.K. Rowling.

If you'd like to read or write thrillers, here is a suggested list of books:

Thriller Reading List:

·        Angels & Demons.  Dan Brown.  Pocket Star.  0671027360.  Religious Thriller. 

·        Brimstone.  Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.  Warner Books.  0446696501.  Action-Adventure Thriller.

·        Conviction.  Richard North Patterson.  Random House.  0345450191.  Legal Thriller.

·        The Da Vinci Code.  Dan Brown.  Doubleday.  0385504209.  Religious Thriller.

·        The Jester.  James Patterson.  Warner Books.  0446613843.  Action-Adventure/Historical Thriller.

·        The Kills.  Linda Fairstein.  Pocket Star.  0743436687.  Crime Thriller.

·        Last Girl Dancing.  Holly Lisle.  Onyx Books.  0451411978.  Romantic Thriller.

·        Memorial Day.  Vince Flynn.  Pocket Star.  0743453980.  Political Thriller.

·        Paranoia.  Joseph Finder.  St. Martin's Paperbacks.  0312992289.  Corporate Thriller.

·        The Rosary Girls.  Richard Montanari.  Ballantine Books.  0345470958.  Serial Killer Thriller. 

·        Sahara.  Clive Cussler.  Pocket Star.  0743497198.  Action-Adventure Thriller.

·        The Sinner.  Tess Gerritsen.  Ballantine Books.  0345458923.  Medical Thriller.

·        Trace.  Patricia Cornwall.  Berkley Publishing Group.  0425204200.  Forensics Thriller. 

·        Writing the Thriller.  Trish Skillman.  Writer's Digest Books.  0898799287.

Also drop by the website of the official organization for writing thrillers, International Thriller Writers (ITW) (, for more information.  In the near future, ITW will be sponsoring thriller awards, a thriller writers' conference, and a thriller anthology.

Welcome to the world of thrillers.  Enjoy an exciting rollercoaster ride!