Sunday, August 9, 2009

What is a 'thriller', anyway?


By Matt Hilton

Recently, during Thrillerfest in New York, the question was posed to me: What’s the difference between a mystery and a thriller novel? Although my answer may have been a little pithy, I explained that in my opinion a mystery had a problem to be solved while a thriller had a problem to be dealt with.

Of course, this is a very limited manner in which to describe the differences. You can of course have a thriller that contains a mystery, and also most mystery books are thrilling by the very virtue of their subject matter. I’ve pondered quite a lot on the subject since, and thought it time that I put some of my conclusions on record – all of which I hasten to add are probably subject to change.

Because ‘a mystery’ pretty much tells us what to expect, I thought of which ingredients I found were necessary to make a thriller and the first thing that I came up with was that the term is very subjective. Thriller books transcend genre: we can have crime thrillers, action thrillers, adventure thrillers, historical thrillers, supernatural thrillers, sci-fi thrillers, romantic thrillers...and the list goes on. In other words, it doesn’t matter what the genre, it’s the structure and driving force behind the book that defines it as a thriller.

A thriller can be set any where, any time, but they all have a commonality. The books are fast-paced with plenty of action and generally hold a sense of impending menace or doom.


Usually a thriller focuses on the emotion and inner workings of the protagonist who is often running away from or running towards something that is both very dangerous and life-threatening.

There is generally an under-current of good versus evil.

Many thrillers are about ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances, and are typified by the protagonist running for their lives, before turning to face and ultimately triumph over the danger. Others, like my books, tend to follow a protagonist with the skills to fight back, but who is facing overwhelming odds.

Often there is a mystery to be solved, but sometimes the danger is out there in the open for all to see and the protagonist’s story follows his/her attempts to put an end to it while also trying to stay alive or to save someone or something else.

The protagonist often has some kind of weakness – often a burden on his/her soul – and during the events of the thriller he/she must contend with and often overcome this weakness in order to avail him/herself against the danger.

Thrillers are often full of reversals and twists, that amp up the pace as the protagonist must find new ways to contend with these surprises. Often there is a ‘ticking bomb’ where time – or the lack of – becomes an enemy in itself.

There is generally an expectation of impending violence around each corner. Violence may not always be physical – but may be delivered by way of plot twists or surprises that crash and burn their way through what the protagonist or (more importantly) the reader expects.

Tension is maintained by conflict, and by posing questions of when, where, why, what and, probably most importantly, how? (i.e How on earth is the hero going to get out of this one?)

My list isn’t exhaustive. There are many other factors that make a thriller, and there is a huge likelihood that other thriller authors will disagree with some of my points and come up with some salient ingredient that requires adding to the pot. Going back to my first paragraph, well, the truth is, I’m still pondering.

Matt Hilton is an ITW Debut Author. His ‘Joe Hunter’ thriller series debuted with Dead Men’s Dust in May 2009. Book 2, Judgement and Wrath, will be published by Hodder and Stoughton (UK) in October 2009 and by William Morrow and Co (USA) in May 2010.
http://www.matthiltonbooks.com/

4 comments:

Drue Allen said...

Excellent post, Matt. You hit on a lot of important aspects of THRILLERS and why I enjoy reading and writing them. I think I can sum it up in one word - from my perspective - INTENSITY.

I adore the intensity in "thrillers." Regardless the subgenre attached to the title (romantic thriller, medical thriller, political thriller - they all rock), thrillers call on us to wonder what we would do in such a situation. They often involve reluctant heroes. And they pull us away from our everyday lives.

They are totally and completely intense. Your post helped me remember why I enjoy them so much.

Thanks, man.

Matt Hilton said...

Thanks, Drue. I totally agree.

free dating service - Thehotspotguide.com said...

Great post love your views on thrillers.

Matt Hilton said...

Thanks for the comment FDS.

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