Genrely Speaking: Thrillers

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking, where we discuss what we mean when we reference genres in discussions at Nate Chen Publications. While others may disagree with the way genres are defined here they’re often so poorly defined as to be open to a great deal of interpretation, one of the reasons why I started this little feature in the first place.

Today’s topic is thrillers, a characteristic genre, and one that’s become more and more popular as modern storytelling techniques have evolved. Thrillers need almost no introduction as we’ve all seen or read more than one or two, but in addition to defining the goal of Genrely Speaking is to analyze and help develop a deeper appreciation for what genres have to offer writers. So let’s take a look at this popular genre, shall we?

  1. Thrillers deal with immediate and visceral threats to the wellbeing of the central character. Which is to say, they are always games of life and death. Whether it’s the life of the central character or someone they care about or the lives of everyone in a city or planet, thrillers are always playing for keeps. They offer simple, straight forward threats to the protagonist even though the solutions to those problems are almost never simple.
  2. Thrillers feature focused and tense pacing that leaves the audience little time to see far beyond the immediate danger to the character. While the narrative still varies it’s pacing (at least in well constructed thrillers) it never really lets the audience forget that the characters are facing dire threats. There may be romantic or comedic interludes but the threat to the characters is always nagging away in the back of the audience’s mind. Incidentally this is a major reason so many thrillers impose time limits of some sort on their protagonists. It helps give the narrative that urgency.
  3. Thrillers keep the audience guessing. Whether it’s about how the characters will pull off what they’re planning, or how their plan will go wrong, or who the traitor in the group is, every thriller has at least one mystery that will persist through ninety percent of the story, from very early on until the very climax of the narrative. While every story has some kind of mystery to it thrillers need big, attention grabbing ones that will hold an audience for the bulk of the time they’re engaged.

What are the weaknesses of thrillers? Well, for starters they’re really popular and they engage well with human psychology so a lot of them tend to get made and that creates two problems. First, originality starts to dwindle quickly. A successful thriller gets made and people follow the pack. That happens to an extent with any kind of success and not just in writing or entertainment. The bigger problem, for writers, is that in thrillers it’s the execution that makes them great and not the characters or the trappings of the plot. Unfortunately when people knock off thrillers they tend to copy the characters or the plot and not deliver the tight, gripping pacing needed to really make a thriller work. They bungle foreshadowing and ruin the mystery, fail to make the danger to the protagonists feel imminent or just can’t get the pacing right and everything feels off.

Second, thrillers are vulnerable to fridge logic – even very good writers can get so caught up in the excitement of their story they don’t see plot holes coming or, worse, they cross their fingers and hope the audience won’t notice. In the Internet age that’s a pipe dream. Discovering you accidentally gutted your magnum opus with a stray plot thread is no fun but it won’t be nearly as bad as the roasting your audience will give you when they catch you out on it. Always write with care, but that goes double for thrillers.

What are the strengths of thrillers? If one of the greatest weaknesses of thrillers is fridge logic and fridge horrors one of their greatest strengths is fridge brilliance. The moment when your audience is frying up eggs and suddenly clicks together all the little hints you left behind in your story and realizes, “Oh, he was the protagonist’s father!” Or, “That dirty information broker was playing both sides!” Or even, “She was in love with him and that’s why she sacrificed herself!”

Of course many thrillers won’t trust their audiences that far and will just brain them over the head with whatever thing the author wants them to walk away with. But when a creator takes the time and care to hide all the clues but makes sure that you’re too wrapped up in the main story to pick up on them the moment of realization after the fact almost always as much greater impact than simply having it spelled out in the story for you.

Of course the ultimate strength of a thriller is it’s ability to grab the audience and run with them. It’s human nature to want to know, it’s human nature to empathize and it’s human nature to want to come out on top. By giving us a protagonist who feel a very visceral threat we can empathize with, who we want to see come out on top, and then keep us guessing as to how it all happens, the thriller offers a solid formula for keeping the audience with you every step of the way. You have to execute the formula correctly, but then that’s true of any set of instructions. In short, the thriller is just plain good at getting and keeping your audience.

At first glance thrillers do not feel terribly exotic, although that is in no small part because they tend to stand on their own rather than be combined with an aesthetic genre. Part of that is simply because the pacing makes the world building aesthetic genres want much harder to do. But also, aesthetic genres tend to put a little more emphasis on characters and plot elements, things thrillers don’t particularly need to be effective.

But that doesn’t mean the thriller is a narrow genre. On the contrary, no other genre demands more from the author in terms of pacing and careful plot construction. Studying thrillers carefully will help you to master those aspects better and maybe one day you’ll be able to blend a thriller with your favorite aesthetic and make a new genre of your own.