Thrillers are characterized by fast pacing, frequent action, and resourceful heroes who must thwart the plans of more-powerful and better-equipped villains. Literary devices such as suspense, red herrings, and cliffhangers are used extensively.
CharacteristicsThrillers often take place wholly or partly in exotic settings such as foreign cities, deserts, polar regions, or high seas. The heroes in most thrillers are frequently "hard men" accustomed to danger: law enforcement officers, spies, soldiers, seamen, or pilots. However, they may also be ordinary citizens drawn into danger by accident. While such heroes have traditionally been men, women have become increasingly common.
Thrillers often overlap with mystery stories, but are distinguished by the structure of their plots. In a thriller, the hero must thwart the plans of an enemy, rather than uncover a crime that has already happened. Thrillers also occur on a much grander scale: the crimes that must be prevented are serial or mass murder, terrorism, assassination, or the overthrow of governments. Jeopardy and violent confrontations are standard plot elements. While a mystery climaxes when the mystery is solved; a thriller climaxes when the hero finally defeats the villain, saving his own life and often the lives of others. In thrillers influenced by film noir and tragedy, the compromised hero is often killed in the process.
In recent years, when thrillers have been increasingly influenced by horror or psychological-horror exposure in pop culture, an ominous or monstrous element has become common to heighten tension. The monster could be anything, even an inferior physical force made superior only by their intellect ( as in the Saw movies), a supernatural entity (Dracula, Christine books, The Amityville Horror, Ringu films), aliens (H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos books), serial killers (Stepfather, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre films), or even microbes or chemical agents (Cabin Fever, Richard Matheson's The Last Man On Earth). Some authors have made their mark by incorporating all of these elements (Richard Laymon, F. Paul Wilson) throughout their bibliographies.
Similar distinctions separate the thriller from other overlapping genres: adventure, spy, legal, war, maritime fiction, and so on. Thrillers are defined not by their subject matter but by their approach to it. Many thrillers involve spies and espionage, but not all spy stories are thrillers. The spy novels of John LeCarre, for example, explicitly and intentionally reject the conventions of the thriller. Conversely, many thrillers cross over to genres that traditionally have had few or no thriller elements. Alistair MacLean, Hammond Innes, and Brian Callison are best known for their thrillers, but are also accomplished writers of man-against-nature sea stories.
Thrillers may be defined by the primary mood that they exhibit: excitement. In short, if it thrills, it is a thriller.
Sub-genresThe thriller genre can include the following sub-genres, which may include elements of other genres:
- Spy thrillers (also a subgenre of spy fiction), in which the hero is generally a government agent who must take violent action against agents of a rival government or (in recent years) terrorists. Examples include From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming, The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, and television series such as Mission: Impossible and 24 (the second demonstrating a break from the norm by Robert Ludlum, as it is as much a psychological thriller as a spy thriller.)
- Political thrillers, in which the hero must ensure the stability of the government that employs him. The success of Seven Days in May (1962) by Fletcher Knebel and The Day of the Jackal (1971) by Frederick Forsyth established this subgenre.
- Military thrillers, in which the hero is typically a uniformed military officer operating behind enemy lines alone or as part of a small team of specialists. The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean is a well-known example of the type, as are films such as Solo Voyage, The Dirty Dozen and Rambo.
- Conspiracy thrillers, in which the hero confronts a large, powerful group of enemies whose true extent only he recognizes. The work of Robert Ludlum, for example The Chancellor Manuscript and The Aquitane Progression, falls into this category, as do films such as Three Days of the Condor and JFK.
- Technothrillers, in which technology is prominently described and made essential to the reader's understanding of the plot. Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy are both considered to be the "Fathers of the Technothriller."
- Eco-thrillers, an emerging sub-genre in which the protagonist must avert or rectify an environmental or biological calamity - often in addition to dealing with the usual types of enemies or obstacles present in other thriller genres. This environmental component often forms a central message or theme of the story. Examples include Nicholas Evans' The Loop, C. George Muller's Echoes in the Blue, and Wilbur Smith's Elephant Song, all of which highlight real-life environmental issues.
- Legal thrillers, in which the lawyer-heroes confront enemies outside, as well as inside, the courtroom and are in danger of losing not only their cases but their lives. The Pelican Brief by John Grisham is a well known example of the type.
- Forensic thrillers , in which the heroes are forensic experts whose involvement with an unsolved crime puts their lives at risk. Balefire by Ken Goddard and Red Dragon by Thomas Harris are examples, as is Harris's later The Silence of the Lambs.
- Psychological thrillers, in which (until the often violent resolution) conflict between the main characters is mental and emotional rather than physical. The Alfred Hitchcock films Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Strangers on a Train are notable examples of the type, as is The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shyamalan and The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote Strangers).
- Horror thriller, in which conflict between the main characters is mental, emotional, and physical. Two recent examples of this include the Saw series of films and the Danny Boyle film 28 Days Later.
What sets the Horror Thriller apart is the main element of fear throughout the story. The main characters are not only up against a superior force in the form of a monster or monsters, but they are or will soon become the victims themselves and directly feel the fear that comes by attracting the monster's attention. Also see: Horror.
- Serial killer thrillers
- Romantic thrillers
- Supernatural thrillers, in which the conflict is between main characters, usually one of which has supernatural powers. Carrie by Stephen King and Unbreakable by M. Night Shyamalan are notable examples of this genre. This type of thriller combines tension of the regular thriller with such basic horror oriented ingredients as ghosts, the occult and psychic phenomenon, the supernatural thriller combines these with a frightening but often restrained film. They also Generally eschew the more graphic elements of the horror film in favor of sustaining a mood of menace and unpredictability, supernatural thrillers often find the protagonists either battling a malevolent paranormal force or trapped in a situation seemingly influenced or controlled by an otherworldly entity beyond their comprehension.
- Action thrillers, which often feature a race against the clock, lots of violence and an obvious antagonist. These films usually contain a large amount of guns, explosions, and large elaborate set pieces for the action to take place. These films often have elements of mystery films and crime films, but these elements take a backseat to action.
- Crime thrillers are a hybrid type of both crime films and thrillers that offer a suspenseful account of a successful or failed crime or crimes. These films often focus on the criminal(s) rather than a policeman. Crime thrillers usually emphasize action over psychological aspects. Central topics of these films include murders, robberies, chases, shootouts and double-crosses are central ingredients. Some examples include The Killing, Seven, Reservoir Dogs, and The Asphalt Jungle.
- Most thrillers are formed in some combination of the above, with horror, conspiracy and psychological tricks used most commonly to heighten tension. Combinations are highly diverse, including:
- Science Fiction/Techno/Horror Thrillers: Jurassic Park, Aliens vs. Predator
- Techno/Political/Conspiracy/Military/Horror Thriller: Predator, Robocop, S.M. Stirling's Draka novels
- Legal/Forensic/Psychological/Horror Thriller: Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs novel, Seven.