Anatomy of a Thriller

By Joe Moore

One of the author panels I’ll be on at the upcoming MWA SleuthFest is Anatomy of a Thriller (the other is Supernatural Sleuths). I’ll be sharing the panel with literary agent Nicole Kenealy (Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency) and publisher Benjamin Leroy (founder of Bleak House Books). So to follow in Kathryn’s footsteps from her post yesterday, let’s continue discussing thrillers and what makes them so thrilling.

anatomy First, what is a thriller and how does it differ from a mystery?

Although thrillers are usually considered a sub-genre of mysteries, I believe there are some interesting differences. I look at a thriller as being a mystery in reverse. By that I mean that the typical murder mystery usually starts with the discovery of a crime. The rest of the book is an attempt to figure out who committed the crime.

A thriller is just the opposite; the book begins with a threat of some kind, and the rest of the story is trying to figure out how to prevent it from happening. And unlike the typical mystery where the antagonist may not be known until the end, with a thriller we pretty much know who the bad guy is right from the get-go.

So with that basic distinction in mind, let’s list a few of the most common elements found in thrillers.

1. The Ticking Clock. Without the ticking clock such as the doomsday deadline, suspense would be hard if not impossible to create. Even with a thriller like HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER which dealt with slow-moving  submarines, Clancy built in the ticking clock of the Soviets trying to find and destroy the Red October before it could make it to the safety of U.S. waters. He masterfully built in tension and suspense with an ever-looming ticking clock.

2. High Concept. In Hollywood, the term high concept is the ability to describe a script in one or two sentences usually by comparing it to two previously known motion pictures. For instance, let’s say I’ve got a great idea for a movie. It’s a wacky, zany look at the lighter side of Middle Earth, sort of a ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST meets LORD OF THE RINGS. If you’ve seen both of those movies, you’ll get an immediate visual idea of what my movie is about. High concept Hollywood style.

But with thrillers, high concept is a bit different. A book with a high concept theme is one that contains a radical or somewhat outlandish premise. For example, what if Jesus actually married, had children, and his bloodline survived down to present day? And what if the Church knew it and kept it a secret? You can’t get more outlandish than the high concept of THE DA VINCI CODE.

What if a great white shark took on a maniacal persona and seemed to systematically terrorized a small New England resort island? That’s the outlandish concept of Benchley’s thriller JAWS. What if someone managed to clone dinosaurs from the DNA found in fossilized mosquitoes and built a theme park that went terribly wrong? You get the idea.

3. High Stakes. Unlike the typical murder mystery, the stakes in a thriller are usually very high. Using Dan Brown’s example again, if the premise were proven to be true, it would undermine the very foundation of Christianity and shake the belief system of over a billion faithful. Those are high stakes by anyone’s standards.

4. Larger-Than-Life Characters. In most mysteries, the protagonist may play a huge role in the story, but that doesn’t make them larger than life. By contrast, Dirk Pitt, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, Jack Bauer, James Bond, Laura Craft, Indiana Jones, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and one that’s closest to my heart, Cotten Stone, are all larger-than-life characters in their respective worlds.

5. Multiple POV. In mysteries, it’s common to have the story told through the eyes of a limited number of characters, sometimes only one. All that can change in a thriller. Most are made up of a large cast of characters, each telling a portion of the story through different angles. Some thrillers are so complex in their POVs that you really need a scorecard. But even with multiple POVs, it’s vital to never let the reader lose sight of whose story it is. There should be only one protagonist.

6. Exotic Settings. Again, in most murder mysteries, the location is usually limited to a particular city, town or locale. 731 But a thriller can and usually is a globetrotting event. In my latest thriller, THE 731 LEGACY, co-written with Lynn Sholes, the story takes place in, amount other locations, a medieval castle in one of the former Eastern Bloc countries of the Soviet Union and ends up in Pyongyang, North Korea. Throughout the series, our stories have taken the reader to a lost city in the Peruvian Andes, a remote church in Ethiopia reputed to contain Ark of the Covenant, the Secret Archives of the Vatican, newly discovered Anasazi ruins in New Mexico, inside the royal private residence of Buckingham Palace, secret tunnels below the Kremlin, and many other places most of us will never get to visit. Exotic locations are a mainstay of the thriller genre.

Like any generic list, there will always be exceptions and limitations. But in general, these are the elements you’ll usually find in mainstream commercial thrillers. But the biggest and most important element of all is that a thriller should thrill you. If it doesn’t increase your pulse rate, keep you up late, and leave you wanting more, it probably isn’t a thriller.

Are there any characteristics of a thriller not on my list? What do you look for in a good thriller?

19 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Thriller

  1. I hope to be at Thrillerfest to sit in on those panels this summer, Joe! They sound great. When I’ve read thrillers-in-progress in former writing groups, the one element I often find missing is pacing. They’ll often have the other elements–locale, characters, plot elements, POV, but they drag. And when I’ve said, “Look, you’re on page 310 and not much is happening here,” they’ll get kind of defensive. It seems to be a hard note to take. But maybe it’s not just pacing. Maybe it’s conflict that’s lacking. That’s an even more essential note that’s not unique to thrillers, so that’s even worse news for that poor thriller-writer wanna be.

  2. Hi Kathryn, the panels I spoke of are actually going to be at SleuthFest coming up in a few weeks. But I do hope you make it to ThrillerFest. It is truly becoming the premiere fan/writers conference.

    The issue you mentioned could be pacing, but it may be what I like to call the muddle–basically act two of the traditional 3-act novel. I believe that just about anyone can write a great beginning, and probably a terrific ending, too. It’s the middle, or muddle that can bog down a story and cause the reader to lose interest. There are some technical tricks that can help hold up the “sagging taffy” of the middle such as short chapters, cliff hangers, “bait and switch” endings, etc. But even they won’t work on a boring muddle. πŸ™‚

  3. That’s what I get for trying to read the blog too early (before 5 a.m. Pacific time!). I hope you have a great time at SLEUTHfest, Joe! I love Sleuthfest. It was the first mystery conference I ever attended, and helped me get rolling toward becoming published.
    And you’re right about the muddle thing. My temptation with those works in progress when I’m asked to give feedback is to take a dark pencil, circle the good parts, and tell them to jettison the rest and start over.

  4. Good luck with the panel, Joe. In England we don’t have mysteries at all so if you tell people you write mysteries they think it’s mysterious. In the US I get called a thriller writer. In the UK I’m usually called crime. I get called a lot of other things too, of course. Also in the UK the term sub-genre is likely to produce raised eyebrows too. Also what is something like Treasure Island? A thriller? Adventure? Crime?
    I dunno. Less thinking more writing! I says…

  5. Thanks, Joe. This is the most lucid and concise definition o a thriller I have seen. It describes what I think of as a thriller, but actually in words, instead of my usual “I know it when I see it” practice, which has led to some embarrassing confusion with pornography.

  6. Joe – thanks for such a great summary of the thriller – I get asked the question all the time as most people have no idea what the distinction is between mystery and thriller. I definitely fall squarely in the former category but one day I hope to tackle a thriller. I just need some high concept ideas – most of mine are just too low brow:)

  7. Pace and thumping heart beats are what makes me pickup a book most of the time. I have a very difficult time reading something that doesn’t keep me on edge, let alone writing one.

    When I podcasted the audio of my first book several folks commented that they had made “strange gestures on the subway” or “yelped outloud in the bus stop” while listening. I didn’t know at that time what genre I was writing, just that it was exciting and whatever I did that caused them to react was what I wanted to continue in the next books.

    But if you ask me to write something literary or cozy, I’d probably be pulling my hair out trying not to have people blow each other up or get into detailed knife fights.

    So my questions for this conversation are:

    1. What causes a person to write thrillers vs. other?

    2. What attracts people to thrillers.

    3. Corollary to #2: why are some turned off by thrillers?

    sorry if my post seems long winded, but my ski-injury-surgery-recovering-shoulder is killing me today and the pain killers I’m taking seem to have plagued me with “logorhea”…which I guess is better than the munchies at least.

  8. Dana, even with these very basic bullet points, there’s still many books that fall partially in the thriller definition and partially in other areas. But I’m glad if it helped you.

    Clare, I hope you try your hand at a thriller, too. It can be, well . . . downright thrilling. πŸ™‚

    Basil, take care of that shoulder. I can’t speak for others, but I write thrillers because that’s the type of book I love to read, for all the reasons stated in my post. And like many other readers, I’m attracted to them because they take me to places I would never be able to go in real life. Personal tastes will guide each reader to the genre they love. I refuse to eat broccoli but I won’t discount its nutritional value. I’m not a big fan of romance novels but we all know there are a GAZILLION published every year. (nod to Kathryn for stealing her numerical term). It’s all a matter of taste.

  9. Joe,
    I agree. There’s a nebulous area between the two. I’m currently trying to sell a PI novel that has elements of both. The book starts out as a mystery, but the killer becomes known about halfway through. After that, it’s mostly a matter of the killer coming after the detective, and what the PI is going to do about it. That part, I suspect, is more of a thriller.

  10. Dana, good luck with what sounds like an intriguing story. Whenever anyone asks if my books are mysteries, I always answer yes–it’s a mystery how they ever get written. πŸ™‚

  11. “Thrillerfest”- never heard of it, but sounds awesome! I love thriller books, and actually just finished a great one titled, “Threshold,” by Bonnie Kozek. What I liked most about this book is that it was a knockout thriller, the kind that keeps you in suspense from the first page and doesn’t let go till the very last. Intensity is what I look for most in my mystery thriller books.

  12. I’ve been working on a novel for the past 7 years, asked an agent to read it and she gave me a three page letter with lots of praise, but nibbling criticism that destroyed the good parts of her review. I appreciate her honesty. Essentially she said that my novel was a good read but that I was cheating the mystery reader, who is accustomed to certain writing conventions. I’ve been at a loss to understand what those mystery writing conventions are after years of visiting the Mystery Writers Association of America website and asking questions galore. This blog has provided me with a new take on my novel. I now have an idea of why my novel will be a mystery, even though I was writing it as a thriller (but the setting was not exactly exciting). Anyway, I wish I had read this blog a couple of years ago… but it’s never too late…. This is a wonderful site and I will visit it often. Thanks. GT

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