Thriller Must-haves

By Joe Moore

Next week I head to NYC for ThrillerFest — what many consider summer camp for thriller writers. ThrillerFest is really 3 events bundled into one general heading: CraftFest, AgentFest and ThrillerFest. This year, in addition to the 27 bestselling CraftFest instructors including Doug Preston, Michael Palmer, David Morrell, and our own TKZ blogmate John Gilstrap, the great Ken Follett will be teaching a course called “How Thrillers Work”. Taking a class from a guy who has 130 million copies of his thrillers in print ain’t too shabby.

AgentFest has grown to over 60 top New York agents and editors waiting to hear book pitches and look for that next big seller.

And ThrillerFest boasts two days of panels and interviews by some of the biggest names in the genre. As an added bonus, representatives of the CIA will be on hand to answer all those spy novel questions. And the conference ends with the naming of the 2011 Thriller Awards winners and the celebration of R.L. Stine as this year’s ThrillerMaster. There’s still time to register if you can make it.

On Saturday (July 9), I’ll be on a panel called “Are there must-haves in Thrillers?” My fellow panelists include Karen Dionne, Mike Cooper, William Reed, Larry Thompson, Norb Vonnegut, and F. Paul Wilson. It should be a great discussion.

I believe, as I’ve discussed on this blog before, that there are a number of elements commonly found in most thrillers. So to get in the spirit of my ThrillerFest panel next week, here are 6 general must-haves that I think can and should be found in most contemporary thrillers.

First, let’s define a thriller and how it differs 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.

I see a thriller as being just the opposite; the book often 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, Tom 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 created 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. But a thriller can and usually is a globetrotting event. In my latest thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTES, co-written with Lynn Sholes, the story takes place in, amount other locations, the tomb of an Aztec emperor, Sao Paulo, Brazil, the sub-basement burial vaults of Westminster Abbey, Red Square, the Bahamas, a small island off the coast of Panama, and the Paris catacombs. 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?


THE PHOENIX APOSTLES is “awesome.” – Library Journal. Visit the Sholes & Moore Amazon Bookstore.

17 thoughts on “Thriller Must-haves

  1. That’s a good list, Joe. I would emphasize that the real key to thrillers that work (for me, anyway) that the writer knows how to get readers bonded with the Lead character. Don’t let the concept overwhelm the humanity. You could write a pretty good thriller without that, perhaps, but not an unforgettable one.

  2. I don’t have any problem differentiating mystery and thriller, but what’s the difference between suspense and thriller? I just can’t seem to keep that straight in my head.

    I would assume that suspense may not necessarily be high stakes in the sense of the fate of a nation at stake or something, but how else is it different?

    BK Jackson

  3. Jim, you’re absolutely correct. The characters are the most important element of any work of fiction (and non-fiction). My list takes that as a given and moves into the story elements. But if you don’t relate to the characters, all the elements in the world will be of little help.

    BK, I consider suspense to be a necessary element of any story no matter the genre. I define it as the feeling of uncertainty or excitement as the reader awaits the final conflict and story climax–in other words, once the story question is established, suspense must keep the reader reading to find out the story answer. Suspense in some degree should be a basis of all storytelling whereas a thriller is just one of many genres that fall under suspenseful writing.

    I mentioned one of the elements as “high states” because I write apocalyptic thrillers–the stakes can, and usually are, global. But high states can exist in any story–sometimes the stakes are simply maintaining mental stability, peace of mind, lack of guilt, or a million other emotions that can criple or cure the mind. I hope that helps.

  4. The way I think of the difference between mysteries and thrillers is based on the goal of the protagonist. In a mystery the hero is trying to figure out how and why a crime happened. In a thriller the hero is trying to prevent a crime from happening.

  5. Great way to look at it, Boyd. Someone once said a mystery is a whodunit and a thriller is a howdunit. See you at ThrillerFest.

  6. First, I’m jealous of anyone fortunate enough to be attending ThillerFest. As for your list, I think it’s spot on, except for perhaps the one about exotic locales. I don’t think that’s necessary at all. It’s about the human conflict. And the one about multiple POV surprised me. It is the one aspect of my novel that always made me nervous & unsure, that I had multiple POV & one protagonist. I’m glad to see I’m not off the mark in that respect. This post will be another I copy into my Great Writing Advice folder. Thanks!

  7. Glad the list helps you, Nancy. The exotic locations might be an option depending on what type of thriller you write. For instance, a psychological thriller might all take place in one room, but the exotic locations could be areas of the mind that most of us don’t go or never will. Most readers want to be taken to someplace they’ve never been, even if it’s in the confines of the brain.

    Multiple POV is common in most thrillers because there are usually a large number of characters. The exception is obviously a story told in first person. Even that is not a solid rule. There are lots of novels told in first person when it’s a scene with the protag and then jumps into third when it’s not. My next thriller is just that–first person only in the progat’s scenes. It’s something new for me since I’ve never written in first person before. But so far, it seems to be working.

  8. Quite right. I actually started off thinking, wait a minute exotic locales may not be really a factor, but then realized that almost every thriller I have read included multiple locales. Even my work, much of which centers in Alaska which as it turns is considered by some to be exotic, also contains places like Iran, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Plymouth England (maybe not exotic but nice pubs, what). So therefore, exotic locales abound in thrillers. Not to mention the mind-places Joe says we can go…those are my fave….I have lots of mind-places.

    One in my queue of to be writtens is a thriller done entirely from inside the multi-layered mind of a sand flea from Parris Island who follows a Marine from boot camp through wars, and on to chasing terrorists. Of course the flea’s entire mindset becomes one with the symbiant host who gets into the craziest of places and meets some wild women along the way. Said flea becomes a fast friend with a louse and a pubic crab and … well you’ll just have to read for the rest.

  9. Great post and it has made me think about my current work and if I go by Boyds analysis I have actually hit where I wanted in having a crime thriller. The protagonist is trying to detect the crime and stop something equally bad happening at the same time.

    Thriller fest sounds great. I’m in the UK and in July I’m attending something similar which is a Crime Writers festival. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s a first for me.

  10. I’m with Nancy, I’m jealous of anyone that can attend ThrillerFest.

    It’s interesting that you point out the mind as an exotic locale, as I’m trying to liven up an otherwise stock feeling antag by giving the reader a glimpse into his twisted mind.

    I’m actually finding that even my protags have some interesting malfunctions that can be delved into.

  11. Basil, that’s an impressive list of exotic locales. And yes, there are many including myself that consider Alaska a very interesting and exotic location. Thanks for your comments.

    Rebecca, ThrillerFest is a great conference. ITW will soon be meeting with the folks from Crime Writers and other conferences in the UK to setup future joint ventures. Stay tuned.

    John, sounds like you’re creating 3-D characters–exactly what great stories contain. The mental landscape is where the reader ultimately wants to visit.

  12. hooray for R.L. Stine! that is awesome he won that award. I used to love his stuff as a kid and I was just on his website a few days ago, reading up on what he’s been writing.

  13. Thanks for the list, Joe. I’m squirreling it away with the other pearls from TKZ, like Nancy, and like her, I’m jealous not to be in NYC with you guys at Thrillerfest.

    On the multiple POV point – isn’t it interesting that in today’s world, with everything coming at us from every different direction, that’s the path of the gripping thrillers from the greatest writers out there?

    I love a thriller that shows me, as reader, not only whodunnit, and how they got there, but how Hero is going to prevent IT from happening, even if IT takes Hero’s last breath.

    I think the mulitple POV rivets the tension skyward because Reader can see how much is at stake to so many people.

    I wonder what psychologists think of our use of the multiple POV with respect to our world as it exists today?

  14. Love your breakdown of the thriller and I am also heartbroken that a family wedding prevents me from Thrillerfest this year. I will be thinking of all of you.

  15. I love the multiple POV of a well-done thriller.

    One minute I’m walking with the good guy and the next minute I’m on a rooftop with the good guy in my gunsights. Yay!

    Another sub-category I’d add to the makings of a good thriller is a mastery and careful use of technical details. Tom Clancy is king of the techno-thriller (of course). IMO, Larry Bond is a close second.

    However, if I’m going out in the field with Jonathan Grave or Jack Ryan or an NYC dectective or any other thriller protag, I don’t want the technicals glossed over.

    However, one thing I despise in a thriller is a gratuitous romance. Blech! If the jacket flap says “assisted by the mysterious, yet sultry, Mossad agent . . . .” I usually drop it.

    ::contains T-Fest jealousy::

    Have a fab time!


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