We've had several inquiries about just what it is that comprises a thriller. The interested reader, the aspiring writer and the college student may all want to know what the "thriller formula" is. While I don't think there is a formula that makes a thriller, there are many characteristics common to most thrillers and I will attempt to put some of them down.It is difficult to state a clear definition of a thriller because thrillers cross over many genres of writing. However, the single greatest characteristic of a thriller is the obvious one. It "thrills" as one reads it. The plots are scary, the characters are at great risk and the novels are constructed in a manner that makes the reader really want to turn the page. Thomas Harris's SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Ken Follett's THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE and Peter Benchley's JAWS are all classic thrillers.
I can state that there is no formula for a thriller other than the same good storytelling features found in all good novels, i.e., a story that starts with a serious problem, a protagonist (our hero) who tries to solve the problem only to find that it gets worse and worse and worse. The plot rises to a dramatic confrontation with the antagonist (bad guy), usually on the bad guy’s territory, and ends with a short denouement (wrapup).
Thrillers can be divided into countless categories; i.e., action thrillers, psychological thrillers, military thrillers, spy thrillers, sci-fi thrillers, romantic thrillers, etc.
It's easier to recognize a thriller than to describe it. But there are some general characteristics that most but not all thrillers have. These usually include a plot that concerns itself with life-and-death issues. Sometimes thrillers involve murder mysteries. Nearly all thrillers put the protagonist and other sympathetic characters in serious danger. And most thrillers have seriously malevolent antagonists.
Thrillers usually have a great deal of action, cinematic landscapes or cityscapes or interior "mindscapes." Thrillers are very dramatic even when they focus on someone's mind as in a psychological thriller (like Hitchcock's PSYCHO).
One of the most basic divisions in thrillers are those with a classic murder mystery ("Whodunits"), and those that I think of as "Howdunits" where the reader knows who the bad guy is from the beginning and is mostly concerned with "will-they-catch-him-before-he-kills-more-people" plot characteristics. The SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a murder mystery and we don’t learn who the bad guy is until the very end. However, in both JAWS and THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE, we know who the bad guy (animal or human) is from the beginning. Both approaches can work to great effect.
As regards the murder mystery style (whodunits), it should be noted that not all or even most mysteries are thrillers. Many murder mysteries are more like puzzles, catchy, clever, intriguing, devilish, funny, learned, eye-opening, and so on. But to be considered a thriller, a murder mystery must have those characteristics that thrill. If a murder mystery sweeps you up into a thrilling, action-filled ride with great danger and scary scenes, then it is called a mystery thriller. One of the most enduring writers in the mystery thriller realm is Dick Francis, and many of his novels are good examples of mysteries that thrill.
Although few thriller authors seek to write with the deep social commentary of a Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Faulkner or any number of "literary" writers, they focus instead on creating immensely entertaining stories. And, for better or worse, the reading audience of Harris, Benchley, Follet, or other writers like Stephen King or Patricia Cornwell or James Patterson far exceed those of more literary writers.
Never mind whether that is good or bad. The lesson for writers is this: if you want your story to be read, consider structuring it like a good thriller. Furthermore, it is unlikely that many writers out there have the talent to attempt another notch in the Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner belt. It is much more likely that some of you writers have the talent to make a mark in the realm of the popular thriller writers. You can apologize to your literary friends by inviting them to your summer house on Martha’s Vineyard, the one you bought with your royalties.
Incidentally, after you’ve identified the components of the typical thriller, see how many of them Shakespeare employed in his tragedies. How different would those plays be without the grand plots, the subterfuge, the devious betrayals, the larger-than-life characters and of course, the murderous violence. We all know that Shakespeare's writing is so beautiful that his plays will probably survive as long as the English language. But consider that the "thriller" components of his writing don't hurt!
Some thriller writers end up creating novels that are serious art. Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlow novels, James M. Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels all make serious social commentary and have existentialist undertones that have caused them to be the subject of many doctoral dissertations. So intrigued was the writer/philosopher and Nobel Prize-winner Albert Camus with Cain’s POSTMAN, that he wrote THE STRANGER based on Cain’s novel. In my book, POSTMAN is a thriller while THE STRANGER is an intriguing, artful, literary novel. THE POSTMAN was written in 1934, has been made into a couple of acclaimed movies and perhaps more than any other novel ushered in noir fiction.
Look at the bestseller lists. At any given time, half the novels listed are usually thrillers. Sometimes, almost all of them are thrillers.
In conclusion, hard as they are to define, thrillers are easy to recognize. If you can’t put it down, if it has you biting your nails and staying up late at night, double-checking that the windows are locked and worrying and fretting about whether the characters are going to survive, chances are it is a thriller.