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What is a Thriller?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A thriller is a book or film which is designed to keep the reader or viewer on edge with suspenseful and sensational action. Thrillers have also been produced in the radio, theater, and television media. This genre is incredibly large, and thrillers often overlap with pieces of work produced in other genres; mysteries, for example, are often thrillers. Many people find thrillers very enjoyable, and they appreciate the fast pacing and complex plots associated with this genre.

Several characteristics help to define a thriller. Thrillers typically involve sudden plot twists and lots of red herrings, for example, keeping people unsure about what is going to happen. This suspense can get almost unbearable, especially in a long piece or a television series. Thrillers also have a lot of action, which is often chaotic, and they typically feature resourceful heroes and exotic settings.

The plots of thrillers can vary widely. Some are supernatural, for example, centering around mystical antagonists. Others are scientific or medical in nature, forcing their protagonists to contend with biological agents or mysterious scientific happenings. Some are simply straight mysteries with clever, horrific, or intriguing antagonists, while others be focused on the inner workings of the legal system, environmental threats, technology, or natural disasters. One long-established thriller genre is the spy thriller, featuring an often heroic and dashing spy who must confront whichever enemy happens to be popular at the moment.

Some thrillers are extremely intellectual and of very high quality, encouraging more educated people to enjoy them. Many such thrillers incorporate a psychological aspect, forcing people to examine the motivations and backstories of the characters to figure out the plot. Others are more simplistic, in the vein of the penny dreadful and designed to appeal to a much wider audience. Many thriller books are adapted into movies, and thrillers can also be turned into comic books and television shows.

Any bookstore worth its salt will carry a large collection of thrillers, which may be integrated into another section such as the mystery section. Thrillers also tend to occupy a fair amount of shelf space at video rental businesses, and you can probably find some examples of thriller televisions shows among the primetime offerings in your area. This complex and huge genre has a lush history; some very classic novels from the Victorian era, for example, are thrillers, such as the work of Wilkie Collins and Bram Stoker.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By andee — On May 18, 2012

I usually categorize a good mystery as being a thriller. I don't get into romance books much, but never get tired of a suspenseful thriller.

The only bad thing about reading a thriller is I have a hard time getting anything else done until the book is done.

I do OK for the first few chapters, but once I am really into the book and the plot, I might stay up all night just to see what happens.

I know it is a good thriller when I can't make myself turn off the lights and finish the book the next day.

Many times I won't start a thriller unless I know I will have some time to devote to reading. If it is a crazy, hectic week then I would rather read something that is not as suspenseful so I am not as tempted to stay up so late reading.

By sunshined — On May 17, 2012

I love the suspense of a good thriller, but don't like watching them when I am by myself.

I made the mistake of doing this once when my husband was out of town, and I had a hard time sleeping that night.

Once I did drift off, I woke up at any little sound, and kept having strange dreams.

I learned my lesson and now only watch a good thriller when he is home. When we want to watch a movie, he will usually always choose a thriller.

I like a good comedy now and then too, but an exciting thriller will definitely keep me on the edge of my seat.

By John57 — On May 16, 2012

My favorite genre of thrillers for both film and books are legal thrillers. I have never had any legal training, but these are the type of thrillers that keep me on the edge of my seat.

There are some courtroom drama shows I like to watch on TV, but one of my favorite activities is reading a good thriller.

When I am going on vacation and know I will have some extra time to read, I always include some kind of thriller in my reading list.

If you looked at all of the books I have on my electronic reader, you would see that a majority of them are thrillers or mysteries.

By shell4life — On May 16, 2012

Thrillers and suspense just go hand in hand. Even if the suspense only lasts a moment, it is usually present in the work in several different locations.

I've noticed that thrillers aimed at children feature shorter periods of suspense than those for adults. I think this is because kids generally have a short attention span, and in order for them to remain interested, things have to happen fast.

As long as the suspense is riddled with intervals of fighting or pursuit, it keeps them happy. My nephew loves thrillers, and he tells me that he likes to watch things that keep his heart beating fast.

By OeKc05 — On May 16, 2012

I prefer thriller films where the characters are all real people over those featuring monsters or individuals with superpowers. I can relate to them more, because the plot seems like something that could really happen.

I have watched several thriller movies where people get kidnapped by psychotic individuals, and I'm continuously on edge. I am also constantly looking for ways that the one held captive could escape, and I even yell at her sometimes if she doesn't take the opportunity.

Some people say it isn't good for my health to get so into something on television. They tell me that I'll give myself a heart attack or something.

By lighth0se33 — On May 16, 2012

@Oceana – I know what you mean. I'm way more into the suspense of a thriller than all the running and fighting that usually occurs in one.

I really like scary thrillers, as long as they don't have a lot of gore in them. I get chilled to the bone when someone is walking through a quiet, dark house, because I know that something terrifying could jump out at them at any moment.

Though this normally would involve someone running from something bad, at least it doesn't involve a bunch of superheroes darting about. An ordinary gunfight or fistfight won't ensue if the person is caught by what is chasing him.

By Oceana — On May 15, 2012

I don't like thrillers, because I actually feel stressed out when there is a lot of action in a show or movie. I don't like being on the edge, because I have enough stress to deal with in everyday life, so why would I want to put myself through any unnecessary strain?

This could be because I get really into whatever I'm watching. I can't separate myself from the characters onscreen. If they cry, I cry, and if they jump across buildings, my hands sweat.

I prefer slow-paced films without much physical action. I'm prefer insightful or meaningful dialogue and a well-developed plot to violence and running.

By chivebasil — On May 15, 2012

Is anyone aware of a comedy thriller? I feel like when something is funny, or lighthearted, it usually gets called an adventure. But it seems like there must be a way to blend the lightness of a comedy with the darkness of a thriller. Is anyone aware of any examples on film or television or in print?

By backdraft — On May 15, 2012

One of my favorite movies of all time is also one of the best thrillers to make it to the screen. It is The Conversation, directed by Francis Ford Coppola at his peak and starring Gene Hackman. The film is the quintessential example of 70s paranoia.

The film follows an audio surveillance expert who has been commissioned to record a couple having a conversation. The expert becomes obsessed with the conversation he records and begins to suspect that he may have contributed to a crime. There is very little blood or violence but the film manages to feel tense and claustrophobic throughout. I have seen it probably 10 times and I could watch it 10 more.

By gravois — On May 14, 2012

For me, the queen of the literary thriller is Patricia Highsmith, the author of the Ripley novels as well as Stranger On A Train and many others. I was only introduced to her work about a year ago but I have been steadily working my way through her catalog.

Few of her novels are mysteries. In most cases there is no question of who pulled the trigger. The suspense arises from the weird psychological depths she allows her characters to travel into. She is also a master of plotting and pacing. Few of her books I have been able to put down. Anyone who had not read her owes it to themselves to check her out.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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