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Most sources on the internet sum up the Thriller genre something like…
“Stories that elicit strong feelings of excitement, in essence, thrilling the audience.”
(Funny, isn’t that what they say about the Action genre?)
Sure they mention tension, suspense and other elements, but the focus of the definition always lands on excitement and thrills.
For the average Joe, this may be adequate, but if you’re intent on writing successful Thriller fiction, such a simplistic definition isn’t helpful. In fact, it could even be harmful, misdirecting you from the first fundamental pillar of the genre.
Let me hit you with a little secret;
Thrillers are really Horror stories for folks who don’t like Horror.
While Thrillers generally make greater use of the emotional wheel throughout their narratives, ultimately, like horror fiction, Thrillers are all about FEAR (we’ll unpack this in one second).
Interestingly, Thrillers rarely stand on their own as a genre work.
If you look at the top Thrillers of all time, those pieces of fiction ALL cross over into other genres, whether it’s a Crime Thriller, Horror Thriller, Action Thriller, or even more, like the Action/Crime/Mystery/Sci-fi/Thriller, Minority Report.
Phew, that was a mouthful.
It’s extremely rare to find a top piece of Thriller fiction that moves into no other genre pool.
The reason for this is pretty simple; most thrillers are complex narratives with significant depth. Especially when it comes to the main character and MAF. At their essence they pull from the intensity of Action, the fear of Horror, and the engagement of Drama.
By their very nature it’s difficult NOT to cross genres.
The purpose of this article is to focus in on what makes the thriller a thriller.
I’m going to cover the three core pillars of Thriller fiction as well as another ten or so elements of significant importance. Every thriller needs the three pillars to be considered a thriller. The more you implement the other elements, the closer you’ll get to reaching your maximum story potential.
In breaking down the Thriller, I’ll showcase examples that cross various thriller genre boundaries. At the conclusion of this article, you’ll completely comprehend the core substance of Thriller fiction.
It’s worth noting here, that Thriller fiction is one of the only genres commonly referred to by two other names:
Suspense and Mystery.
Clearly, Thrillers, Suspense, and Mystery are different genres.
I mean for fuck’s sake, grouping Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Jaws together…. Really?
Obviously these two works of fiction are about as different as different can be.
Wellllllll… yes and no.
Reality is, Thriller, Mystery, and Suspense fiction all utilize and play with the same core mechanics (to their own degrees and ends).
While Mystery definitely shares the bed with Thriller and Suspense, I argue it has enough specific points in execution, that it breaks away from the Thriller (and suspense) and earns it’s own classification… at least enough so for this article.
So let’s throw that baby right out the window with the bath water and focus on the other two.
When it comes to Thriller and Suspense in defining material… the two should not be viewed as equivalents, BUT instead as opposite ends of the same sliding scale.
- If you have faster pacing with more action oriented narrative, you’re in Thriller territory.
- Where you have slower pacing with more dramatic oriented narrative, you’re in Suspense territory (or Mystery, or even Psychological Thriller territory for the record).
There’s another key pillar element in defining this scale, the most important of the three, but I’m not going to lead off with that fella. We’ll save him for later… for our second cup of coffee.
Truth is, Thrillers make a few big moves and if you want to nail the genre, you need to know them all.
Alright lads, roll up those sleeves.
Break out that new set of colored pens and pad.
* If you haven’t read my article on Horror, you’d probably do well to read that one first. I guess you don’t need to understand horror to write a solid Thriller, but seeing as the two are so closely tied together, if nothing else just the ability to compare and contrast with the material covered in the horror article will help give complete context.
FEAR. The first Pillar.
If you remember, we define Horror as the “Expectation of an unimaginable worst case scenario.”
For the Thriller, the fear is grounded in reality and is thus, not unimaginable. And therefore defined as;
Expectation of a worst case scenario.
In horror, you introduce Fear that the reader doesn’t know. Most folks haven’t been to Hell, had to fight a legion of undead, or outwit a blood sucking vampire lord.
Horror is driven by the imagination’s ability to create completely new terror.
Thrillers are driven by the imagination’s ability to explore a predefined area to its outer most ends.
Without the unimaginable element… without the unknown… we can hone in and say the fear driving the Thriller is not terror, but instead, HIGH ANXIETY from a known and expected threat.
In Jaws we’ve got three guys in a boat, a big shark, and the ocean. The shark isn’t growing legs and chasing them onto land. The chief isn’t pulling out a jetpack and flying to safety. The stage is quite limited… but our imaginations aren’t… and readers get to stew in all the practical possibilities.
Are they going to drown… or get eaten?
Will they die horribly slow, or quickly in a single chomp?
Will they take the shark with them?
Will anyone possibly come to the rescue?
The stage has been set… but our imaginations are still incredibly powerful and effective. Even when the fear is imaginable, the levels of High Anxiety stress we can manifest on ourselves is impressive.
Fear of an imaginable worst case scenario while different, can be just as potent as Horror based fear. In some cases, for some folks, it might even be more so.
These are the folks who laugh at Freddy Krueger or Pumpkinhead, but get goosebumps at the thought of a serial killer next door.
In some sense, despite being grounded in reality, Fear of a worst case scenario is more liberating than the Fear driving horror.
In horror, to reach “unimaginable” territory, most of the time you’re working with just a few primal fears. You often have to sort of “stretch” working with those fears to get more specific.
For example, it would be challenging, if nothing else, to create a horror fiction based solely on one’s fear of “relationships.”
< It’s easy to incorporate a relationship fear or relationship theme of some sort into horror, BUT, basing the whole narrative around it… not so much. >
Thrillers have much more flexibility in this regard.
The Thriller’s realm encompasses the human condition in its entirety. They focus on the psychological by nature.
It would be far easier to write a thriller based primarily on one’s fear of relationships, heck a bunch come to mind: The Hand the Rocks the Cradle, Sleeping with the Enemy, Single White Female…
The fears one can work with as the engine to a thriller are anything within the human condition.
Fear of failure. Fear of being exposed as a fraud. Fear of being Abandoned. Fear of personal intimacy. Fear of judgement.
If we turn back to Jaws for a moment, besides the obvious (primal horror) fear of being eaten alive by a monster shark, there’s a very distinct High Anxiety fear of being helpless. (Humans lose most of their capability when forced to try not to die in deep water.) How many times in Jaws does Chief Brody struggle with his fear of the water, not the shark itself? Answer: Quite a few.
The real-world worst case scenarios readers can imagine through the lens of these fears are quite effective.
And quite relatable, instantly giving credibility to the narrative.
We’re going to discuss Worst Imaginable Case Scenarios and the Underlying Fear Anxiety a bit more later… for now, just recognize the fears that generate the Anxiety of the narrative are key, especially the main one your hero carries around.
Here comes the second major pillar of Thriller fiction.
Top off the coffee, we’re going to sit with this one for a bit.
It’s All about the MAF. (Not the bass or the treble.)
Where in horror, the MAF (Main Antagonistic Force—villain for the most part) is almost always Super Normal, in Thrillers, the MAF is almost always…
However, this doesn’t slow down the MAF at all, in fact…
One of the elements that makes Thriller so alluring is the dominant role of the MAF. Thriller fiction borrows this from the Action genre and further expands on it.
Of course in all fiction, you need a capable, active MAF… but perhaps nowhere else but in the Thriller does the MAF get to practically take over the show.
I haven’t timed it myself, but google tells me Darth Vader appears only 8 minutes in the original Star Wars run time, 121 minutes. (Star Wars, not classified as a Thriller…)
Contrast that to Hans Gruber, in the Action Thriller, Die Hard, who clocks in at 18 and a half minutes of the 127 minute runtime. Or Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs, who comes in and 17 and a half minutes of the 118 minute Crime Thriller.
Ok look, I didn’t breakdown villain screen time in a million movies and I wasn’t trying to cherry pick villains here, but hopefully the above examples point to a pattern;
the MAF drives the action.
Where a story can be plot driven, or character driven, the Thriller for all intents and purposes, puts forward the MAF driven story.
You may be thinking, “Hey, wait a second, 18 minutes out of 127 isn’t taking over the show!”
(Shit, now I have to watch Die Hard again and jot down the total run time of any scene with Hansy or his boys. I will do this and report back here when I have a free 3 hours.)
UPDATE: OK, I went back and logged ALL of Die Hard’s MAF driven scenes. It clocks in at a total of 37 minutes! That’s 30% of the movie and my calculations were on the conservative side.
Anyway, the screen time itself isn’t the point…
In every serial killer crime Thriller story, if the killer isn’t killing… where’s the story?
In Die Hard, if Hans isn’t robbing the vault, if he’s not shooting the corporate president, wiring the building with explosives, manipulating the FBI… where’s the story?
Nowhere… if the story is a Thriller.
// Sidenote: If you highlight the MAF without actually having the MAF do anything. You’re moving the Thriller intro psychological thriller or drama territory.
But be warned, if your MAF does not drive the action AND you don’t double down on tension (discussed later), your story is completely leaving thriller territory… and will likely be DOA in whatever genre label it wears.
Sadly, so many wannabe thrillers drop the ball big time here.
I can’t even remember the movie I watched recently, but some guy was in a country house and he kept seeing visions of a ghost. The ghost didn’t do shit. It just appeared and growled. The protagonist started taking all these actions to try and figure out what was going on.
Ultimately nothing happened. The movie tried to rely on jump scares and a complicated, ineffective backstory. It tried to make the hero the driving force of the Thriller.
The movie was totally boring and a waste of time. //
After you read this article, you’ll spot “thriller” fiction where the MAF doesn’t drive the story a mile away. These will be the movies and books you walk away from after 20 minutes.
To develop solid thriller fiction, push the active MAF as hard as you can. The more the MAF oozes conflict, jeopardy, and narrative drive, the more engaging the story.
This point can not be stressed enough.
MAF PINCH POINTS
If you love writing villains, you probably have an affinity for Thriller fiction (and maybe before this article, weren’t really sure why).
In most fiction, you work in what’s commonly referred to as Pinch Points.
Moments, usually driven by the MAF, outside of the protagonists perception, that inject narrative drive and raise the stakes. A typical narrative only requires a couple of these.
Again, we can see in Star Wars, Vader only had 8 minutes and at least some of that time was fighting with the protagonist. So Vader’s Pinch Point moments were quite limited.
We don’t need Vader’s backstory to understand his role in the adventure unfolding before us. We don’t need to know the why’s or how’s when he appears in a pinch point. Big dude with electronic voice who force chokes underlings who fuck up—check.
This is acceptable in the adventure movie and in most fiction. In fact, it’s necessary in most fiction where limited time and space are better served supporting some other elements of genre.
But the Thriller isn’t most fiction…
Thriller fiction opens the way for a far greater number of pinch points, approves greater development of the MAF in general, and even goes as far as to showcase the MAF in a split narrative fashion (giving the MAF their own separate parallel running story).
Don’t lose your narrative drive when handing over the show to your MAF… If you pursue highlighting your MAF, make sure all that narrative content is relative to the active story…
but that said, in Thriller fiction you get the green light to explore the why’s and how’s of the villain. USE THE MAF to take advantage of and foreshadow the other elements we’re discussing in this article.
This type of layering of the MAF makes the Thriller.
// Side note: It’s interesting to see in Star Wars how although Vader got such little screen time, he was so thoroughly developed throughout the rest of the movies. Think how your impression of the original Star Wars would have changed, had you been shown all the aspects of Vader’s character arc (particularly the negative side of his arc)? //
Allow an impotent character to steal the show and you’re sunk.
MAFs in Thriller fiction are always hyper capable.
In horror we said the MAFs were “Far more powerful and capable than the hero, making their defeat a clear and exceptional accomplishment for the hero.”
This rule holds TRUE for the thriller as well…
The difference here, as we’ve already mentioned, is that the thriller MAF is normal, not a super normal monster. A lot of writers struggle here, because they don’t push their MAF into the hyper capable realm and instead leave them in a merely capable realm.
They make the mistake of thinking a well executed capable MAF is “good enough” to carry the narrative.
Imagine Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal was just an average criminal, with an average intellect. The entire narrative falls apart.
Or Luc Besson’s Professional, where Gary Oldman’s Norman Stansfield isn’t a psychotic, drug addicted, DEA agent with his own crew and a lot of pull on the police force, but instead a run of the mill beat cop. Again the narrative unravels.
Frank talk here y’all, in the real world you rarely have the time to detail out all the characters as extensively as you’d like.
For the MAF in thriller it pays to make sure you at least have his major flaw and hyper capabilities. You will need these.
// Hey we're only halfway through with the MAF--nevermind Thriller Fiction's biggest narrative pillar! We've got 75% of the article left! If you're working on a Thriller story you absolutely want to crush, sign up to get the rest of the article. Trust me, it only gets better from here. //