A thriller is a novel (play or movie) with an exciting plot. They usually involved a crime or espionage, but have also been known to focus on events that add a certain element of tension to the plot, such as a very exciting/terrifying contest or experience.
Wow. That’s a pretty general definition and leaves a lot to interpretation. Let’s delve somewhat into the thriller genre.
You have many sub-genres of Thrillers: Crime, Espionage, Historical, Legal, Medical, Military, Political, Supernatural, Suspense, and Technological. Let’s not forget Psychological Thrillers either, since who can resist messing with someone else’s mind.
All of these sub-genres have several elements in common. These are what make up the fundamentals of a well-written thriller.
The first thing you, the author, needs for your thriller to make it memorable is a protagonist who is ordinary and heroic. Uh, yeah, sounds pretty confusing. But if you think about it, Luke Skywalker in the iconic Star Wars series is a pretty ordinary man when we meet him and he turns out to be pretty heroic. So, it is possible to have an ordinary, low key individual who picks up the gauntlet to deal with the situation.
Next up on that all important list of what you need is to make your protagonist sympathetic and likeable. That doesn’t mean this person is so milquetoast that they’re incredibly boring. Give t hem a few unsympathetic traits too, to make them a bit more human. The utterly perfect person will drive all those imperfect readers, who will soon become disgusted.
Moving on to the antagonist. You need a person who will challenge your protagonist. Someone who has the ability to force our hero or heroine into acting beyond what they normally would. If Darth Vadar hadn’t possessed his “destroy the universe” persona, would Luke have stood up against him, especially after learning his worst enemy was his father.
Setting is always important to a story, especially a thriller. For some, that setting needs to be an exotic locale. For others, taking an idyllic small town and turning it upside down works just fine. Remember, your location must be suitable to the events you’re about to unleash on your protagonists’ world. Would Princess Leia have been so sympathetic as a female lead in the Star Wars universe if she’d been part of a small town with no use for a political activist? Probably not.
Now that you have all these elements, you have the good bones for a story, but you’re not quite to the point where you can set down those electronic bytes. Ask yourself this. What do all of these people and/or places have in common? What brings them together? What drives the protagonist to take a stance or the antagonist to act? We call that an inciting incident. This can be as simple as a disagreement blowing up out of all proportion to as complicated as a world devastating event.
Here’s where things get really hard. Your plot needs ongoing conflict and tension. There has to be suspense. Most thrillers are from multiple viewpoints—this can be both protagonist and antagonist, or several protagonists circling in on a single antagonist, or vice versa. Your writing style needs to be tight and fast paced. There is no place in a thriller for long paragraphs of extemporary narration, where we learn about the characters from birth to this moment. Lovely description of each and every element in a scene has no place in the well-crafted thriller. Concentrate on the moment, on what is going on in front of the protagonist and/or antagonist in order to have the reader focused.
Of course, you can’t forget increasing danger, troubles that hit home, internal struggle for your protagonist (who already has enough going on, but hey, let’s add a bit more!), critical turning points where everything seems to be going wrong, obstacles that seem insurmountable, enough clues for the reader to begin to see the light, twists and surprises since what’s a thriller without a last minute monkey wrench thrown into the works, and a satisfying ending.
One last thing you need to include in your story, as your protagonist reflects on what they’ve just accomplished—psychological growth and change.