Secrets of the Thriller Genre, Part Two; How to distinguish the Thriller from the Horror and Crime Genres

In Part One of this article, we examined the fundamentals of the Thriller Genre and compared and contrasted it with certain aspects of the Horror and Crime Genres. Here, in Part Two, I’ll go deeper with those comparisons and demonstrate the differing obligatory scenes and conventions of all three of these closely related genres.

Since the Thriller Genre is a mash-up of three genres (Horror, Crime, and Action), it’s easy to confuse it with Crime and Horror. The boundaries are often blurred, especially when so many books and movies are mismarketed as Thrillers. Media and marketing teams can claim they have a Thriller, even when the story is really better described as a thrilling Crime, Horror, or Action story. But we need to know what kind of story we’re writing so we can clearly influence the thoughts and feelings of the audience.

We have to nail our controlling ideas, obligatory scenes, conventions, core emotions, value shifts, and more or the story won’t leave the audience satisfied.

So, let’s look at the differences.

How does the Thriller differ from Horror?

Arch-plot vs. Mini-plot

Horror can have a mini-plot (multiple victims) or arch-plot (single protagonist). The Thriller typically has a single protagonist.

Controlling Ideas

A story’s controlling idea (sometimes called the theme) is the lesson you want your reader to come away with. It’s the meaning they will assign to your story, usually unconsciously.

A prescriptive or positive story is about what we should do.

A cautionary or negative story is about what we shouldn’t do.

The controlling ideas for Horror are:

Prescriptive: Life is preserved when the protagonist overpowers or outwits the monster.

Cautionary: Death or a “fate worse than death” results when the protagonist fails to overpower or outwit the monster.

The controlling ideas for the Thriller are:

Prescriptive: Life is preserved when the protagonist unleashes his or her special gift.

Cautionary: Death or damnation triumphs when the protagonist fails to unleash his or her special gift.

Do they still seem awfully similar? It turns out there is a difference between “unleashing a special gift” and simply “overpowering or outwitting the monster.” Let’s look at some examples provided by Anne Hawley, a fellow Story Grid Editor:

In Marathon Man, the protagonist’s special gift is running. He’s fast and he’s fit, and he uses that gift to escape the monster.

In Hot Fuzz, the protagonist’s special gift is perfect adherence to the rules of policing, and he outwits the monstrous villain by being a really, really good cop.

Whereas the protagonists in Alien and Get Out both outwit their monsters with a little ingenuity, some luck, and sheer determination.

Global Values

The global values at stake describe the protagonist’s primary change from the beginning of the story to the end.

While both the Horror and Thriller Genres have global values of life and death, the value change in Horror goes beyond death to the point where “death would be a mercy.”

The Thriller protagonist is pushed to their limits. Toward damnation. A Thriller need not reach actual damnation, but the potential and the vehicle for damnation must be expressed.

Examples:

In Alien, we quickly learn that death IS mercy to the infected crew member, and to each successive crew member attacked by the monster.

In Marathon Man, the Jewish protagonist is trying to stop a Nazi war criminal and would face a kind of damnation if he fails.

Core Emotions

The core emotion of a story is what a reader wants to feel without taking real-life risks. It’s the reason they choose a particular type of story.

In Horror, the core emotion is fear. Or, more specifically, terror. Audiences choose Horror stories to experience the thrill of courage against terror in a life and death situation.

The Thriller’s core emotion is excitement. Audiences choose a Thriller to experience thrills.

Antagonists

The Horror antagonist is far more powerful than the protagonist, maybe even supernatural, monstrous, and unrealistic. The Thriller antagonist is more powerful than the protagonist but is human.

This is a very clear delineation between the two genres. Even if the Horror antagonist is nominally a human being, that human is working for (or in the thrall of) some monstrous force. 

As a rule, though, if you have your genre narrowed down to Horror or Thriller:

If the antagonist is a non-human monster (or under the influence of one), the genre is Horror.

If the antagonist is a human being, the genre is Thriller.

Conventions

In Horror, the antagonist commits a series of escalating crimes, wherein a Thriller there may be just one. Key distinction. 

In Horror, the protagonist is unable to escape due to their isolated location or situation. The settings are generally dark, claustrophobic, and conceal danger via labyrinth-like effects. In the Thriller, the landscape of the story is broader to allow for the investigative process. The setting is dark and immediately threatening but allows for escape.

The Horror story premise is improbable. The progressive complications and climactic action, especially notable in inciting incident scenes, are highly unlikely to happen. In the Thriller, the story is one in which the audience can imagine happening in real life. See Power Dynamics.

As a rule, though, if you have your genre narrowed down to Horror or Thriller:

If your protagonist is trying to solve a puzzle (save a victim) while avoiding death, your genre is Thriller.

If your protagonist is simply trying to escape with their own life because the antagonist is on a serialized mission of devastation, your genre is Horror.

Story Structure

In the Thriller, the protagonist accepts the quest at the beginning of the middle build. In Horror, by ignoring the warning that danger is lurking, the protagonist inadvertently accepts the quest in the beginning hook.

While both Horror and Thriller share a convention of a “false ending” which translates to seemingly two endings, that second ending differs by genre. At the end of a Horror story, the writer leaves information for the audience that “proves” or implies that evil still lurks. The monster will return. The thriller may end with more finality, with justice definitively prevailing, or it may end with the death of the protagonist or the victim.

How does the Thriller differ from Crime?

Global Values

In a Crime story, the change in values runs along the spectrum of Justice, Unfairness, Injustice, and Tyranny. That is, if justice does not prevail in any single instance, society may suffer unfairness or injustice, but if most crimes are not investigated and solved, society will lapse into the tyranny of criminals.

In the Thriller, the change in values runs along Life, Death, and Damnation. If the protagonist fails to act to stop the antagonist, the protagonist will suffer a fate worse than death- damnation.

Core Emotions

Audiences are drawn to crime stories in order to experience the intrigue of solving a puzzle and the security of seeing justice done in the end, without facing real crime or real injustice. Thriller’s core emotions are excitement and fear.

Controlling Ideas

The controlling ideas for Crime are:

Mystery Prescriptive: Justice prevails when the protagonist overpowers or outwits their antagonist.

Mystery Cautionary: Injustice (with the possibility of eventual tyranny) when the antagonist outwits or overpowers the protagonist.

Caper and Heist Prescriptive: Crime pays (in other words poetic justice prevails) when people band together to cheat the system but not each other.

Caper and Heist Negative: Crime doesn’t pay (in other words poetic justice fails) when people set out to cheat the system together but, instead, cheat each other.

See The Editors’ Roundtable Podcast on Mad Money where these Caper/Heist Controlling Ideas were first introduced by Leslie Watts.

The controlling ideas for the Thriller are:

Prescriptive: Life is preserved when the protagonist unleashes his or her special gift.

Cautionary: Death or damnation triumphs when the protagonist fails to unleash his or her special gift.

Power Dynamics

While the Thriller antagonist is much more powerful than the protagonist, the Crime antagonist need not be. The Crime antagonist must simply pose a worthy challenge to the protagonist.

For example, quite often in the classic Sherlock Holmes tales, the criminal is not a mastermind, but merely clever or lucky, and the challenge to Holmes is reconstructing a crime that happened some time ago.

Obligatory Scenes

Unlike Crime stories, the Thriller has a False Ending. There must be two endings in the Thriller.

The core event of the Crime story is when the criminal is exposed, brought to justice, or gets away with the crime (caper/heist). We might say that this is when either the investigator or the caper/heist criminal leader really display their special gift of cleverness, brilliant deduction, or fast thinking.

The core event of the Thriller is the “Hero at the Mercy of the Villain.” It’s the All is Lost Moment when the protagonist unleashes their inner gift.

Conventions

In the Thriller, the protagonist is actively trying to stay alive by rendering the antagonist useless, whereas, in Crime, the protagonist is either trying to solve a crime or carry one out.

In a Thriller, lives depend on the protagonist’s defeat of the villain. A Crime story is about bringing the antagonist to justice for a crime already committed or, in the case of the caper or heist type, it’s about the protagonist getting away with a crime. In Crime, justice being served may or may not overtly prevent future crimes.

The Thriller protagonist might not survive, while the Crime protagonist faces manipulation but not necessarily death at the hands of the antagonist.

In the Thriller, there is an All-Is-Lost scene in which the protagonist sees the antagonist as unbeatable. In a Crime story, there may be a speech in praise of the antagonist but they are not necessarily viewed as unbeatable.

In the Thriller, there is a clear “point of no return;” the moment when the protagonist knows they can never go back to the way things used to be because their world has been knocked out of alignment. In Crime, the protagonist’s life might not be directly impacted.

In the Thriller, the atmosphere is portrayed in considerable detail. It is alive and immediately threatening, and creates excitement and fear for the reader or viewer. This is not always the case in a Crime story. In a Crime story, the setting rather than the mood of the story is often what determines the subgenre. For example, courtroom, newspaper, and prison are all settings that are also crime subgenres.

Crime and Thriller depend on different forms of narrative drive. Suspense, the narrative drive created when the audience/reader and character know the same things at the same time, is the major driver of the Thriller. On the other hand, while the Crime story may contain elements of suspense, it depends more heavily on mystery, where the character knows more than the reader/viewer, causing us to strain towards finding out. Crime stories also rely more on tension (tension results from the unresolved story events and unfulfilled wants and needs of the protagonist as the result of conflicts.

In a Thriller, the antagonist can’t be reasoned with. They are intent on annihilation, devastation, or power at the expense of others. An example: In Fatal Attraction, when Dan comes to talk Alex pulls a knife). In a Crime story, an antagonist’s reasoning ability is irrelevant. They may even admit to their crimes and express remorse after being exposed. For example, in Double Indemnity, the noir protagonist/criminal begins the story by confessing his crime and he is willing to be arrested in the end.

In the Crime story, the criminal antagonist must be brought to justice or, in the case of the caper/heist, the criminal protagonist must finish carrying out their carefully-planned crime. In a Thriller, justice can mean death, banishment, or imprisonment rather than the exposure of the criminal. In a Thriller, the antagonist can get away (injustice), especially in a series, but the protagonist must be out of immediate danger with some sense of victory (win but lose, win for now). For example: In Fatal Attraction, Dan and his family are no longer in danger of being murdered by Alex but his marriage is in shambles and his pet rabbit is stew.

Final Thoughts

Now you have the tools you need to distinguish between the Horror, Thriller, and Crime Genres. You’re primed to finish your story. 

Need some extra help completing your manuscript? Grab a spot on my calendar for a free half-hour consultation so we can determine how I can best help you meet your story goals.

Interested in other articles I’ve written on genre? Check out these links:

Secrets of the Performance GenreSecrets of the Morality GenreSecrets of the Status GenreSecrets of the Society GenreSecrets of Writing MemoirSecrets of the Crime GenreSecrets of the Worldview GenreSecrets of the War GenreSecrets of the Action GenreSecrets of the Thriller, Part One and TwoSecrets of the Horror Genre , Secrets of the Western Genre, and Secrets of the Love Genre, Secrets of the Big Idea Book, Part One, and Part Two..

I wish you the best of luck and hard work with your story.

Special thanks to Anne Hawley for editing this post.

About the Author

Rachelle Ramirez helps writers develop their stories and believes stories are our most important catalyst for change. She received an MA in psychology from Goddard College and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Masters in Creative Writing Program on merit scholarship. Rachelle served as the executive director for a national writing community before becoming a Certified Story Grid Editor. She is honored to have edited the award winning fiction of some amazing authors but her favorite work is with first-time novelists and memoir writers. She is easily bribed with promises of iced coffee drinks, piles of puppies, and long walks in thunderstorms. She is currently on contract, writing a Story Grid guide to a masterwork. Her forthcoming novel is White Grrrl, Black Sheep. Contact Rachelle to schedule a free 30-minute consultation on your story at rachelleramirez.com.
Comments (4)
Author Rachelle Ramirez

4 Comments

Nicole Travis says:

Very enlightening. I have trouble distinguishing overlapping genres but this answered a lot of questions for me. Most importantly, I now know that I have a thriller in my hands.

Reply
Rachelle Ramirez says:

Great! Once you know your genre, you can really make huge strides the tools available through Story Grid.

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Tony says:

Wow, lots of great info here, as always. It’s a challenge to keep all this information in one’s head (or even on the page). I hope Black Irish releases a genre-specific reference book. Or a software program that asks you questions and suggests what your genre and arcs may be.

Reply
Rachelle Ramirez says:

Thanks Tony. I am finishing the second draft of a genre reference book now. I’d love to hear your questions so that I can incorporate the answers. I love the idea of giving writers the tools they need to narrow down their genre.

Reply

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