The Universal Appeal of the Thriller

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We’re working our way down the Foolscap Global Story Grid and the next line we need to fill in are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions of our chosen genre/s.  But before I lay out the nuts and bolts of the form, it’s absolutely worth taking the time to consider why The Thriller exists in the first place. So in that spirit, here’s my take on why the well tuned thriller is irresistible:

Al Zuckerman, a very experienced and successful literary agent who founded and runs the esteemed literary agency Writers House, wrote a book some years ago (1994) that is still vital, Writing the Blockbuster Novel. In it, Zuckerman recommends that if a potential novelist wants to succeed commercially, he should write a novel with multiple points of view. This is sage advice from someone who represents the extremely successful writer Ken Follett. In his book, Zuckerman actually walks the reader through Follett’s multiple outlines for The Man from St. Petersberg. I highly recommend reading it, as you’ll get a very clear understanding of one writer’s analytical process before he even contemplates writing his first draft.

Follett is a big believer in outlining. I worked for one of his Editor’s years ago at Delacorte Press, the wonderful Jackie Farber, and had the pleasure of reading a number of his outlines before he wrote word one. While innovations in his story came to him during the drafting that he hadn’t anticipated before he dove in, his outline was comprehensive. That is, he tackled the very difficult work of creating a Beginning, Middle and End to his book before he began writing. He didn’t depend upon the guiding light of the Muse alone to steer him to shore, he mapped out his journey before he set sail. And wouldn’t you know it, while he worked fresh ideas that took his outline from a “B” story to an “A” story emerged.

He made sure he knew where he was going before he set out on the journey. Through his example (and many other extremely gifted and hardworking writers including the master Elmore Leonard), I began my quest to conceive and develop The Story Grid.  Twenty plus years later…here it finally is!

Follett’s kind of sweeping novel that is as much about an historical time and place as it is about its characters requires a very unique set of skills. Al Zuckerman is certainly right that when a novel of great scope hits the marketplace and touches a nerve, it can become a blockbuster success.

However, it is my contention that while the broad, often multi-genre historical saga (Dr. Zhivago, Pillars of the Earth, the entire James Michener backlist etc.) can result in very compelling story, it does not have the commercial potential today that it did only a few decades ago. That is, beyond Ken Follett, there are few writers making hay with this approach today. Just take a look at today’s bestseller lists and you’ll see that this kind of work is not as represented as it once was.

As time passes, things change. Like everything else, story changes too. What was once a dominant Genre just a few decades ago often recedes in popularity. Why aren’t there novels like Rich Man, Poor Man or The Carpetbaggers or even Less than Zero on bestseller lists anymore? Audiences grew weary of them and moved elsewhere.

But then again if I were to give advice to a young writer looking for an angle…I’d suggest writing a Saga.  When there is a hole in the marketplace, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no market for that kind of book.  It usually indicates an opportunity.  Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch being a major bestseller and critical sensation stands as direct proof. In fact, I can anticipate that within the next few years, we’ll have more of these epic realistic sagas with deep story reaching larger and larger audiences. The good old-fashioned epic social drama is on the ascendant.

What determine the degree of popularity of any one particular Genre are the vagaries of the time period in which it has been written. What were once the popcorn Stories of a time, decades later prove to be dusty and unpopular. Westerns were once the bread and butter of book publishing. Paperback houses survived on churning out Westerns, sometimes five of them a month. Now the Western is all but forgotten. Other than a few classics from the arena, Lonesome Dove and the Louis L’Amour oevre perhaps, or post-modern takes that splice the Western into other genres, you can’t give away Westerns today. There was once a genre called the Pennydreadful that was hugely popular in the Victorian era. Not so anymore. Although there is a television series just out working hard to revive it.

So what is the story genre of our time?


The thriller is the Story form of our time because it concerns the individual coping with omnipresent and often difficult to even comprehend antagonism.Thrillers boil down our modern experience to a psychological core that every literate person and even illiterate person on the planet can understand, sympathize and empathize.

Contemporary civilization is a dizzying mix of sensory input designed to elicit individual compliance and unconscious behavioral action. We are inundated with psychically damaging messages—we’re too fat, we’re ugly, we’re low class, we’re not cool, we’re lazy, we’re never going to make it. On top of those assaults are prescriptive solutions to overcoming our inadequacies—go on a diet, join a health club, go to college, wear hip hop clothes, take this seminar. They are targeted to us every single day, hour, minute, and even second of our lives.

And these are no longer static images from the Mad Men era. They are loaded in full High Definition motion on billboards, in cabs, on buses, on the Internet and every single cable channel. While the commercial messaging is impossible to ignore or avoid, it is modern life’s “control” messaging that really knocks us on our ass. I’ll not get into the work of Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays here, but he’s the ghost in all of these machines.

The granddaddy of all messages we receive is this: WE’RE NOT SAFE.

We are told that there are boogeymen at every corner. Al Qaeda, and now ISIS and a slew of other terrorist organizations that we know little of, want to destroy us. Pedophiles are stalking our children. Our government is failing us. The world is getting so hot, it will soon melt down. Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, are imminent. Storm watches, breaking news, lone gunmen, sociopaths, psychopaths, liars, cheaters, swindlers, gangs, feral youth, pirates, unstable veterans, racists, sexists, drones, the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the Police, MI5, MI6, the Stasi, KGB, DEA, IRS, drunk drivers, texting drivers, homeless people… The fear factory is churning out product like no other time in history.

To make matters worse? We all live alone. We belong to no protective tribe. The nuclear family is a couple or just one parent with a kid or two or three. Perhaps all from different partners. Single parents pulled in a million directions. It’s just mano a mano.

This is why the thriller is the form that holds the blockbuster baton these days. [Let’s not forget that Ken Follett has written one of the best thrillers of all time, Eye of the Needle as well as his epic sagas.]

I also think we are attracted to the thriller because of the chaotic and yet intricately connected character of our age. Modern man is assaulted with data from the moment he wakes to the moment he falls asleep. While we are all connected now by the world wide web, we don’t see any real grand humanitarian design coming to bear as a result. There are millions of people starving, being slaughtered, used as slaves, and our economies are in complete flux. Everything that modern man once held dear and believed (technology will solve all of our problems) is now in doubt. There just doesn’t seem to be any way to navigate the world without feeling in one way or another victimized by forces beyond our control.

In order to find our way in this chaos, we seek stories that give us hope and faith that we can persevere.

While over the top Action fantasy stories are certainly still viable and commercially irresistible (hence the Batman, Superman, Avenger, comic book movie franchises), long form stories in novel form that do not sugarcoat reality or simplify success help satisfy our need for order. As we often feel like we have no impact on the world whatsoever and are treated by the powerful as consumption machines to be programmed by the latest algorithms, we deeply identify with thriller protagonists.

The thriller is all about one individual negotiating a complex world, living it to the limits of human existence, and usually triumphing over seemingly overwhelming forces of antagonism. Isn’t this a description of what we often feel we are up against every day of our lives? We love thrillers because they reassure us that there is an order to the world and one person can make a difference, have an impact. When we leave a great movie thriller or finish a great thriller novel, we have a catharsis. The experience purges our gloom and gives us reinforcement to stay the course.

If Clarice Starling can survive having Hannibal Lecter in her head, all the while chasing a schizophrenic serial killer flaying women to make himself a woman suit, we can certainly make it through another day at work.

So in the next post, I’ll lay out the conventions and obligatory scenes of this vital genre.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.



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Shawn Coyne

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the ’70s and the Fight For America’s Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.