What is the Thriller Genre?
An external story in the Thriller genre focuses on the protagonist’s need for safety. This leads the reader to identify with the protagonist, who seeks to defeat an antagonist that personifies evil.
Thriller stories blend elements of three other genres as the powerful individual protagonist from the ACTION genre faces the embodiment of evil (the monster) from the HORROR genre in a story about unmasking an antagonist who has committed a crime against society, as in the CRIME genre. The protagonist ends up as a victim and faces damnation if they fail to identify and defeat the villain.
Access our In-depth Guide to the Thriller Genre
This 14-page guide walks you through the core needs for every Thriller story and includes our Thriller Genre Cheatsheet.
The underlying question in every Thriller story is:
How do we deal with ever-present and often incomprehensible forces of evil in everyday life?
What is the Controlling Idea of the Thriller Genre?
The universal theme or CONTROLLING IDEA of a Thriller story is:
Life is preserved when the protagonist succeeds in unleashing their unique gift, but death or damnation triumphs when they fail to do so.
The Four Core Framework of the Thriller Genre
The FOUR CORE FRAMEWORK helps us meet reader expectations by bringing the core of our story into focus to create an irresistible, memorable, and shareable experience for the reader.
1. Core Need
The core need of the protagonist in a Thriller story is safety. The need arises when the antagonist or shadow agent commits an inciting crime indicative of a master villain.
These stories include strong elements of psychological torment for the protagonist, which makes unleashing their gifts and solving the crime more difficult. The protagonist must open their cognitive frame to bring new insights before their gifts can emerge.
2. Core Value
Damnation to Life
Damnation, or a fate worse than death, for the protagonist is an ever present threat. The crime committed by the antagonist becomes personal in some way for the protagonist, intensifying the relationship between the two and making their opposition even more exciting than in an ACTION or CRIME story.
3. Core Emotion
In a Thriller story, one of the villain’s goals is to torment and destroy the protagonist, and one source of excitement for readers is in identifying the source of that deep antagonism. The power of the individual is often diminished in modern society, so the Thriller story’s focus on the power of an individual reminds us that we matter and our hidden gifts matter. When fully expressed, our unique gifts can strike a blow against the powerful forces of antagonism in our world. As readers, we experience a cathartic release in the Thriller genre’s affirmation of individual sovereignty as a defense against evil.
4. Core Event
Hero at the Mercy of the Villain
The CLIMAX of the Thriller genre is the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene. The Core Need for safety is most in jeopardy as the protagonist faces damnation, or a fate worse than death. The Core Emotion of excitement is at its height during the confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist.
4 Conventions of the Thriller Genre
GENRE CONVENTIONS are specific requirements for the story’s ALTERNATE WORLD, AVATARS, and circumstances that create conflict and enable solutions. Conventions set up genre reader expectations. Without these, the reader will be confused, unsettled, or bored and quit reading.
The Thriller genre has four necessary conventions:
- MacGuffin. This is the villain’s OBJECT OF DESIRE, what he or she wants.
- Investigative Red Herrings. Seemingly revelatory false clues that mislead the protagonist.
- Making it Personal. The villain takes the protagonist’s fight as a personal affront and wants to not only beat the protagonist but make it painful as well.
- Clock. There is a limited time for the protagonist to act; failing to act burns precious time.
5 Obligatory Moments in the Thriller Genre
OBLIGATORY MOMENTS are the must-have events, revelations, or decisions and actions that pay off the raised expectations of the CONVENTIONS.
The Thriller genre has five obligatory moments:
- An Inciting Crime indicative of a master Villain. There must be multiple victims.
- Speech in Praise of the Villain. Speech by an AVATAR, or a revelation, that praises the cunning/brilliance of the villain.
- The Protagonist becomes the Victim. A scene reveals that the villain makes the crimes personal to the protagonist, who becomes the primary victim.
- The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain. This is the core event of the Thriller, when the protagonist unleashes his or her gift.
- False Ending. There must be two endings.
Thriller Genre Sub-genres
The Thriller genre can be further broken down into twelve subgenres based on the protagonist’s domain:
- Serial Killer: Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
- Medical: Coma by Robin Cook
- Legal: And Justice for All (1979)
- Psychological: Primal Fear (1996)
- Espionage: The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
- Child in Jeopardy: The Client by John Grisham
- Military: Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II
- Political: Marathon Man by William Goldman
- Journalism: The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly
- Financial: Numbered Account by Christopher Reich
- Woman in Jeopardy: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
- Hitchcock: Rear Window (1954)
“The Thriller is the story form of our time because it concerns the individual coping with omnipresent and often difficult to even comprehend antagonism. The external becomes internal, forcing the protagonist to make fundamental choices to unleash critical gifts.”— Shawn Coyne
Additional Resources for the Thriller Genre
- The Universal Appeal of the Thriller by Shawn Coyne
- Character Archetypes in the Thriller Genre by Shawn Coyne
- The Four Core Framework by Shawn Coyne (Portions of this article have been taken from this book.)
- The 5-Leaf Genre Clover
- For a macro and scene analysis of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, see The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne.
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