A Crash Course in Thriller Sub-Genres

Thriller Genres

Image Credit: Dave Dyet

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

We’re now moving away from speculative fiction in our examination of genres. This week I’m delving into thrillers, and in two weeks (after my regular monthly post at Fiction University) I’ll be looking at mysteries.

What Makes a Thriller? What’s the Difference Between a Mystery, a Suspense, and a Thriller?

Just like with the speculative fiction genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, before I can talk about thrillers, I need to go over how thrillers are different from mysteries and suspense.

A mystery is meant to be a puzzle. We don’t know who the “bad guy” is at the beginning. The reader discovers things along with the main character. The biggest difference between a mystery and a suspense or a thriller is that, in the latter two, the reader often has knowledge about the “bad guy” that the main character doesn’t.

In thrillers, we know who the “bad guy” is from the beginning. Whereas mystery readers want to figure out the who, thriller readers want to figure out the how. How is our hero going to stop the bad guy in time? In a mystery, the sleuth’s life usually isn’t in jeopardy. In a thriller, the hero’s life almost always hangs in the balance at many points during the story. Thrillers are action-packed.

The best explanation of suspense I’ve ever heard came from Alfred Hitchcock. He said suspense is “a state of waiting for something to happen.” The example he gave was of a couple eating in a restaurant and a bomb goes off. If we had no forewarning, it’s surprise. If we watched the villain planting the bomb and then page after page agonized over whether the couple was going to get out of the restaurant in time, whether the bomb was actually going to go off, or whether someone would discover the bomb in time to stop it, you have suspense.

There are two main differences between suspense and thrillers. The first is that, unlike thrillers, a suspense doesn’t need to be action-packed. There’s tension and danger, but not necessarily a lot of physical daring do (like car chases). But the biggest difference between suspense and thrillers is the scope. Thrillers tend to have big picture consequences. If the protagonist doesn’t succeed, terrorists will unleash a devastating biological weapon on North America or the world will be thrown into World War III. Suspense novels tend to have more intimate consequences. If the protagonist fails in a suspense, she might die, but the world will otherwise continue as it always has.

Is there overlap between these genres? Of course! If you’ve learned nothing so far from these posts, I hope you’ve learned that genres aren’t a straightjacket. They’re more like maps. (In fact, many a psychological or legal thriller would be better called a psychological suspense or a legal suspense.)

If you’re a thriller writer, you might want to consider joining (or in some way becoming involved with) International Thriller Writers or the Crime Writers of Canada.

Defining Thriller Sub-Genres

Espionage – Also called spy fiction, espionage is the land of the CIA, assassins, secret agents, and James Bond. If you’re writing something like Robert Ludlum’s Bourne books or you want to be the next John La Carre or Alan Furst, you’re probably working on an espionage novel. They’re often set during World War II or the Cold War, but that focus may now be shifting to more modern settings as well.

Medical Thriller – Your POV character in a medical thriller is going to be employed in the medical field (e.g., a doctor, a medical examiner) or be closely tied to a hospital setting. This type of thriller is a race to uncover or fix a deadly medical situation–organ black markets, an out-of-control virus, patients falling in mysterious comas, etc.

Psychological Thriller – These are battles of the mind and the wits. They’re often dark and focus more on emotional trauma to the characters than physical trauma. Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and Along Came a Spider by James Patterson would both be categorized as psychological thrillers.

Legal Thriller – Similar to medical thrillers, the POV character in a legal thriller is an attorney. The story centers around a legal dilemma or courtroom drama. John Grisham’s name is almost synonymous with legal thrillers.

Historical Thriller – If you set your thriller prior to around 1960, you’re likely going to fall into the historical thriller sub-genre. Readers of this sub-genre expect historical accuracy and engaging details as well as a fast-paced read. Good historical thrillers can be especially challenging to write due to the need to evoke a rich historical atmosphere without slowing down the story.

Techno Thriller – The most powerful technology of today has fallen into the wrong hands, and it’s up to your main character to get it back or destroy it. Ever read a Tom Clancy book? Then you’ve read a techno thriller.

Military Thriller – Military thrillers have a lot in common with techno thrillers, but instead of focusing on technology, they focus on military objectives. Your main character in a military thriller is likely to be a member of the military (no shock there). Bob Mayer’s Green Beret series is an example of military thrillers. Both techno thrillers and military thrillers are often global in their scope.

Supernatural Thriller – Supernatural thrillers blend the expected fast-moving suspense plot with some paranormal or other worldly element. Your main character might be a psychic or see ghosts.

Thrillers are my second love (after speculative fiction). What’s your favorite genre? Do you ever read outside of it?

I hope you’ll check out the books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, including How to Write Dialogue and Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction.

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