Thrillers: the Mostleastnotatallsortof Limited Genre

I recently fielded the following question:


Do thrillers have a more limited story structure than other genres?


I thought it was an interesting question, so thought you might think it was an interesting answer. Yes, that sentence makes sense. And so (hopefully) does my response to the question:



Absolutely not.


And yes.


And it depends.


Let’s talk about this last: depends what you mean by “story structure.” Are you talking about the way the story is boxed up and presented to the audience? In this case, it’s all the same – and it’s all different. Most people utilize a three-act structure (beginning, middle, and end) – which has been around since forever, though Aristotle is mostly credited with being the first one to start its codification and explication in his Poetics. It’s an easy way to provide pertinent information, and it provides the additional element that humans generally require of a story: meaning. It gives us a situation (beginning), then develops the ramifications (middle), then provides an end to the action which generally includes an explicit or implicit statement as to what the actions of the story have meant in the grand scheme of things. So structure-wise, most people write in three acts, and it doesn’t matter whether you are writing a thriller, a horror piece, or anything else – they all follow the same basic pattern. There are “experimental” pieces that try and avoid the three-act structure, but most of them end up either using the structure but then switching around the scenes in editing (think Pulp Fiction), or they end up a jumbled wretch of a mess that no one wants to watch/hear/read.


Now, are you talking about the tropes of a thriller? By which I mean, those audience expectations that must be filled if they go in saying, “I’m reading a thriller?” If so, then I’d argue thrillers are actually one of the least-confined genres. Scifi has a set of things audiences expect – chief among them the presence of advanced/alien technology that impacts humans. So does fantasy (magic!). Romance does, too.


Thrillers, though, only really require… well, thrills. That’s pretty open – you can, in fact, have scifi thrillers, fantasy thrillers, [INSERT GENRE HERE] thrillers. “Thriller” as a term of art that means that a specific set of audience expectations will be fulfilled is so vague as to be meaningless. Be they aliens, dragons, political rivals, spies, or anything else, the only real expectation for a “thriller” is that the heartbeat of the reader be elevated and they go on a mental rollercoaster.


On the other hand (I always have at least two other hands), thrillers can be viewed as very limiting for that same reason. It’s possible to have a scifi book that is hyper-fast, with so much action you want to puke; but also to be so measured as to cause comas in the unwary (I’m looking at you, Solaris!). Fantasies, scifi, romance… they all have variable rhythms, dependent solely on the effect and intensity of effect the author wishes to create.


Thrillers, though, require an intensity of effect. There can be no thriller without the thrilling. That’s a pretty tough requirement, and few other genres really share that kind of physiological aspect – in fact, only comedy, horror, and pornography really drill into the visceral stimulation of one’s own body in a way comparable to the “thrill ride” a thriller author tries to provide.


Finally, though, I think you are probably asking the wrong question. This sounds like a question that really means, “What kind of things do I have to put in my thriller?” And that, again, is a “depends” answer. Thrillers can be intermingled with countless other genres, or sold as “just plain thrillers” in the bookstore. If the former, we’ve already talked a bit about what readers might be looking for. If the latter, then you have to remember that “genre” is largely a construct of marketing and customer service. People go to the thriller aisle in B&N, and there they find thrillers… whose only single factor in common is that they are in the thriller aisle in B&N. Those genre slots are there for convenience: they provide audiences with a place to look where they might find certain tropes represented in higher concentration, and they provide booksellers with a shorthand way of pushing niche markets to aisles where the customers are more likely to reach for their wallets. But that’s largely meaningless as anything divorced from marketing. If you don’t believe it, then think about how fast Amazon would move Romeo & Juliet to their Historical Western section if they found out it would sell like hotcakes there. The definition of genre in this sense, again, is mostly a question of “How do we (the booksellers) get you (the audience) to fork over your dough?”


TL;DR: You can look at the idea of “thrillers” in myriad ways, and each of these viewpoints will yield a different answer to your question.