Genre Basics - Thrillers - article

What is a Thriller?

Thriller novels usually involve a protagonist who is working to fight a foreign power, criminal organization, or a ruthless villain. The conflicts often involve takes of espionage, financial crimes, politics, or some type of adventure.

No matter what, thrillers have huge stakes. That’s what makes them thrilling. Often described as “heart-pounding” and “fast-paced”, thrillers are rife with apprehension, action, and violence. Whether humanity is threatened or billions of dollars are at stake, these high-intensity conflicts are essential to a thriller’s plot.

The excitement of thrillers comes from the heightened emotional response within the reader as the protagonist races toward a goal. They are not about solving a mystery, but rather about the high tension throughout the story and the feeling of catharsis at the very end. Because of this, thrillers usually include high-intensity moments involving very fast vehicles, weapons, explosions, and death, and the pacing of the story is one of its most important components.


Thriller vs. Mystery

In a mystery, the plot normally centers on a protagonist trying to get to the bottom of a crime. Readers are following a detective as he/she uncovers clues and works toward solving a puzzle. The majority of suspense in mystery novels comes from clues that mislead readers and the anticipation for solving the mystery, rather than a fast-paced plot with extended scenes of violence. 

In a thriller, the protagonist is suspended in an almost constant state of danger. These stories create excitement more because of their quick-pace than the building of plot. Unlike mystery, thrillers are not about solving a puzzle, but rather about the pressure of high-stakes scenarios. 

Occasionally books will blur the lines between these two genres, but your story will likely fall more into one than another.


Types of Thriller Novels

Thrillers form a broad genre with multiple sub-genres, with novels often fitting into more than one at a time. Here are nine of its most popular categories.

Psychological Thriller

Psychological thrillers involve pitting two minds (a brilliant protagonist versus an equally brilliant psychopath) in an intense battle of wits. This plot-driven story often involves themes of human consciousness, reality, identity and the meaning of existence.

Popular psychological thrillers include The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Crime Thriller

These nail-biting novels center on crimes that often involve ransoms, hostages, or complex heists. Diabolic revenge is also common to this genre, along with kidnappings and serial killers.

Popular crime thrillers include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson and The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith.


Techno-thrillers contain elements of science fiction, as they are often set in the future and explore new and complex technology in a modern, realistic way.

Popular techno-thrillers include Origin by Dan Brown and One Second After by William R. Forstchen.

Medical Thriller

The tension in medical thrillers center on, you guessed it, medical practices or surgery. The characters are medical professionals who often race against a burgeoning worldwide pandemic or a modern medical advancement gone wrong.

Popular medical thrillers include The Atlantis Gene by A.G. Riddle and Coma by Robin Cook.

Legal Thriller

Legal thrillers center around lawyers who represent a client embroiled in a battle with a corporation. The case threatens the livelihood, integrity, and interpersonal relationships of the lawyers on the case.

Popular legal thrillers include The Firm by John Grisham and An Innocent Client by Scott Pratt.

Historical Thriller

Simply, historical thrillers are classified as thrillers that take place sometime in the distant past, just like historical fiction. Often, this means your protagonist won’t have access to technology such as cell phones, computers, and high-speed vehicles, so you’ll have to get creative and ensure you’re being historically accurate.

Popular historical thrillers include The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry.

Military Thriller

Military thrillers center on a character who is or was a member of the military as they risk their lives in combat missions. These novels require a strong understanding of weaponry, lingo, and the ins and outs of how a branch of the military runs.

Popular military thrillers include Without Remorse by Tom Clancy and World War Z by Max Brooks.

Spy & Political Thriller

The conflict in a spy or political thriller centers around some aspect of the government. Common themes include political corruption, terrorism, and warfare. Plots can center on both real and fictional political events.

Popular political thrillers include American Assassin by Vince Flynn and The First Lady by James Patterson.

Supernatural Thriller

Supernatural thrillers are thrillers that contain elements of fantasy and horror and involve some aspect of the supernatural, whether it’s vampires, ghosts, witches, or other fictional beings.

Popular supernatural thrillers include Pet Sematary by Stephen King and The Rise of Magicks by Nora Roberts.

To learn more about genres, whether you need them, and how to choose the right one, make sure to check out our comprehensive article on The Basics of Genre.

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  • Crime thriller pretty well describes this novel. Russian mobsters based in South Brooklyn try to infiltrate an independent oil company by causing the death of its founder, Arthur Lockwood. When he is killed, the hired hitter tries to ease into the overall picture, short-stopping the Russian mob for a piece of the action. The old man's granddaughter, Leah Lockwood, tries to find out who arranged the death of her grandfather, and finds it isn't easy to get any kind of justice.