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Thread: What makes a thriller thrilling?

  1. #1
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    What makes a thriller thrilling?

    Hi...

    Lets say weve got basic story... person wronged... person seeks revenge... person gets revenge...

    So the writing and plot and action can make it "interesting", but what makes it "thrilling"?

    Thinking of great thrillers you've read...

    What has to happen to the hero/ine along the way? What do they have to go through? Who has to be the antagonist? What other type of character can exist? What "conflicts" must exist (apart from the obvious seeking of revenge)?

    What separates a good story that entertains you from one that leaves you thinking?

    Any ideas?

    :-)

  2. #2
    has no socks JulianneQJohnson's Avatar
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    To me, thrillers and mysteries are closely related. A thriller is more action packed, and sometimes more gruesome. To me, I guess a thriller is in between a mystery and horror. The main thing is that there is a problem to be solved, there's a sense of urgency, and things might get bloody along the way.
    That's how it feels to me, though I admit to some doubt about whether my current baby is thriller or mystery, paranormal or supernatural. So perhaps I'm not the best judge.
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  3. #3
    That hairy-handed gent
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    Suspense.

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    The Crazy Man in the Sun. Feel me. WillSauger's Avatar
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    Read a thriller, find out.
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  5. #5
    just thanks tko's Avatar
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    a great questions

    Sounds like one of my questions. Here's what grabs me:

    Mystery. Who's doing what and why?

    Solving a puzzle (The Da Vinci Code)

    Identification with the MC or hero.

    A unique or interesting situation (Shutter Island). Stuff we haven't read a hundred times before.

    A turning of the tables. The underdog just doesn't win, he goes after the bad guys.

    True suspense that is orchestrated, falling and rising to a crescendo. A master plan for the entire novel, with rhythm and counter-rhythm. Polyrhythm: the simultaneous use of two or more conflicting rhythms, that are not readily perceived as deriving from one another.

    Having said that, I find many of the popular thrillers boring because they are just a shopping list of slam bang action. All the actions scenes are pretty much interchangeable.

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  6. #6
    Twitching ap123's Avatar
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    Tension, imo. A mystery might have similar questions to be answered and intrigue to be uncovered, but if it's labeled a thriller I want twists and turns (that might be purely psychological) and lots of tension.
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    DenturePunk writer bearilou's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by WillSauger View Post
    Read a thriller, find out.
    Not to be flippant but this is my response as well.

    I'm not a thriller reader so if I had these questions, the first thing I'd do is grab 3-5 thrillers and read them to see how the author handled it.
    Quote Originally Posted by Phaeal View Post
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    pretending to be awake onesecondglance's Avatar
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  9. #9
    Old Hand in the Biz Barbara R.'s Avatar
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    I'd say a lot has to do with the shape of the story. Things have to get worse constantly, and the stakes have to keep rising throughout. Just as an example, in my book SUSPICION, the MC is being tormented by an unknown person who must be someone close to her; her house is haunted; and her work--she's a writer---is being tampered with. In the middle of all that, I have her discover that she's pregnant. Suddenly there's another life in the balance.

    That's what it comes down to, I think---upping the ante.

  10. #10
    DenturePunk writer bearilou's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by onesecondglance View Post
    Constant, impending DOOM.
    Said with a lot of reverb, I'd imagine.
    Quote Originally Posted by Phaeal View Post
    The first draft is a huge pile of clay that you've laboriously heaped on your table, patting it into a rough shape as you go along. From the second draft onward, you'll cut away chunks, add bits, pat and punch and pinch, until you finally have a gorgeous figure of, oh, Marcus Aurelius. Or a duck. But a damn fine duck.
    Quote Originally Posted by KTC View Post
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  11. #11
    pretending to be awake onesecondglance's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bearilou View Post
    Said with a lot of reverb, I'd imagine.


    Absolutely. One must always say DOOM in the voice of James Earl Jones.



    ... DOOM




    ... DOOM



    ... DOOM
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  12. #12
    Travelling around the sun cbenoi1's Avatar
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    There is nothing more "thrilling" in a thriller than any other sort of story. It's all about managing conflict and tension to keep the audience invested in the story.

    -cb

  13. #13
    Soldier, Storyteller Linda Adams's Avatar
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    It's the promise of a lot of action and high stakes right in the first couple of scenes (not necessarily people dying in the first chapter; it's more of a whole story thing); some kind of time deadline; and characterization.

    I've seen writers arbitrarily label their books as thrillers and they have only one action scene at the end. It really is about the feel of the entire story, right from the beginning. A sense of urgency maybe, a sense of foreboding, a feeling of a threat. But a lot of thrillers also lack characterization. The skills that make great action scenes also tend to produce poor characterization. With one dimensional characters, it's hard to make readers care about the action scenes.

    I disagree that they're closely related with mysteries though. Thrillers have always been put into the mystery section and labeled as mysteries by booksellers. When I started writing my first thriller, I promptly went out and got all the books on mysteries, believing I was writing a mystery. Not one book even described what I was writing. They were all about detectives trying to solve a crime and the clues; nothing described books like what Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy were writing at the time. International Thriller Writers was eventually created to help promote the genre, and they have a big and very expensive conference in NY every year.
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  14. #14
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    Good utilization of tension/suspense.

    Just keep in mind that I’m not a big reader of mysteries/thrillers.
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    I would say tension, confilct and suspense.

  16. #16
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    You mention "revenge" a few times in your intro question. I would offer that, in my personal opinion, the seeking and taking of revenge does not make for a thriller. For me, there has to be something to lose for the MC, or if there is not (aside from his or her life) then there must be something important to gain. If the goal is kill the people responsible for the death of MC's family, and MC achieves that to no other end, well I'm not thrilled.

    A thriller, in many cases, almost necessitates mystery. It also should have other characters that call into question your MC's quest for revenge. Perhaps the wrong wasn't black & white; perhaps there is still too much to lose; perhaps the MC may be acting contrary to his or her own interests; perhaps they have the wrong antagonist.

    Just spitballing here.

  17. #17
    living in the past ishtar'sgate's Avatar
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    Thrillers are bigger than mere revenge. They are bigger than individual characters. For me a thriller has to solve a large seemingly impossible problem that will affect many people and the difficulties to success must increasingly ramp up before being resolved. There must be an adrenalin rush. I want to be on the edge of my seat, not able to turn the pages fast enough to find out how things will turn out.

  18. #18
    figuring it all out tracivermillion's Avatar
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    For myself personally, as a reader-I want it to be character driven. I want a glimpse into the minds of the characters. I find it more suspense in reading not in the action, but the reasons.
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  19. #19
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    The two main differences for me are time and stakes. Thrillers always have a deadline. They have to solve a problem by a certain date or something much worse will happen to a large number of people.

    For example, both a mystery and a thriller might start with a murder. In the mystery, the novel will be about finding out who is behind the crime. In the thriller, the murder is just the first clue that leads the protagonist to find out about a larger scheme, such as a plan to set off a biological weapon. Often, the identity of those behind the plan is discovered early on, but that's not the main mystery of a thriller.
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  20. #20
    Caped Codder jaksen's Avatar
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    According to Alfred Hitchcock, and I paraphrase here ...

    A thriller is a story in which the audience is waiting for something to happen - a murder to occur, a bomb to go off, a stalker to grab his victim.

    As opposed to a mystery, which is a revelation, in which much of the action relies on mental and not physical activity. There is an 'ahah' moment somewhere, usually near the end, where the puzzle/problem/conundrum is solved or revealed.

    Back to the thriller - the reader or audience is given certain information that not everyone in the story knows or understands. We know who the killer/bomber/stalker is, and we understand the story is leading to a terrible conclusion UNLESS...

    The murderer is discovered,
    Or the bomb defused,
    Or the stalker arrested.

    The job of the protagonist in the thriller is to stop the terrible event from happening, so obstacles are thrown in his way. The clock is ticking, though, (literally or not) and the audience is on the edge of their seat watching, waiting, cheering him or her on. No, don't go that way. No, that's no him! Omg, you're wasting time talking to her!

    There are, of course, mystery-thrillers, too, incorporating elements of both, but basically in a thriller the audience knows things the protagonist does not - in a mystery the audience only knows or learns things as the protagonist learns them.

    Now how to write one? Read about a dozen thrillers, maybe a few mysteries for contrast, and report back. Thrillers are very addictive, btw. I write mysteries.
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  21. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by jaksen View Post
    basically in a thriller the audience knows things the protagonist does not - in a mystery the audience only knows or learns things as the protagonist learns them.
    Interesting comments, but I wonder how categorical this really is. The quote above implies that you can't write a thriller in first-person POV. A truth?

    caw
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  22. #22
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Many thanks...

    ...to all who replied. Some good observations to think on.

    "Read a thriller." Duh... why didn't I think of that one?

    The points to exchange ideas, not get answers/how-to's.

    Thanks all.

  23. #23
    Benefactor Member Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    For me, a thriller has an element of mystery but probably with more action. I'd also say that the stakes may be higher in a lot of thrillers than in a mystery too.

    In a typical mystery, the protagonist may need to solve a murder, or find out who is committing a string of murders, and possibly to discover the killer's motive. A lot of the time, the motives are more local or self-contained (i.e. this guy is killing every dog lover in town because a dog bit him when he was a kid--okay, it's silly, but I remember reading a mystery that was a bit like this ages ago).

    With a thriller, the baddy may have some sort of nefarious plot that goes beyond just killing people for personal reasons, and he or she may be connected to a larger organization with a far-reaching agenda in some way. For instance, in the book Coma, they were causing hospital patients to go into comas so they could sell their organs or something like that. As I recall, the protagonist was a doctor who figured out something was up, and he (or was it a she) had to expose the plot without becoming its next victim.

    And sometimes someone the protagonist him or herself, or someone h or she cares deeply about (a significant other or child) is lined up to be the baddie's next victim (or is kidnapped by the baddies and being held as a hostage), so solving it takes on an extra personal dimension or urgency.
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  24. #24
    That hairy-handed gent
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    It might be easier to pin down what doesn't make a thriller "thrilling". I nominate:

    Backstory, especially presented up front.

    caw
    "Badger! Badger! The weasels have stolen my motor-car!"

    "Frankly, Toad, I don't give a damn."

    -- Gone with the Wind in the Willows

  25. #25
    DenturePunk writer bearilou's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by anmasm View Post
    ...to all who replied. Some good observations to think on.

    "Read a thriller." Duh... why didn't I think of that one?

    The points to exchange ideas, not get answers/how-to's.

    Thanks all.
    Ah. Well. Duh. It was so obvious.

    What are some of your 'ideas' on what makes a thriller thrilling, then?
    Quote Originally Posted by Phaeal View Post
    The first draft is a huge pile of clay that you've laboriously heaped on your table, patting it into a rough shape as you go along. From the second draft onward, you'll cut away chunks, add bits, pat and punch and pinch, until you finally have a gorgeous figure of, oh, Marcus Aurelius. Or a duck. But a damn fine duck.
    Quote Originally Posted by KTC View Post
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