Friday, November 23, 2012

We’re All Thriller Writers Now

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers

Thrilling: adj., producing sudden, strong, and deep emotion or excitement

Doesn’t that pretty much describe all great novels? Yet according to librarians and bookstore owners, traditional labeling defines thrillers as fast-paced, realistic books that focus on plot more than character and have a high-stakes conflict as the heart of the story. And by high stakes they mean a lot more than a single life—or a series of selected lives—must be at risk. Whole cities or ways of life must be in peril.

But now, with many writers labeling their own work, just about any story with a crime or an element of suspense is called a thriller. Just as one example, Amazon’s #1 book on the thriller list is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, a story of a marriage gone bad and a missing wife. It’s all about the characters. Readers love the story and many have labeled it thrilling, and being a fan, I plan to read it. But it's not technically a thriller.

My new book sure looks like a thriller.
As a member of International Thriller Writers, I’ve written many features about new releases for the Big Thrill newsletter. With some, I’ve scratched my head and thought: Why is this called a thriller? The stories usually sound terrific, but still, I would call them paranormal suspense or historical mystery.

But I’m guilty of thriller labeling too. My Detective Jackson series falls under crime fiction, police procedurals, mysteries, and suspense. But a year ago, I added the word thriller to the subtitles (Detective Jackson Mystery/Thrillers) to let readers know that they aren’t traditional mysteries that can be solved at a leisurely pace and that there is plenty of action and a major element of suspense.

Also, labeling the novels thrillers expands their metadata and allows more readers to find them. But are they really thrillers? Traditionalists would probably say no. Murders, assaults, and robberies in a midsized Oregon city don’t represent high-stakes conflict. My new publisher, Thomas & Mercer, doesn’t plan to use the thriller label. So in January, the series goes back to being the “Detective Jackson Mysteries.” But I hope Amazon lists the books in the thriller category, anyway.

Because I want to reach as broad an audience as possible. Still, I wonder how much readers care about labels. Some readers love thrillers of every kind, and they judge a book by its cover, description, and word of mouth reputation, rather than by its category. Other readers actively dislike thrillers, and won’t bother with any book labeled that way. Further discussion reveals that what they mean is they don’t like spy stories or novels with big explosions or long chase scenes. So for some readers, thriller can have a negative connotation.

My website says “Author of provocative mysteries & thrillers” and I’m happy with that. In addition to my Jackson series, I have three standalones—all highly suspenseful, but with no spies, explosions, or car chases.

What does the term thriller mean to you? Does the label make a book more enticing?


  1. Interesting thoughts, LJ.

    I think "thriller" has become a loosely-defined word--maybe more so than with other genres. By nature, it draws attention (much like "suspense" does), so maybe some use it more as a marketing strategy than a genre-defining one.

    Having said that, I see a thriller as being defined by the tension factor-- the more of it you have, the more likely it's a thriller. A standard mystery sits at the low end of the scale. A mystery with higher stakes, ramped-up danger, and less time push it higher.

    Best of luck with the new release!

  2. Interesting post, LJ. To me, a thriller is a fast-paced, nail-biting, adrenaline-induced story, where the hero is in direct danger and there's lots at stake, but not necessarily the well-being of a whole city or country. Lee Child's Jack Reacher series are considered thrillers, and it's usually a more limited group that is endangered. And many or most thrillers have a mysterious element, too, as in the perpetrator is unknown and must be found and apprehended.

    I love your Detective Jackson series and I love your stand-alone thrillers. For Amazon, you can always list "thriller" as one of the tags for your Jackson series, to catch readers who enter that word in their search - but I'm sure you already do that.

  3. Certainly a thought-provoking post, LJ. I just twitted it and posted to my FB.

    As a regular contributor to the The Big Thrill, I've scratched my head a few times myself.

    On the other hand, what's wrong of throwing in a few car chases into the mystery plot? Towards the end, perpetrators usually make a run for it, don't they?

    I think thriller has evolved into a larger theme, and that's the reason why we have plenty of sub-genres like: legal thrillers, techno-thrillers, etc.

    However, story and its relation with readers, is king.

  4. The "protagonist in danger" is one of the main criteria International Thriller Writers uses when it judges contests, but it lets about anyone writing suspense join and post their new releases.

  5. ITW judges contests? Do you mean for established, published thriller writers or aspiring thriller writers?

  6. Jodie,
    ITW organizes an award. It is for established writers but includes categories like Best Debut Novel and more recently, Best Short story.

    You can find 2012 winners at this link:

    To participate, you have to a ITW full member and to fulfill other requirements.

  7. Thanks, Jose. That's interesting. I'll mention that to my clients who are ITW members, in case they're not aware of it.

  8. I think that probably more than any other genre, crime fiction—and all of its sub-genres—is in a state of flux and definition. What we understand to mean at one point doesn't quite fit when checked later.

    At the moment, "thriller" implies additional tension and some kind of elevated risk compared to "mystery." But it does have to deliver in a bigger—much bigger—way.

    Who knows? In a year, T&M might decide to stick the thriller label back in a prominent place.

  9. I think another aspect of the thriller, in addition to high stakes and an increasing level of tension throughout, is that the reader knows what's happening before the protagonist (which helps raise the tension).

    I wrote a series of mysteries in first person, and they are suspenseful. When I wrote the first book in my new series, I wanted to write a thriller. Out of habit, I wrote it from a first-person POV and realized when I finished that while thrilling, it wasn't a thriller. When I wrote a second draft with three other points of view, it fit the description much better.

  10. Agreed. A single, first-person POV story is almost never a thriller.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.