November 1-7: “What is the primary job of a thriller?”

What’s the primary job of a thriller? Is it to provide entertainment and escapism, or is it something more?

The discussion is over, but you can still read what ITW members Linda Fairstein, Carla Neggers, Keith Raffel, Clea Simon, JT Ellison, Brett King, Chris Kuzneski, Andrew Peterson, Jonathan Maberry, Andrew Gross, Robert Dugoni, Mary Kennedy and others posted in the comment trail. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read and comment!

Linda Fairstein was chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the district attorney’s office in Manhattan for more than two decades and is America’s foremost legal expert on sexual assauly and domestic violence. Her Alexandra Cooper novels are international bestsellers and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. She lives with her husband in Manhattan and on Martha’s Vineyard.

Carla Neggers is the New York Times bestselling author of more than fifty novels. THE ANGEL, a RITA finalist, came out in paperback in May 2010. THE MIST followed in hardcover in June, with COLD RIVER, the second book in her Black Falls series due out in November. Carla currently serves on the ITW board of directors as Vice President, Publications.

Keith Raffel has held a top secret clearance to watch over CIA activities and has founded an award-winning Internet software company.  Steve Berry called Keith’s latest book, Smasher: A Silicon Valley Thriller, “taut, tight, and suspenseful” and said it “skillfully carries the reader triumphantly from one climax to the next.”

Clea Simon gave up journalism after three nonfiction books for a life of crime (fiction). The author of two traditional (“cozy”) mystery series, her sixth and most recent release is GREY MATTERS (Severn House, March 2010).

J.T. Ellison is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series, with novels published in 21 countries. A former White House staffer, she moved to Nashville and began research on a passion: forensics and crime. She has worked extensively with the Metro Nashville Police, the FBI and various other law enforcement organizations to research her novels. Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and a poorly trained cat. Visit for more insight into her wicked imagination, or follow her on Twitter @Thrillerchick.

Brett King is an award-winning psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  His debut novel, THE RADIX, appeared in May 2010.  New York Times bestselling author Jeffery Deaver calls it, “A topnotch thriller!  Part Da Vinci Code, part 24, The Radix is roller-coaster storytelling at its best.”  King completed his second thriller and is at work on a third novel.

Chris Kuzneski took a leap of faith after a stint of teaching and newspaper writing to become a novelist. His second novel, SIGN OF THE CROSS became an international bestseller, and was translated into more than fifteen languages. Chris’s fourth book, THE LOST THRONE, debuted in the UK Top-5 and stayed on the charts for several weeks, while the paperback version hit the New York Times list.  His latest book, THE SECRET CROWN, is currently available in the UK, and will be released in the US in December 2011.

Andrew Peterson is working on the next novel in a planned series featuring Nathan McBride, a former Marine Corps sniper and ex-CIA operative. Born and raised in San Diego, California, Andrew attended La Jolla High School before enrolling at the University of Oklahoma, where he earned a B.S. Degree in Architecture. Andrew and his wife Carla, live in Central California.

Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling novelist, multiple winner of the Bram Stoker Award, and writer for Marvel Comics.  His recent works include ROT & RUIN (Simon & Schuster), WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE (Citadel Press, co-authored by Janice Gable Bashman), and MARVEL UNIVERSE VS THE PUNISHER (Marvel Comics).

Andrew Gross is the co-author of five New York Times #1 bestselling novels with James Patterson, including JUDGE & JURY, LIFEGUARD, THIRD DEGREE, and JESTER. Before turning to writing, he had a successful business career in sports apparel, managing several industry leaders, including Head Sportswear. He lives in Westchester County, New York, with his family.

Robert Dugoni is the author of WRONGFUL DEATH, the highly anticipated sequel to the New York Times bestselling THE JURY MASTER. Dugoni is also the author of the critically acclaimed DAMAGE CONTROL, and the expose, THE CYANIDE CANARY.

Mary Kennedy is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the author of The Talk Radio Mysteries. She lives on the east coast with her husband and eight neurotic cats. The cats have resisted all her efforts to psychoanalyze them, but she remains optimistic.

  1. I admire Steve Berry’s perspective on many things about writing and I’m in agreement with him that a thriller’s primary responsibility is, simply stated, to “thrill.” Countless methods can be employed to achieve that goal, each involving the acceleration of suspense, conflict, and tension. I was visiting with my literary agent, Pam Ahearn, about this topic and she elaborated on a thriller’s main purpose: “it’s to engage the reader with a terrific and compelling premise and sympathetic characters, to move through a series of escalating events to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion.”

    Exactly. For me, the heart of this responsibility lies in making the reader ask questions. The best thrillers, in my opinion, not only inspire curiosity but also make me desperate for answers. The raw uncertainty inspires hunger.

    Since the research of Bluma Zeigarnik in the late 1920s, psychologists have known that an interrupted task is more memorable than a completed task. When we’re deprived of closure, the “Zeigarnik Effect” tells us, we are thrown into a state of psychological conflict until a resolution is provided. In that spirit, my favorite thriller writers force their readers to wait for answers. It’s a kind of literary sadism (making me, I guess, a willing masochist). Several years ago at ThrillerFest, I heard Lee Child say, “Make your readers wait as long as possible for an answer. Then make them wait some more.” In the work of a master like Child, the reader is rewarded for asking question after lingering question. Tom Petty might be right that the “waiting is the hardest part,” but in a good thriller, it’s also the best part. If I don’t have a meaningful question that demands a satisfying answer then I don’t have a thrill.

    1. I agree with Brett about getting our readers to ask questions. If they’re asking questions, they’re engaged in the story. I also think it’s a fine line to walk. I’ve read books where I’ve had too many questions and gave up. Halfway through the second season of “Lost,” I stopped watching for that very reason. To me, the show seemed to be going nowhere. Without a doubt, personal taste plays a role, but I like having a “sense of purpose” in the books I read. I don’t want to know the ending, but I need to have a reason to keep reading. Perhaps the best storytellers sprinkle in info only as needed to keep their readers engaged and asking questions without losing them.

      Lee Child did this masterfully in 61 HOURS. We knew who the bad guy was, but we didn’t know how, where, or through who he would strike. The book also had a shape shifter as a twist. Lee Child kept me engaged.

      In Linda Fairstein’s post below, she really nails it in saying, “There is nothing quite like being thrilled by a great storyteller.”

  2. Put me in the mix with Steve Berry and Lee Child (and yes, I would enjoy their company). Unlike many other sub-genres in the crime category, these books are not just about entertainment or puzzle solving or smart sleuthing: they must be thrilling. I like my thrillers crafted carefully and intelligently. As a reader, i want to be in suspense from the outset, and I want the atmosphere of menace to be constant and to intensify throughout the unraveling of the plot. I want the action and that chilling suspense and the terrible uncertainty about the outcome to propel me forward with relentless pacing. I love procedurals and psychological mysteries, but there is nothing quite like being thrilled by a great storyteller.

  3. What is the primary job of a thriller? Entertainment and escapism are important, but for me there is definitely something more: inspiration. From the time I was a kid in high school in the early ’80s reading Von Ryan’s Express instead of doing my homework, thriller protagonists have inspired me to step out of my comfort zone and take on great challenges. Thriller protagonists take on seemingly impossible odds. They don’t just accept things as they are. They aren’t interested in the status quo. They don’t “go along to get along.” They stand for something – something good, something noble.

    Whether it’s stories as old as David taking on Goliath or the two spies out of twelve who said that no matter the odds or the size or the number of the enemy, “We can certainly do it,” or contemporary stories of relentless investigators who won’t quit until they deliver justice for an innocent victim, or operatives and fighters who enter the lion’s den of a terrorist stronghold or war zone, they all challenge us to answer the question: What, or whom, am I willing to stand and fight for?

    By the way – I love this new feature on the ITW site. Thanks to the authors for participating, and thanks for challenging and inspiring those of us who want to move our membership from Associate to Author. 🙂

    ITW Associate

    1. Michael, thanks for your post! I hadn’t thought of thrillers like that, but you’re absolutely right. I have a feeling we’ll be seing you as an “author” in here soon. You have a great attitude. Keep writing. Cheers!

    2. This is the first time I’ve heard anyone refer to the story of Joshua and Caleb in Canaan as a thriller, but it is so true! Anytime the end is uncertain, the odds are you, and the consequences of failure will be disastrous (or deadly), you’ve got a thriller in any age. A broad generalization, I suppose, but fitting.

  4. This is going to be a fascinating week’s discussion!

    I agree with everything that’s already been said. At their most basic, thrillers need to raise our heart rate, make us worry and fret, educate and titillate. But they also have a deeper core, which is pitting the hero against the villain. A major difference between a thriller and a mystery is the silent versus the visible villain. In a thriller, we see the villain, live in his head, watch his plans, and get the counterpoint of the hero’s actions to thwart the villain’s. That’s the key to a great thriller for me: the battle of wits, of good versus evil, of raised stakes where the hero’s failure would mean destruction of the world as we know it, and the ticking clock as these trains fly toward each other on the same tracks.

    Who are your favorite heroes and villains in thrillers?

  5. Great discussion – I love the examples of Lee Child’s work, as well as Brett’s reference to the Zeigarnik Effect. Will definitely keep those in mind when I’m outlining.

    I’ve always thought some of the thrill of thrillers comes from the thrill of breaking the rules. Thrillers allow the author and readers to test society’s values in extreme circumstances. The premise for most thrillers is some kind of crime – either personal or societal – that subverts our rules of law or our moral code. We then take our characters on a journey to halt or remedy that crime, and in the process test the tenets of crime, punishment, redemption. Our characters often have to make moral and/or ethical choices to right a wrong. That’s what makes it interesting.

    Nietzsche said it well: He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.

    Looking forward to reading more thoughts on this. Very thought-provoking!

    Pam Callow

  6. Dear Authors,

    I am not a thriller writer. I’m a fan of the genre; a dedicated consumer. I choose to read stories with a preconceived notion – that you’ll take me to a place that I have never been.

    As a consumer, when I purchase your book I believe that an author has sought to excite, surprise, puzzle, and educate me somewhere along the way. Despite the fact that it’s fiction, I believe fiction contains a flair of fact. Otherwise, how would you have thought of it in the first place? What you’ve come up with is an alternative to what actually happened or could happen. The job of a thriller is to test the limits. The best part about thrillers writers is that I have NO idea how your mind works and for that……..I’ll keep buying randomly!

    Love this new site!!

  7. What a great discussion! Some of the best descriptions of what makes a good thriller tick that I’ve seen in a long time. As both an author and a reader what I love about well done thrillers is the continual edge of your seat suspense. As other have pointed out, this comes not just from action scenes but the need to know. I recently read Lee Child’s “The Enemy,” one of his earlier books where he combines great writing with reeling the reader in, in a truly masterful way. I’m also partial to macro and antiquity thrillers because they get into the ‘big’ questions and give us something to learn about history in the most entertaining way. D.J. McIntosh

  8. Cool discussion. I think Pamela Callow has a great point when she talks about the importance of redemption and how so often the protagonist is forced to teeter at the abyss in order to stop those trains that are speeding toward each other from colliding. Sometimes rules must be bent and damage must be done and once it’s happened, how does the “good guy” keep him-or-herself from becoming just another “bad guy?” It’s a subject I find fascinating and one I find myself addressing time and time again in my own work.

    Hmm. She said it better than I did…

  9. I went to an event here in Barnsley, England, arranged by the Library Service here, at which Jeffrey Deaver was speaking. And I will never forget his comments about why people write thrillers. I paraphrase, of course, but the gist of it was that people write thrillers to sell them. Therefore, I suppose, the purpose of a thriller is to sell copies. Although, I personally quite like the idea that the purpose of a thriller, and the reason that one buys them, is to give a vicarious ‘thrill’ of horror, shock and fear.

    If the author is good, the reader becomes immersed and in rooting for (I hope) the ‘good guys’, experiences the thrill of the chase and the capture. The discovery of a fresh horror always provides a thrill of disgust and, well, horror. The uncovery of a message from the ‘bad guys’ gives a thrill of shock and outrage…

    In essence, I suppose what I’m saying is that a ‘thrill’ does not necessarily have to be ‘thrilling’ in a conventional sense, and therefore neither does a thriller. What it does need to do is provide a range of emotional content that keeps the reader on their toes. The thrill can be caused by any number of things, but I think the one that works best for me is the thrill of danger, whether that be danger to the protagonist or danger to others, with the protagonist racing to save them, it will probably always be the one I enjoy the most.

    A close second for me is probably suspense. Keeping me on tenterhooks, as long as it’s not for too long, is guaranteed to keep me reading. Cliff-hangers, as long as they aren’t every chapter, and plot twists that cause something randomly unexpected, especially if it can make me think back and realise that it had been coming all along, are marks of a great author in my eyes.

    After all, I can be fairly sure that the protagonist is going to win out, and that the hero will end up doing something, well, heroic, but that doesn’t mean that the path to that conclusion has to be smooth, and it doesn’t mean that the result is certain. There is always the chance that the hero has been chosen by the author to be heroic in death, with some magnificent self-sacrifice saving the day. So although I’m fairly sure I know that good will carry the day and that right will win out, it’s the journey that matters and it has to be unexpected, exciting and keep me wondering whether the hero is actually going to survive, with or without all limbs intact!

  10. Entertainment is the primary function of any novel, I agree. As for thrillers I also agree that the novel needs to be thrilling, but I no longer agree that we all have to be writing episodes of 24. If there is one thing the series The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo taught is that American readers don’t all want to feel as though they have fallen down a staircase on page one and keep tumbling to the end. Not every chapter needs to be a page and a half. Readers are willing to learn some things along the way, get to know the characters intimately, pause and take a breath with the protagonist as he prepares to take his next step or contemplate what just happened and why. In other words, thrillers can be cerebral as much as they can be physical action and readers love the puzzle as much as the action. As with most of my colleagues weighing in here, I try to write intelligent thrillers, novels that the reader tries to predict the ending but just isn’t quite sure. Along the way, hopefully they fall in love with the characters so they’re not just reading to find out what happens next, but to find out whether the protagonist is going to be okay, live or die. Laurence Block’s book discusses this very well. A plot, he says is why readers read. Characters are why readers care.

  11. I believe a good percentage of readers pick up a novel for escapism! Of course, they must entertain otherwise we will put it down and start on the next.

    So, what will make me pick up a thriller instead of a romance or fantasy novel to ‘escape’ within?

    The nightly news gives me a short ‘grab’ regarding the reality of the world – a thriller takes me on a ride where the protagonist changes that reality to a more favourable outcome. Thrillers give me a real world superhero with flaws in an authentic setting who I can cheer for throughout the novel

    For me, the primary job of a thriller is to allow me to escape into a world where good thwarts evil in the end.



  12. I read thrillers because I’m too old to ride roller coasters. It’s the same kind of thrill. When reading a thriller I think the “good guy” will win in the end, but along the way I’m not so certain. Just as I know when I start the climb that the roller coaster (or whatever wild ride it is) will get me to the bottom safely but as I hit some of those turns and dips I’m not quite so sure. It’s the “thrill” of the ride.

    Thriller writers take me on that ride every time I read a good one. Andrew Peterson, you did an incredible job of it in “First to Kill.” Thank you.

  13. Although I agree with the basic premise that a thriller’s main job is to thrill, I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss the sub-genres in the thriller world. Why? Because as a writer of action-adventure novels, I view characters and plot structure in a much different way than some of my fellow panelists. At an early age, I got hooked on the novels of Clive Cussler and John Grisham—two of the most successful thriller authors of all time—but their styles are distinctively different. Cussler’s stories whisked me through the centuries and around the globe in a series of interwoven plots, whereas Grisham’s legal tales rarely left the sleepy southern towns where they started. Both men are masterful storytellers, but the thrills they deliver are not the same.

  14. As a fan of thrillers I have to say the main imperative is, well, to thrill. To make me want to read the book from start to finish all in one sitting, to make the end of each page, paragraph and chapter a mini cliffhanger.
    I also love a book that challenges my beliefs, that element that makes you sit back and wonder if all you have known, or been taught in life is wrong. Chris, you do it for me with Sign of the Cross. I am not religious and reading a theory like yours makes a lot more sense to me than the official bible version. Also Matthew Reilly did a fantastic job in The Seven Ancient Wonders, belief challenging, page turning suspense throughout!
    I also like a book that is informative, I have learned more about military history from Mike Chapman that anyone!
    However much I know that good will out, that justice will be done and that the main protagonist will come out rose smelling, I always like to finish my book with a sigh of relief and perhaps an occasional wet eye when my favourite characters pull through their most death defying and hair raising moments.

  15. Well, nice to be on the disscusion panel here. I have read all of Chris Kusneskis’ books, and been enthrawled by them. His main charachters, Jon and D.J. have given many hours of laughter, sarcasm, whit, humour and adventure to all of his readers. Although, I am aware and friends of some of the other authors on here, I must admit that Chris is the only one I have read all of his book’s so far.. You all have the ingredients for writing a fantastic thriller, which for me is about adventure, escapism,history sometimes( which is an insightful way to learning something new). Also a thriller should have you hanging on the edge of your seat, not knowing what wil lcome next. Love it when the whoooaaa..happens, something every thriller should have in it …the big thud!!!! Something that will leave you in a state of hypnotic confussion. Anyway, a good plot story line is essential…but I do like a connection between characters too, with humour involved…Well done my friends, and to finding a way into the world of Published books.

  16. One of the best things about thrillers for me now being an adult is that it gives me the same rush I used to get in my childhood. Reading the work of Dan Brown, Chris Kuzneski, or Clive Cussler has the same effect on me that watching Indiana Jones, He-Man and Luke Skywalker had back in the day.
    The location of a thriller should also stick with you too, becoming ingrained in your imagination that you could be swept up into an adventure, from anywhere. But none more so than when on holiday. Walking beneath the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, I can almost imagine some character being chased, custodian of some stolen secret that could turn the tide of war as they push through the crowds of a Nazi rally.
    Or in Marrakech, in Djemaa el Fna, buying some intricate trinket, which in fact turns out to be a great treasure that several burly gangsters will stop at nothing to obtain.
    However holidays come but occasionally. When in the most mundane of places a good thriller should transport you to a different land or even make you look at your own day to day locations in a different way.

  17. Sure, the primary job of a good thriller is to thrill. That goes without saying. More importantly, they should educate, make readers reflect on their own lives and opinions. Managing the dance between character development and plot is essential to that. Does a thriller need suspense? Yes, tons. But, it doesn’t have to be in every chapter. The characters should be able to engage readers to a such a degree that they won’t put the book down during those lighter scenes. On other side, a good thriller, a good novel, has grains of truth in it, something going on in the real world that readers can latch onto, learn about, and then apply their experiences to the plot.

    I often think of Elmore Leonard and David Ignatius as shining examples of authors who do these two things well. Patty Highsmith was/is the master of the psychological thriller, but I attribute that to her being crazy, writing what she knows.

  18. This is a fascinating discussion. I remember when I interviewed Pamela Callow for The Big Thrill, she told me that Kate Lange, the heroine in DAMAGED, had to “face her darkest fears.” I love the idea of a character being pushed to the limit, being under the gun and forced to make tough moral choices. I think the readers absolutely relate to this technique and it drives the plot forward at a roller-coaster pace. JJ Cooper mentioned the importance of an “authentic setting,” and I also read thrillers to learn more about a complex world (or worlds) filled with interesting characters. I know that Pam Callow’s DAMAGED had an intertwining legal and biomedical plot which really drew me in. Looking forward to INDEFENSIBLE in January.

  19. I love the comment about reading thrillers because we get to old to ride roller coasters. Man, that somes it up, doesn’t it? I have to say that the thiller is intriguing in so many ways. We have all said, in various forms that it is about getting the reader to turn the pages, but isn’t that the job of every writer, no matter the genre? So what is it then that causes our insides to flutter like the downhill on the rollercoaster and makes us scream when centrifical force presses us to the side of the cart and we’re sure we’re about to go careening over the edge? Maybe it’s beyond words to describe. Maybe the best image is that roller coaster with all the ups and downs and twists and turns that cause us to scream out loud and gives us just seconds to rest before the next big thrill.

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