November 8-14: “Why do you read/write thrillers?”

Why do you enjoy reading and writing thrillers? Is it the pace? The adrenaline rush? The gut-twisting danger? The discussion is over, but you can still read what authors Jeff SherrattJoe Moore, Carla Buckley, Lorenzo Carcaterra, Mark Terry, Janice Bashman, Todd Ritter, Caridad Pineiro, Robert Gregory Browne and others posted in the comment trail – then check out the current week’s thrilling Roundtable discussion!

Jeff Sherratt has had two novels published by Echelon Press, a traditional independent publisher. The second, Guilty or Else (2009) was nominated for the Left Coast Crime Panik Award. Jeff is a past board member of Sisters in Crime/LA, and currently a member of Mystery Writers of America. Jeff has been a speaker at many book events. Jeff’s third mystery novel in the Jimmy O’Brien series, Detour to Murder, was released by ZOVA Books on October 12, 2010

Joe Moore is Co-President of ITW. Joe joined ITW in 2005 and has previously served as Vice President, Technology. His international bestselling Cotten Stone thriller series has been translated into over 20 languages.

Carla Buckley is the debut author of The things That Keep Us Here. She has worked in a variety of jobs, including a stint as an assistant press secretary for a U.S. senator, an analyst with the Smithsonian Institution, and a technical writer for the Tomahawk Missile System. Named a Thurber House “New Voice in Fiction,” Carla chairs the ITW Debut Authors program.

Number one New York Times bestselling author Lorenzo Carcaterra’s highly successful career spans more than twenty years of writing for the diverse fields of fiction, non-fiction, television, and film.

Mark Terry is the bestselling author of the Derek Stillwater thriller novels, as well as several standalone mysteries, thrillers, and short stories. His novels have been called “blisteringly paced and unrelenting,” (Paul Levine) as well as having “the explosive power of a hollow-point bullet.” (Gayle Lynds). James Grady, author of Six Days Of The Condor says Terry’s work “is closing in fast on grabbing that big-action, ticking-clock thriller franchise market.”

Janice Gable Bashman is co-author (with Jonathan Maberry) of WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE: Vampire Hunters and Other Kick-Ass Enemies of Evil. She has written for leading publications, including the NOVEL & SHORT STORY WRITER’S MARKET, THE WRITER, and WILD RIVER REVIEW. Visit her blog at and find her on Twitter (janicebashman), Facebook and LinkedIn.

Todd Ritter was a journalist for more than 15 years when he wrote his first novel. Death Notice was published in October by St. Martin’s Monotaur. When not writing about murder and mayhem, Todd enjoys cooking, classic movies and finding cover versions of (Don?t Fear) The Reaper.

New York Times and USA Today bestselling paranormal and romantic suspense author Caridad Pineiro wrote her first novel in the fifth grade when her teacher assigned a project – to write a book for a class lending library.  Bitten by the writing bug, Caridad continued with her passion for the written word through high school, college and law school.  In 1999, Caridad’s first novel was released and a decade later, Caridad is the author of over twenty novels and novellas.

Robert Gregory Browne is an AMPAS Nichol Award-winning screenwriter and novelist. His first novel, Kiss Her Goodbye, was recently produced in Chicago by CBS Television as a pilot for a television series. Rob is now working on Paradise City, a supernatural thriller, for Dutton Books. Temple Hill Productions, producers of Twilight, are attached to produce for the big screen. Rob has a writer’s advice blog at

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  1. I read thrillers because, aside from the obvious that I want to be thrilled, one of my favorite elements of a great book tends to occur in more abundance in thrillers: cliffhanger endings. Sure you can find them in other genre, but I know that the cliffhanger is usually a staple of a thriller, and I look forward to it. There’s nothing more exciting for me than to reach the end of a chapter or scene and, because to this technique, be unable to stop reading. I consider the cliffhanger as the propellant that shoots me forward through the story.

    I write thrillers because I enjoy telling stories, especially ones that have elements that I find disturbing or threatening. It’s an outlet to express my anxiety and fears. I have to believe that others will feel the same uneasiness and tension as they experience my books. In a way, it’s sort of like sharing a common adrenaline maker. If it thrills me, I want to share that feeling. Doing so is fun.

  2. I read and write thrillers because I’m easily bored. I’ve tried reading mysteries, but even the ones that have won awards are just too slow-paced for me. I want action, drama, high stakes.

    I don’t read thrillers exclusively, of course, but thrillers are definitely the kind of books I’m most drawn to. They’re noisy. Exciting. And, well, “thrilling”!

  3. The easy answer is “I like them.” The not-so-easy answer is, “I like them.” I read other things–SF and MG fantasy and mysteries and nonfiction and I’m even struggling through “Pride and Prejudice” because my son was forced to read it last summer and I’m trying to prove that I’m an adult (although a bomb or a body or… zombies… or ANYTHING!, would help me read this book).

    I suspect there’s a Walter Mitty-ish aspect to reading thrillers, as well. I want to be the spy, the action hero, etc. At least, in my head. In reality, I probably wouldn’t enjoy those crises, physical, emotional, mental, etc., that our heroes find themselves in, but it’s a pleasure to read them and imagine how we might deal with them (probably deluding ourselves in the process).

  4. I read a wide variety of books–but thrillers always rank among my favorites–hard to beat sitting down with a book that has a great plot, terrific characters on both sides of the aisle and a fast-forward pace. Lots of fun and the solid writing is sometimes over-looked because there’s often so much action packed into the pages. My only problem with thrillers is that there are so many good ones out there that I’m ALWAYS behind on my reading.

    1. “My only problem with thrillers is that there are so many good ones out there that I’m ALWAYS behind on my reading.”

      Amen to that. Since I joined ITW I’ve been trying to read across the thriller spectrum. There’s just not enough time to read everything, so I’ve come up with a plan (that could be from watching too many episodes of “The A-Team” as a kid):

      For the near future, at least, I’m going to focus on authors who participate in the Thriller Roundtable. Since the Roundtable started last week I’ve bought several novels written by Roundtable participants. When I see an author’s name I go to their website, Amazon, or a bookstore to check out their books and, as often as possible, buy one. I look at it this way – if they’re good enough to get on here and offer insight and advice, then I’ll try to return the favor and support their work.

      We’ll see how this “plan comes together.” 🙂

  5. Karen–high stakes for whom? The main character? Yeah, I think so. But I think there’s an interesting argument to be made for and against high stakes for everybody else. Since I write thrillers about terrorism, mostly bio and chemical terrorism, the stakes tend to be high for a lot of people–thousands to millions. Joe Moore and his writing partner Lynn Sholes write “apocalyptic thrillers” so I suppose you could say the stakes are high for the entire planet in their books–and yours, too, would be my guess. But I don’t think the stakes necessarily have to be that high or broad in an effective thriller.

  6. That’s an interesting point, Mark. I think the stakes probably have to be high for the main characters, certainly. For the rest of the world, not necessarily. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books are usually painted on a fairly small canvas, as are Joseph Finder’s, to name just two. An intimate experience with a handful of characters for whom whatever is going on is incredibly important can most definitely be thrilling.

    Lorenzo – I like your point about the quality of writing in a thriller being a key element to enjoying them. The authors I return to over and over again have terrific writing AND lots of action.

  7. I’ve always had a fascination with the criminal world in fiction, since I was a kid watching old crime films – what we now consider film noir. Maybe that’s why I’ve always seen the world like a thriller. I’m always aware of the interplay between the innocent and the guilty – and the gray area in-between. It’s what inspired me to write a series of film noir novels in the first place, beginning with Detour to Murder last month, based on the 1945 classic film Detour.

    Over the years, I’ve met a lot of interesting characters. People who would seem more comfortable in the pages of fiction, I’ve met everywhere from the conference room to the bookstore. So many of the people I’ve met remind me of characters I’ve read, and so many of the characters I’ve written have come from people I’ve met. This is why the Jimmy O’Brien series relies so heavily on local history and politics. It just happens that these people are the sort to populate a thriller novel. If they were space travelers, wizards, or romantics, my genre of choice might be different!

  8. One of the key components–in my opinion, anyway–of the thriller is to basically put the main character in a pressure cooker. That provides a lot of leeway–it can be a professional spy, cop, lawyer, FBI agent, etc., and the case/emotional problems/conflicts can be the pressure cooker. Take the Everyman kind of thriller, same thing applies.

    That’s not to take away from so-called “literary novels” where the characters indeed might be in a pressure cooker, too, it’s just that to thriller readers these books seem more like the character’s in a slow cooker. Yeah, your love life sucks, your boyfriend cheated on you, etc., and in real life that can certainly seem like a pressure cooker, but for the most part the stakes need to be higher in a thriller. Of course, if your boyfriend cheated on you with a psychopath that wants to kill you…

  9. I read and love thrillers for the very same reason I love and watch horror movies — danger. I (and probably a lot of thriller readers) am blessed with a very safe, very solid, very (dare-I-say-it?) humdrum life. Reading a thriller that makes my pulse race takes me briefly into a world of danger and fear and excitement that I won’t experience in real life. It’s an escape and, well, a thrill.

  10. Todd, you really nailed it for me and I’m sure lots of other thriller fans, too. It’s that opportunity to go to a dangerous place and make it out alive; the foundation of the thriller genre.

  11. Todd, sort of goes back to the Walter Mitty thing, but I would say my life is primarily interesting to me, not to anyone else–certainly not the type of good fiction in most cases, for which I’m grateful most of the time. A thriller should, hopefully, give us at least a bit of an adrenaline rush, which can be addictive on its own.

  12. For me, I think the answer is that the thriller is such a great canvass. They are widescreen stories. They have action, characters, jokes and drama, but they can also take in politics, economics, war, technology, and international relations. They are very outwards looking books, which weave stories out of current events, but which also, at their best, are timeless. Other genres tend to be much smaller scale, rooted in one place or time.

  13. I love the universal good versus evil plot that’s inherent in every thriller. Whether it’s for a high stakes win for the White Hats or a more personal one, the need to see the good guys triumph drives these stories along. As a writer of novels with such elements and as a reader who loves them, I can’t help but keep flipping the pages to see whether I’ll see that triumph. I especially love stories where the action keeps on moving the plot along, but where there is also time for us to get to know the characters so we can root for them.

  14. Matt, that’s a great point about the thriller being a great canvas. It truly is! You can hang all types of issues on a thriller and make people think while exciting the heck out of them.

    Mark, the Walter Mitty aspect is definitely why I read them. Oddly, it’s not why I write them. I’ll save that for a later post this week, after I’ve had some time to put my thoughts in order.

  15. Caridad, I agree completely. I like to have characters I can root for. They’re what pull me through a story. Likable or unlikable, if they’re engaging, they can make the most mundane activity thrilling. For example, I’m fascinated by Reacher’s drinking coffee; I worry that he needs to replace those socks he’s been wearing for three days straight.

    For me, the most challenging aspect in writing thrillers is painting a character in enough strokes to make them come alive without slowing down the action.

    Todd–that’s a pretty good cliffhanger to throw out there. I can’t wait to hear why you write thrillers!

  16. I think we can get tangled in what thriller is. For instance, Stephen King’s “Bag of Bones” I think is a thriller, and I definitely can relate to the main character, Mike Noonan. But it’s a pretty different book from, say, “Impact” by Douglas Preston. Both are terrific in their own ways, but very different, and although I at least part of the time want to be Mike Noonan, I’m less excited about chasing through Burma in search of orange gems, although I’m glad to read about somebody else doing it. There’s a definite armchair thrill going on there. I’m not sure of the extent to which there’s a “sucks to be you” quality to reading a thriller about somebody who’s going through hell, but there’s definitely a thrill to experiencing the exciting parts without, for instance, having to get malaria in the process.

  17. I love thrillers because they are exciting, action-packed adventures that keep me glued to the page. Thrillers take me to new and interesting places, drop me into the middle of the action, and leave me rooting for the good guy to find a way to win against seemingly insurmountable odds. A thriller hero can be anyone including your average Joe, who is thrust into a situation where he is forced to dig deep to find the strength and courage that he might not otherwise have known he had. For some thriller heroes, fighting the good fight is a way of life; for others, it’s something forced upon them but to which they rise to the occasion. Thrillers are a way to experience danger, excitement, and thrills without the real-life threat to our existence; and while they can mirror real-life situations, we know as the reader (and the writer) that justice will prevail in the end and that our hero will come out on top despite the obstacles in his path.

    And, that’s quite satisfying.

  18. I grew up watching old Warner Brothers movies on Saturday mornings. Instead of cartoons, I was watching Bogart and Bacall, Cagney, Robinson in all those great noir and crime thrillers the studios cranked out in those days. So, naturally, when I started to read, I gravitated toward books that reminded me of those movies.

    I think the thing that attracts most people to thrillers is that, for the most part, the heroes win. We so often see the bad guys win in this world, but in a thriller we have a hero who goes against the odds and usually prevails. I think readers identify with that.

    It doesn’t hurt that we can vicariously experience danger and romance and adventure without having to leave our armchairs. A good thriller will leave us believing we were right there with the hero.

  19. Thanks to all the authors who have participated in this discussion. You are a great inspiration, and I (and I’m sure many others) appreciate your insight and personal revelations about writing and story-telling.

    I read thrillers for a combination of entertainment, knowledge, and inspiration. I gravitate toward military and espionage thrillers. I started reading them when I was a teenager, and I think the combination of writers and stories I was exposed to stirred a desire for travel and adventure. I know they at least created or increased an interest in some things I eventually did as an adult.

    Most military and espionage novels are set in exotic locales. I love learning about a new or interesting place, or reading an author’s take on a place where I’ve been. Plus, I love to go along for the ride and, yes, the thrill, with the main characters, whether it’s a point man searching for booby traps, an inmate trying to survive the daily routine of a Siberian gulag, a HALO team dreading an ambush as they hit the drop zone and exchange their bona fides with their local contact, or a woman trying not to look too nervous as she sips coffee in a Viennese cafe and gathers the courage to service her dead drop.

    As for writing them . . . well, I have stories to tell. I used to think my first novel would be about a covert operation in WWII. But, something happened to me in Iraq that caused me to change course. Now I have partially-completed drafts of two novels in which the main characters are heroines. Yep, they’re female soldiers – technically “noncombatants,” but facing death with courage every day in some of the most brutal fighting for American soldiers since the Vietnam War. I worry that those women will never get the credit they deserve, and that’s why I have to do my part and finish these novels.

    Stories that need to be told. That’s why I’m writing thrillers.

  20. “I worry that those women will never get the credit they deserve, and that’s why I have to do my part and finish these novels.”

    That’s fantastic, Michael, and it goes back to what Matt Lynn said about thrillers being a great canvas. You’re using the thriller genre to tell these stories in a way that might be more accessible to readers than a standard nonfiction book. It’s a very versatile genre that way.

  21. Thanks, Todd. You made an excellent point about using the thriller genre to expose readers to a true or based-on-true story they may not be familiar with. That’s extra motivation to keep writing . . . and rewriting . . . and rewriting. 🙂

    By the way, you have a very cool website, and the excerpt from your novel Death Notice had me drawn up in knots. Seriously. And your reference to the Betsy Ross murders was brilliant. I had to Google it to see if it was real. It sure sounded real, not to mention creative. A murderer with good sewing skills? It’s not often that something can be scary and funny at the same time. Plus, I’m anxious to read your take on rural and small town life. I grew up in a place like that, although I never found a coffin on the side of the road.

    I’d buy the from Amazon right now, but my local bookstore only lets me hang around the cafe if I buy something besides coffee once in a while, so I’ll look for Death Notice there.

    I’m kidding about them not letting me hang around, but I do try to buy from them when I can. 🙂

  22. Rob–
    An interesting point: “against the odds.”

    Although you can argue that all good fiction involves the main character overcoming obstacles, with thrillers in particular I think it means “overcoming obstacles that are extremely difficult to overcome.”

    When asked to define a thriller or suspense novel versus a mystery, I typically say a mystery is about solving a crime while a thriller is about preventing a crime (or both simultaneously). The other definition I have is “a thriller is solving a crime on the run.”

    Let’s put it this way: to me, thrillers are a lot less static than a mystery or other type of novel. There’s “movement” which can be defined in a lot of different ways, and I like that component in my reading (and writing), which is why I gravitate toward thrillers.

  23. I had a thought–I finally got back to reading the manuscript of my friend Joe Moore’s novel that he asked me to look at several months ago (sorry Joe, life’s been crazy), and was struck very hard by the IMMEDIACY of the novel. Now, I’m not sure all thrillers have that sense of reeling the reader not only into the story, but DEEPLY into the story, but I think thrillers, in particular, do. Part of that immediacy may have to do with the movement of a thriller and the high stakes and the inherent suspense and danger in most thrillers, but I do feel like thrillers tend to have more immediacy than most other types of novels, and I definitely look for that in books I enjoy.

  24. I realized I forgot to post about why I write thrillers. (Don’t want to leave Carla hanging!) As all authors know, writing something is far different than reading it. It’s often slow, painstaking and sometimes requires multiple attempts to get something as simple as a transitional paragraph exactly right. So for me, there’s not much heart-pounding excitement when I’m writing. Occasionally, during the big scenes, I’ll get that hammer-in-the-chest feeling as I type away. But mostly it’s reshaping those sentences until they work.

    So why do I write thrillers? For the same reason I love to cook for people — I want them to enjoy something I’ve created. I absolutely love to be entertained. Whether it’s with a good book, a great movie or an excellent meal. And I love to entertain in return.

    That’s why, when I write, I always have the audience in mind. What would a reader enjoy at this moment? What will make them squirm a little bit? Will this strange, sudden plot twist make them gasp? It’s my way of hopefully keeping someone entertained. Thrillers and mysteries, more than any other genre I can think of, are the best way to do that, and I’m proud to write them.

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