September 3 – 9: “What is the primary job of a thriller?”

Is it purely entertainment? Escapism? To provoke thought? This week, ITW Members Grant McKenzie, Sandra Parshall, David Sakmyster, J. H. Bográn and Jean Harrington answer the question, “What is the primary job of a thriller?” It’s another can’t-miss discussion on


J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. He’s a member of the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator. His short story fantasy fiction, DEEDS OF A MASTER ARCHER, will be released in September. You can find him on Twitter @JHBogran, Facebook and Blogger.

M.C. Grant is Grant McKenzie, an award-winning screenwriter, editor, and novelist. He is the author of SWITCH and NO CRY FOR HELP (both published by Bantam TransWorld UK). His short stories have been featured in the FIRST THRILLS anthology edited by Lee Child (Tor/Forge), and Out of the Gutter and Spinetingler magazines. His first screenplay won a fellowship at the Praxis Centre for Screenwriting in Vancouver. As a journalist, he worked in virtually every area of the newspaper business, from the late-night “dead body beat” at a feisty daily tabloid to senior copy/design editor at two of Canada’s largest broadsheets. Born in Glasgow, Grant currently resides in Victoria, British Columbia, where he is editor-in-chief of Monday Magazine.

Sandra Parshall is the Agatha Award-winning author of the Rachel Goddard mysteries: THE HEAT OF THE MOON, DISTURBING THE DEAD, BROKEN PLACES, UNDER THE DOG STAR and BLEEDING THROUGH (September 2012). She lives in the Washington, DC, area with her journalist husband. Visit her website and her blog, Poe’s Deadly Daughters.

Jean Harrington lives in Naples, Florida with her husband John.  No cat, no dog, no children anymore.  After seventeen years of teaching English lit at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts, she now spends her days—and nights– writing the Murders by Design Mystery Series for Carina Press.  And is having great fun wallowing knee deep in fictional dead bodies. Designed For Death was the first in Jean’s light-hearted Naples-set novels.  The second book in the series, The Monet Murders, was released in JuneThe third, Killer Kitchens, another of heroine Deva Dunne’s sleuthing-by-design adventures, is due out in spring 2013. 

David Sakmyster is an award-winning author and screenwriter who dwells in and occasionally ventures from upstate NY. His published stories and novels cross a range of genres and include: the horrifying CRESCENT LAKE, the historical epic, SILVER AND GOLD, and THE MORPHEUS INITIATIVE – a series about psychic archaeologists (including THE PHAROS OBJECTIVE, THE MONGOL OBJECTIVE and THE CYDONIA OBJECTIVE). He’s co-writing a thrilling series about Near Death Experiences called THE LAZARUS INITIATIVE, and coming this fall is a smart supernatural thriller entitled, BLINDSPOTS. His screenplay, NIGHTWATCHERS, has been optioned, and he’s currently writing another screenplay to begin filming in early 2013.


  1. The first job of any great thriller is to entertain with a goosebump-inducing plot, snappy dialogue and well-rounded characters that either make you love them or really, really hate them. But as creative individuals, writers tend to be filters for the world around them, and even the most hard-boiled have wrongs that they want to set right. In a fictional world, we can bring issues of social justice and wrongdoing to the surface, but delivered in a way that also entertains. My novel K.A.R.M.A, for example, is a white-knuckled adrenaline rush wrapped around a social-justice core about the victims of sexual abuse. Without that thought-provoking core, the novel would lose its heart, and, I believe, readers would lose interest. But it doesn’t always have to be the big societal issues that get tackled. Writers are also avid readers and sponges for information, and we can’t help but shine an occasional spotlight on issues that effect us. As a long-suffering journalist, the woes of the current newspaper industry tend to sneak into my new mystery, Angel With A Bullet, as its protagonist Dixie Flynn tries to maintain her integrity in a world that seems to be ever falling short.

  2. A Thriller’s primary job, most would say, would be to thrill; to provide action-packed entertainment, to keep people on the edge of their seats, biting their nails, gorging willy-nilly on popcorn and unable to look away or put down the book for a minute. Of course, in order to do all that, the characters have to be relatable (lovable or despicable, as Grant pointed out), the plots fast-paced and not entirely unbelievable, and – what I feel always puts a modest thriller a notch above the pack – it should also provide something besides pure escapism. It could be subtle but powerful social commentary – I used the notions of guilt and religious radicalism in CRESCENT LAKE. Or it could be a vehicle to expose people to new technology or interesting psychological conditions; or it can provide an exploration into historical mysteries, as I did with my series, THE MORPHEUS INITIATIVE, promoting wonder about how thrilling our world really is. Often, in James Rollins’ fashion, I’ll add an ‘afterword’ where I list all the facts in the book, things that at first readers most likely assumed I’d made up. So in the end, people should leave a thriller not only entertained but enlightened – or at least, made to think about their world a little differently.

  3. I agree with the guys: the first duty of any genre writer is to provide an entertaining story for readers. Although some thrillers are action-driven with little attention to the characters’ inner lives, an emotional connection between the protagonist and the reader makes the experience far richer — and I believe that connection is the key ingredient in books that appeal to a broad audience. A thriller can take the reader around the world, into the White House or onto the battlefield, or it can play out in a small community where violence has made neighbors suspicious of one another and caused close family ties to fray. A thriller can have a tiny cast — a single family facing a threat — confined to a single setting. I enjoy reading the “small” but intense type of suspense novel, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I write that kind of book. Inclusion of social issues is inevitable. A book has to be set in the world we inhabit, and our characters can’t live in a vacuum. But entertaining the reader comes first.

  4. Fiction’s job is to entertain. Whatever the genre: thriller, mystery, romance—the list does go on—a story exists for that single purpose, to help the reader escape from reality into another world. The world of book. So it’s not a stretch to suggest that entertainment and escapism are two sides of the same coin.

    But when the writer attempts to provoke thought as well as provide entertainment/escapism, he’s flirting with danger–he may well destroy the fun by killing the entertainment. For provocative thought in clumsy hands can wrench the reader from his escape into the literary world and plunge him back into everyday concerns.

    Case in point. The thriller is rising to its ultimate climax with its big finish and its big, worldwide stakes. Consider these scenarios:

    Atomic weapons are about to enflame the world.
    Global warming is turning the plant into an orbiting bathtub.
    Terrorists are gleefully bombing subways around the planet.
    Environmental insults are melting the ozone layer.
    A lethal, uncontrollable virus is leapfrogging from animals to humans.

    When overarching themes of the above types fuel a thriller, the way they are introduced into the story is key to a book’s succeeding or failing at its job—providing entertainment/escapism and also, perhaps, provoking thought.

    Take example one, the atomic threat. If the book’s emphasis is on the well-known fact that human life has the technology to blow itself to smithereens, where is the escape? Where is the entertainment? But if the story concentrates on the people struggling to prevent disaster, the reader is caught up not in the realization that human life is doomed—including his own—but in the epic struggle of the protagonists. Then when the good guys win (and the reader hopes they will), though serious thought has been implanted in the plot, Aristotelian catharsis takes place. The story slides home to its glorious, entertaining finish–pure escapism with an effective, thought-provoking flourish.

  5. Just because i know you, Jean, doesn’t mean I hae to agree. I love the big problem–the worldwide threat up front and center–to dim that down into a couple of guys outrunning a dinosaur or an a-bomb doesn’t make the story better for me. just one guy’s opinion. And BTW, I loved your latest, The Monet Murders, and I was aware all through that the theme of good over evil would prevail. Still I enjoyed the romp.

  6. As stated already, our prime job is to entertain.

    We are modern storytellers, as such, we strive to entertain the audience, or risk that they throw proverbial rotten tomatoes at us, now in the form of one-star reviews. Of course it is a difficult task, but not insurmountable.

    Yes, the maxim stipulates that one picture is worth one thousand words. However, I’d like to think I am not alone in wanting to read those one thousand words. If well done, those words would entice all of our senses. We would hear, taste, view, hear, and touch the subject of the picture, whereas the other way we would only see the images.

    It is in that regard that thrillers have a niche. We use all the senses to captivate the readers, immerse them into our nuclear disasters, our global-warming-reversal-using-volcano-eruption schemes, the readers smell the fear—and the powder—when our characters shoot zombies or aliens.

    Now, that’s entertainment!

  7. The thriller label is now being applied to many books that would have been called suspense in an earlier time. I can remember when “thriller” implied a threat to the survival of the country or the entire world. A global stage, in many cases. Now any book with a lot of suspense is called a thriller. Certainly any book about a serial killer, in a big city or a small town, is labeled a thriller. A psychological suspense novel will now be labeled a psychological thriller. Chelsea Cain’s books, which are at their core about the sick relationship between a cop and a female serial killer, are called thrillers.

    We don’t really know anymore what we’re getting when a book is called a thriller. I’ve read some “thrillers” that were very quiet books on the whole, with little action and few thrills. But the genie’s out of the bottle. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the strict separation of crime fiction subgenres.

  8. Yes, Sandra, my somewhat conventional interpretation of the word “thriller” is as you say, a story of international or global intrique and/or peril. Yet not all thrillers today encompass such a large stage, and “thrills” and chills can occur within many of the subgenre. I write mysteries for Carina Press and my heroine, Deva Dunne, is steeped in one tight situation after another–often life-threatening–so there is a thrill in seeing if she can solve the crime and nail the bad guy, but the world doesn’t weigh in the balance. So classic thriller no, but often thrilling, yes (she says modestly).

  9. Jean, my books (the last four, anyway) are set in the rural mountains of southwestern Virginia, hardly the world stage but a place where violence, when it occurs, is brutal and has consequences throughout the community. Reviews of my books contain phrases like “nerve-wracking suspense” and “edge-of-your-seat suspense” and “spine-chilling tension” and (my favorite, from Kirkus) “fast-paced, chilling, and compulsively readable.” The covers say “A Rachel Goddard Mystery.” My editor says they’re suspense novels. Most people who read them call them thrillers. I call them the kind of books I like to read. I think “suspense” and “thriller” have become interchangeable (and both have more violence than they used to) and debating the difference is probably pointless. As long as they’re entertaining, who cares what they’re called?

  10. Quote from Sandra:
    “As long as they’re entertaining, who cares what they’re called?”

    That’s the spirit!

    I agree that the suspense and thriller line has blurred far beyond recognition.

    On the other hand, if the goal is to offer a release into other world–or lives–through our stories, so be it!

  11. The point has been well made by several contributors that the term “thriller” has become one of art. Today, a writer has to identify the sub-genre of thriller. When publishing my first novel, Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening, to Smashwords, I discovered an amazingly long list of thriller categories. Mine happens to be a techno-political thriller, but there are listings for crime thrillers, psychological thrillers, spy thrillers, and countless others. My concern is that if we have to become overly specific regarding the sub-genre, we may lose potential readers who otherwise would have found the story very appropriate for their tastes.

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