September 30 – Oct. 6: “What does it take to be called a thriller?”

thriller-roundtable-rectangleWar stories? Global threats? Slightly over the top characters? This week ITW Members Barry Lancet, David Oneil, Anna Lee Huber and J. H. Bográn discuss “What does it take to be called a thriller?”


mortal_artsAnna Lee Huber is the author of the award-winning Lady Darby historical mystery series. Her debut, THE ANATOMIST’S WIFE, has been nominated for numerous awards, including two 2013 RITA® Awards and a 2013 Daphne du Maurier Award. Her second novel, MORTAL ARTS, releases September 3rd. She was born and raised in a small town in Ohio, and graduated from Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN with a degree in music and a minor in psychology. She currently lives in Indiana, and enjoys reading, singing, traveling and spending time with her family.

japantown-225Barry Lancet moved from California to Tokyo in his twenties. He spent twenty-five years working for one of the country’s largest publishers, developing books on dozens of Japanese subjects from art to Zen. His unique position gave him access to many inner circles in cultural, business, and traditional fields most outsiders are never granted. One day, he was unexpectedly hauled in by the police for a non-criminal infraction and interrogated for three hours, in a heated psychological encounter. The run-in fascinated him and sparked the idea for a thriller based on his growing number of unusual experiences in Japan.

FirefallJ. 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 Short Fiction Writers Guild and the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and contributor editor their official e-zine THE BIG THRILL.

Cover exciting Isn't itArtist and Photographer David O’Neil started writing seriously with a series of Highland guide books. His boyhood ambitions were to fly an aeroplane, and sail a boat. As a boy he and his family were bombed out of their home in London. He learned to fly with the RAF during his National Service. He started sailing boats while serving in the Colonial Police, in Nyasaland (Malawi). He spent 8 years there, before returning to UK. Since that time he lived in southern England where he became a management consultant for over twenty years. He returned to live in Scotland in 1980, and became a tour guide in1986. Having started writing in 2006. The first guide book was published in 2007. A further two have been published since. He started writing fiction in 2007 and has now written thirteen full length novels ten of which have been published. He has in addition had ‘Choices’ a collection of short stories published though in E format only.

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  1. For me, the definition of what it takes to be a thriller is fairly basic–it simply has to thrill me. To get my blood pumping, my adrenaline surging. To keep me turning the pages anxious to know what happens next. It’s not so much about the type of content–war, spies, terrorism, what have you–but the internal reaction the writing evokes. If I’m not riveted to the page, eager to discover how the hero or heroine is going to save the world, stop the murderer before he kills again, or rescue her kidnapped daughter, then I don’t define the book necessarily as a thriller. I need to be thrilled and something/someone needs to be in jeopardy–it’s as simple and as broad as that.

    1. HI Anna,

      Some great points. The adrenaline-pumping, page-turning quality is is vital, isn’t it?

      And, as you point out, it’s got to hold your attention. Thriller readers are demanding, and perhaps even impatient. You’ve got to keep their attention “riveted to the page” with a constant threat to the hero/heroine. All that seems spot on.

      In your two historical thrillers, can you give us a couple examples of how you meet the demands of your readers?

      1. I think in my novels I most often do so by placing my characters in suspenseful situations–being forced to examine a body in the cellar of a chapel at midnight, finding a locked room in an abandoned part of the castle has been broken into, feeling the urgent drive to solve an inquiry before the killer strikes again. Or by doing the unexpected–finding a gruesome clue on the body, being knocked on the head as they exit a room, finding a threatening not tucked under the doorway. The action and plot always have to keep driving the story forward, adding more layers, asking more questions, until the final denouement.

  2. I always had in mind the simple answer to that question. The thrill part was self-explanatory but the perceived definition seemed firmly anchored to detective,murder mystery stories. Brought up on the tales of Biggles and Tarzan formed my early opinions of thrillers and now I’m more or less grown up I confess, nothing has really changed. Murder and mystery do qualify, but alongside the works of Simon Scarrow, Clive Cussler and Alastair Mclean. The thrill is the thing, regardless of the context.

    1. Hi David,

      Good answer. Many, if not all, of your books fall clearly into the same adventure/action type books you read as a kid. With a splash of the international and war stories.

      “The thrill is the thing.” Like that line. Could you expand on that? What kind of thrills are you aiming it? What do you want your readers to experience?

  3. Hi All,

    Welcome to ITW’s Big Thrill roundtable and what I think is a fascinating topic—in short, what is a thriller today? (Thanks, Anna and David for your comments. You beat me to the boards–but will get to those next!)

    The one thing we can say with certainty is that the concept of thriller keeps expanding. Maybe it emerged from the mystery, or was inspired by the same, but it has taken on a life of its own. We have all kinds of thrillers—mystery thrillers, international thrillers, historical thrillers, spy thrillers, medical thrillers, action thrillers, domestic thrillers, and easily a half dozen or dozen more as the category continues to stretch boundaries.

    So what do you think it takes to be called a “thriller” of any type? What does it take to be elevated to this genre?

  4. Hi All,
    I think Anna said it the thrill is that feeling we all get as things happen. Often starting slowly and quietly it builds up to a climax of events that leaves you with your heart in your mouth and wondering how it can be resolved.
    Maybe that carried away feeling. Sounds as though I am being carried away as well. I know when I am writing sometimes I seem to have no control over where a series of actions will end, and I fall back on what I think of as the natural ending, unless a twist into another direction is possible.
    How to get elevated to that thriller level. I think it has to be up to our readers?

  5. I day late, and a dollar short. Luckily for me, these roundtables last the whole week.

    Considering the previous entries, they don’t leave me much to add, except perhaps the recently coined term that can, for me, sum up a thrill: unputdownable.

    I’ve always liked the shoot-from-the-hip hero, slightly over the top and flawed, but a hero that goes over the insurmountable odds and wins even if by the skin of his/her teeth.

    Of course, if is fairly easy to confuse thrills with action scenes, but there is something more in there that makes you want to reach the end.
    It is no secret I’m a fan of Ken Follett, right now I’m reading Winter of the World there are very seldom action scenes, but I’m finding it hard to turn off the kindle and go to bed even when the clock announces even Cinderella’s carriage has returned to its original form.

    1. Hi all it’s me again. I have just been thinking, excitement. One of those old fashioned words that we used to describe how it felt when we related to an action hero in the movies and later on television. As J.H. put it shooting from the hip has the feeling of cool grit that hero’s convey when they are up to their neck in cobras. and the volcano is erupting behind them. As he says “Put it down if you dare”. Maybe thats what we mean by thriller.

      1. Okay, J H, fair enough. Follet and unable to stop reading. But W of W is a mammoth historical saga, 1200+ pages. Aside from wanting to find out what happens to the characters, what exactly is Follet doing to keep you glued to the page (digital or otherwise)?

  6. David, I like your theory. Where’s the like button when you need one!

    Barry, Agree. Actually, even a mammoth in itself, W of W is only the 2 entry into the saga. I’m guessing that by the end of book 3, Mr Follett will have a book so extensive it will make Tolstoy look like a short story writer in comparison.
    Coincidentally today I read the part in the book that deals with the Dec/6 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It brought flashes from the forgettable Ben Affleck movie came to mind (I used to run a video store so I probably watched more times than the average viewer).

    As for your question, I think the trick he uses is to make each scene relevant to the overall arc as well as having its own micro-tension points that enhance the scene’s importance.

    Make every little detail work in your favor. Not an easy trick, but when done correctly, it gives the impression that it was easy. Experts make it look easy, after all.

    1. J H,

      Like this: “As for your question, I think the trick he uses is to make each scene relevant to the overall arc as well as having its own micro-tension points that enhance the scene’s importance.”

      Well put.

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