December 1 – 7: “Is fear the most common emotion in a thriller?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re talking with ITW members Jaden Terrel, Arlene Kay, Suzanne Chazin, William Nikkel, C. Hope Clark, Jack Soren, Patricia Stoltey, Nicholas Pengelley and Jerry Amernic and the topic is fear: “Is fear the most common emotion in a thriller? What other emotions run through your favorite thrillers?”


Gilt Trip2 - 600x900x300Former Federal Executive Arlene Kay traded the trappings of bureaucracy for a career as a mystery novelist. Her work is known for fiendishly clever plots with a dollop of romance and a heaping side of humor. Published novels include Intrusion; Die Laughing; and The Abacus Prize (Mainly Murder Press LLC); and the Boston Uncommons series- Swann Dive; Mantrap; Gilt Trip; & Swann Song (Bellbridge books). Ms. Kay holds graduate degrees in Political Science and Constitutional Law.

last witnessJerry Amernic’s new novel The Last Witness is about the last living survivor of the Holocaust in 2039, but the world is abysmally ignorant of events from the last century. Amernic has produced a video showing how university students today don’t know much either. His biblical-historical thriller Qumran will be out soon, to be followed by the re-release of his earlier novel Gift of the Bambino, and later next year another historical thriller called Medicine Man.

Blood Gold_W Nikkel Cover Final-2William Nikkel is the author of five Jack Ferrell novels and a steampunk, zombie western featuring his latest hero Max Traver. A former homicide detective and S.W.A.T. team member for the Kern County Sheriff’s Department in Bakersfield, California, William is an amateur scuba enthusiast, gold prospector, and wildlife artist who can be found just about anywhere. He and his wife Karen divide their time between Northern California and Maui, Hawaii.

monarchJack Soren was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. Before becoming a thriller novelist, Soren wrote software manuals, waited tables, drove a cab, and spent six months as a really terrible private investigator. He lives in the Toronto area.


DeadWrongFront 264x408Patricia Stoltey is the author of two amateur sleuth mysteries, The Prairie Grass Murders and The Desert Hedge Murders, as well as her newly released standalone suspense novel, Dead Wrong. She is co-editor of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog and maintains her personal blog where she frequently features guest authors and book reviews. Patricia lives in Northern Colorado with her husband and the very demanding Katie Cat.

RYDERNick Pengelley lives in Toronto, Canada with his family. He has had a varied career as a law librarian and law professor (specializing in international commercial arbitration) in Australia, Canada and the U.K. He has also worked as an analyst for a major Canadian NGO that focuses on the culture and politics of the Middle East, a field about which he is passionate. He is currently a consultant on Australasian law.

river of glass (3)Shamus award finalist Jaden Terrell is the author of three Jared McKean mysteries and a contributor to Now Write! Mysteries, a collection of exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for writers of crime fiction. Terrell is the special programs coordinator of the Killer Nashville Thriller, Mystery, and Crime Literature Conference and a recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

C. Hope Clark is author of The Carolina Slade Mysteries and the newly released Murder on Edisto, book one of The Edisto Island Mysteries. She’s published The Shy Writer and The Shy Writers Reborn, nonfiction motivational books, and is editor of, chosen Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers for 14 years. She lives on Lake Murray in central South Carolina when she’s not strolling Edisto Beach.

Land Of Careful Shadows coverSuzanne Chazin is the author of two thriller series. Her first, about the FDNY, include The Fourth Angel, Flashover and Fireplay. The series has been called “searing and emotionally explosive” (USA Today), and her heroine, fire investigator Georgia Skeehan, “incredibly strong” (People Magazine). Chazin’s newest mystery series stars Jimmy Vega, an upstate New York cop navigating the world of the undocumented. The first book in the series, Land of Careful Shadows, is due out in hardcover from Kensington on Nov. 25th. It has already garnered advance praise from Lee Child, Julia Spencer-Fleming, S.J. Rozan, Reyna Grande, Maggie Barbieri and Publishers Weekly, which called the book, “timely and engrossing,” and Jimmy Vega, “engaging, psychologically complex.” A former journalist, Chazin’s essays and articles have appeared in American Health, Family Circle and the New York Times.


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  1. Fear is without doubt prevalent and easily recognized in a novel. Terror is visceral for the characters in the story and the reader as well. And I believe it’s crucial to a good thriller. Even so, it’s not the only emotion present in the genre. There’s anger and rage and jealousy and heartache, to mention a few. But there is a single emotion that stands out in my mind. Perhaps it’s the most ubiquitous one of all.

    Characters in fiction, primarily the antagonists, are motivated by extreme lust. Whether exuded globally or on a small scale, every good antagonist—and I mean that in a bad way—possesses insatiable lust for absolute power and control, or unimaginable wealth, or all three. And it often doesn’t stop there. They can also be obsessed with emotional and or sexual dominance over a person or persons, even a desire to terrorize. It’s the sociopathic behavior of the antagonist in pursuit of their maniacal eccentricities that instills fear in the characters in a thriller and drives the story forward.

  2. Fear is possibly the most common emotion in a thriller, but not the only one. Fear can be tiresome if it is all that drives a protagonist. Many readers like to associate with the hero or heroine of a thriller. If that character is constantly in fear, I doubt that is necessarily attractive to readers. I know it’s a turn off for me. I prefer my heroes and heroines to be fearless, relishing danger and laughing in the face of death. Fear on the part of the reader, on the other hand, for what appalling danger the hero or heroine is about to be landed in next, and whether he or she will survive it, is definitely a good thing.

    A thriller should thrill – that emotion should, in my view, come from the need to overcome constant peril, solve mysteries under the threat of a gun. Where appropriate, that constant peril should be broken with smoldering sexual tension and black, edge of death type humor (think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). One of the writers contributing to this discussion is Arlene Kay. According to her bio, extracted above, her work is known for its “fiendishly clever plots with a dollop of romance and a heaping side of humor”. That sounds like a wonderful formula.

    1. Nick, you make an excellent point when you bring up the need for moments of humor in even the most chilling thriller. Humor allows the characters…and the reader…to take a deep breath before the crisis erupts. I suspect that humor does not arise from happiness, however, but from anxiety.

      1. Thanks Patricia. I agree that humor doesn’t arise from happiness in a thriller (at least not until the epilogue when all peril is past). Anxiety is certainly a major source. Characters are living on the edge, with all their senses preternaturally heightened and sharpened. I think it’s only natural that they’d also perceive humor in a given situation (especially gallows humor of course).

        1. Nick and Patricia, sorry I have been remiss in commenting on the discussions. My fifth Jack Ferrell novel BLOOD GOLD released Tuesday so I was busy with that. I do want to comment that you bring up a good point. One I often incorporate in my stories. Comic relief for the characters and the reader is, indeed, very important. And true to life. When I was a detective working homicide, my partners and I often found ourselves in this position. Sometimes it’s the only way to deal with the extreme cruelties one human can perpetrate on another.

    2. I agree with Nick. A fearless protagonist is the hero, or heroine, for the reader but making the reader cringe with fear is another thing. For a thriller this is good stuff. It’s what helps create suspense and what makes the reader want to read on and keep those pages turning. The reader wants to see what’s going to happen in terms of plot and what’s going to happen to our central character(s). To fear is to be human.

  3. Fear is present in most thrillers, but other emotions are equally potent. Revenge is one of my favorites in both my own novels and those I love as a reader. When linked with a character’s quest for justice, it allows a protagonist to act beyond the constraints of the law in avenging a wrong. (Think how satisfying audiences found the movie Death Wish). Both Lee Child and Nelson DeMille have used revenge to good effect with their iconic characters Jack Reacher and John Corey.

    Loyalty also resonates with me. Harlan Coben imbues his series character Myron Bolitar (and his smoking hot pal, Win), with a strong sense of commitment to those they care about. These protagonists are willing to risk both life and liberty when a friend is endangered—a refreshing change from reality.

    Let’s not overlook love, the most primal emotion of them all. Think how it dominated the classic thriller Rebecca, creating unforgettable villains and heroines. (Mrs. Danvers, anyone?). Another oldie but goody, is Vera Caspary’s Laura where perverted love and jealousy lead to intrigue and murder. Jealousy, the companion piece to love, fuels the plot in many thrillers from Othello and Julius Caesar to the present day. Shakespeare knew that. Of course he did— that man knew everything.

  4. Fear drives thrillers because it’s the purest form of escapism in literature, in my opinion. However, it’s impact is lessened if it’s the only emotion. Authors must include other emotional routes to counteract, emphasize, and overcome or the fear is tremendously lessened.

    But fear either paralyzes or catapults the character, builds up momentum or throws them in a well. And it’s from these pivotal moments that the plot and the character take shape and grow. And it’s not just from fear of danger. It’s fear of losing love, losing self, losing faith as well.

    Fear is the most intrinsic theme of any thriller and mystery, whether it’s the bullet coming at you, or the death of a loved one. Yes, fear is catamount, but then the story builds around it with all the other tools or the fear is moot. Fear has to happen for a purpose, and from that fear should grow something greater.

  5. I’d say the bad guys are motivated by greed and rage, although they might fear their evil plans will fail.

    For all of the characters, anger shares equal billing with fear. The person who’s faced with a threat to his life, or his community/company, or even the world, is angry at the people who created the situation, angry at being dragged into the plot against his will, and angry at his own inability to escape or overcome the threat and get his life back to normal.

    Many characters experience a deep sadness and mourn for the life plan that’s extinguished and can’t be recovered, the life or lives lost before the threat is overcome. That sadness fuels anger and the mixture of emotions often leads to bad decisions on the part of the main characters.

  6. Posted on behalf of author Jerry Amernic:

    Fear may be important, but I think the most common and necessary emotion for a thriller is suspense, which is a little different than fear. Suspense is that critical ingredient that engages readers and makes them sit on the edge of their seat, waiting in anticipation for the next thing to happen. This is where the term ‘page turner’ comes into play, and for a thriller it’s an absolute prerequisite. Fear, I think belongs more to the domain of horror, but make no mistake, fear can also be crucial to a good thriller novel. The books that I write, and the books that I tend to read, tend to have a large learning component to them where the reader is educated about a person, an event from history, some new background or perhaps a twist on something they may not have known. There is nothing wrong with a reader learning along the way, but not at the sacrifice of good old-fashioned suspense.

  7. Hi all. So glad to be part of this illustrious group of thriller authors. I think the thing that really makes a thriller for me is ANTICIPATION. I seriously can’t ever recall being “frightened” when I read a thriller (though I may have been frightened for a character). What I really feel is that pit-of-the-stomach sensation that a character’s options are either closed off or that the next thing that is about to happen is going to very badly for the character. I know that the author is going to find a way to continue the story but I can’t imagine how and it’s this, as Jose says, suspense, that keeps me reading. For instance, when I was reading Lee Child’s “Never Go Back” and Reacher was trapped in an army intelligence command post and he had to get out and free a female army officer as well, I couldn’t imagine how that was going to be accomplished. My curiosity was what really kept me reading.
    Do any of you have a favorite “scary” moment in a book? Or perhaps a moment of great anticipation?

  8. Hi everyone. Thanks for having me! My view is fear is important, sure, but I don’t really think it’s the most common emotion in a thriller. If we stick with emotions and not motivations — which are related but far from synonymous — I think the most common emotion in thrillers is probably love. I know it is for my work. There’s always a wide variety of emotions: fear, anger, envy, disgust and surprise, but I think without love, a lot of characters wouldn’t get to those emotions. Heroes and heroines feel fear because something they love is in jeopardy. Now, that can be narcissistic or altruistic, but I think that’s just shading. They feel envy because something they love isn’t theirs. Perhaps they feel anger because someone/thing they love is being hurt. But it all stems from love.

    If a reader doesn’t have love (shades of love being like, caring, etc.) for characters, then when those characters are in jeopardy, the reader isn’t going to care. But if a writer has made me love a character and THEN puts them in jeopardy, well, then you’ve got a page turner.

  9. Jack, you mention love–and so do you Arlene. But do you think there’s a magic balance? Thrillers have so much energy to them. Is there a point when a writer has to pull back on what he LOVES about a character and work in more fear?

    1. Good point, Suzanne. I don’t know that I’d call it “pulling back”. More like changing the emphasis. But I think love has to come first. Otherwise it’s like hearing the bang before the hammer hits the nail. And it needs to persist, even when other emotions take the foreground. So in those final hours, after we’ve spent all that time throwing rocks at our characters, they can find a reason to keep going and triumph. I don’t think fear could be enough of a motivator at that point. But love could.

      1. My focus was on “LOVE” as a motive for mayhem, or sometimes as a cause for retribution.
        Thwarted love or the perception of it can lead to murder. Hence my reference to the perfidious Mrs. Danvers, or to Othello for that matter. I enjoy playing with that concept in my own writing. Of course excessive self-love (ego) can lead to all sorts of crimes by a character who believes he is entitled to something or smarter than anyone else.

  10. I agree with Jack that love is the most powerful motivator. The fear for the hero or heroine is more a fear for a loved one or a fear of losing someone or something they love. Anger, hatred, fear, revenge, even greed…these all begin with a powerful love for someone or something, a love powerful enough to drive them for several hundred pages of opposition in order to save, preserve, reclaim, or avenge it.

    A book I read for a college acting class said, “Follow the love.” Two people arguing because they hate each other is shallow and not very interesting. Two people arguing because they both love the same person; or because one betrayed the other’s best friend, who subsequently committed suicide; or because the son they both love is on life support and they disagree about whether it’s in his best interest to pull the plug or try to save him, even at the risk of quadriplegia and brain damage…that’s interesting. That’s engaging. That will make us care.

    I think it’s equally important in thriller writing–so much so that I keep a note myself in a prominent place: Follow the love.

  11. Jaden,

    “Follow the love” is an awesome reminder as a thriller writer. Not what the average reader would expect going through the mind of the author, but it is tremendously so. Like Jack so well said, fear is less is we don’t love before it. The greater the love, the greater the fear. Ah, I think I’ll post THAT in my prominent note. Thanks!.

    1. “Follow the love” really is a great point, and one that is easily overlooked in the flood of other emotions that tend to drive characters forward. It’s something I try and address in my own writing through the use of flashbacks – reminding the reader (and myself, as I’m just as prone to forget) that love – of family, or a partner, or an ideal – is the motivating force.

      1. I also build flashbacks into my novels but I really like that phrase “follow the love” which is wonderful. It’s often said that “follow the money” will get you where you want to go but love is a more powerful emotion. It can propel a character to do something that is off the charts.

  12. I feel fear for the protagonist when I’m reading a thriller, but the main emotion we want our readers to feel is anticipation, I think. What’s next? How is she going to get out of this one? She doesn’t know the stalker is right outside her shower door as she hums ‘It came upon a Midnight Clear’ ~ oh, oh..she could see his shadow against the curtain if she didn’t have her eyes closed…the phone is ringing ~ the police are calling to warn her that her husband, who has threatened to come back and kill her has broken out of prison. Because of the shower of course, she can’t hear the phone. A little cliche driven here, but it makes my point. These are the sort of dynamics that keep us on the edge of our collective seats when reading that gripping suspense thriller. I’ve enjoyed all the posts, and always learn much from my brilliant and talented colleagues.

  13. I really like that notion of “follow the love,” Jaden. There is definitely more at stake for two people who are bound by love, duty or loyalty than if their sole bond is mutual hate. That said, I just read a wonderful manuscript by a writer due out next year that takes place in NY City at the turn of the 18th Century called “City of Liars and Thieves.” The central characters are definitely motivated by the love they have for each other, but there is also a wonderful backdrop of hatred between two historical characters–Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton–and their tension has everything to do with hatred and envy and nothing to do with love. So negative emotions can also be deliciously motivating in characters.

    1. Suzanne, I remember reading about Burr and Hamilton in college. I always thought, though, that their hatred for each did have to do with love–not for each other, definitely–but for love of those things that each felt the other was a threat to. Power, maybe. Or a vision for the country so disparate that one precluded the other.

      I always think of those negative emotions as what happen when the positive emotions get twisted into something ugly. But you’re right; they can be delicious to read about.

      The book sounds wonderful. Thank you for recommending it.

  14. Hey gang,
    Since fear is the topic, what’s the scariest scene you’ve ever read in a thriller or seen in a thriller movie? I’m not sure if Stephen King books qualify, but I still think he’s the master of this. I like subtle terror and my all time favorite is that moment in THE SHINING when Shelley Duval comes across the pages Jack Nicholson has been working on and they all say, “All work and no play….” I happen to think THAT scene is even scarier than when Nicholson breaks down the door.
    What are your thoughts? Are you more frightened by implied malice? Or the real thing?

    1. Good question, Suzanne! I remember a scene in a movie where the main female character was walking down the stairs toward the front door. The door had frosted glass so you couldn’t see outside. She was partway down when a fist crashed through the glass. Luckily I was only holding popcorn and not a soda, because my hand flew up and popcorn went every direction. I don’t even remember what movie it was, but I sure remember the scene.

      The scariest movie I ever saw, because it was so full of high tension and scary scenes, was Deliverance. That’s the all-time nightmare movie for me.

      1. You’re right Patricia. It’s the unexpected that really frightens. I didn’t see that movie with the fist through the glass but I can see it in my mind now. It’s chilling. And yes, Deliverance would be on MY list too!

    2. I remember seeing, as a kid, a movie called “Blind Terror”, with Mia Farrow (had to Google that). She’s blind, and everyone in her house is murdered while she’s out. The scenes with her in the house, roaming around, doing normal things, with dead bodies strewn about (and the audience waiting for the killer to return) is one of the scariest things I can recall (other than peaking out from behind my parents’ sofa to watch black and white episodes of “Dr Who” in the mid 60s!).

      1. I saw Blind Terror. Totally forgot about it until you mentioned it but the sheer terror of Mia Farrow as a blind and helpless woman in that house has real staying power. I think conjuring up a good fear scene is very much about a good set up and “execution ” if you ‘ll pardon the pun. When you have the right character in a situation that the reader/viewer can identify with, the language can be very simple and straightforward but the fear will be inherent .

      2. Okay we’re getting a little off topic with movies here but sinc we’re on the subject, how about Wait Until Dark? Who can forget that scene near the end where Alan Arkin, whom we all think is dead, flies across the screen in a final attempt to kill the blind Audrey Hepburn? I literally fell out of my seat at the movie theater with that one.

        1. I haven’t thought of that movie in years, but now that you remind me…

          Is it even possible to create that kind of terror in a novel? Yep! As a reader, the first book that comes to mind is Stephen King’s Cujo. I was afraid to go see that movie because the book was chilling enough.

    3. Great question! And a difficult one, too. I think the anticipation is important, and I like the subtle, growing terror. One of the scariest for me is that moment when you (as the protagonist) realize everything you believd was wrong and that someone you trusted–someone who is RIGHT BESIDE YOU RIGHT NOW is the most dangerous thing in your life. The “all work and no play” scene you describe is definitely chilling, and I think Thomas Harris did a beautiful job of making Hannibal Lecter menacing in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS–much more so than Buffalo Bill.

      But RED DRAGON was even scarier to me. The relationship between Francis Dolarhyde and the blind woman was excruciating. She was so genuine and kind, and she touched the part of him that wanted love and redemption. You wanted her to be safe, to be able to tame the beast and help him heal, but at the same time, you wanted to scream at her to run, because you knew he was just too broken and when he came apart, there would be no saving her. It was that little bit of hope that made it so terrible.

      1. Yes, I agree, Jaden. A little bit of hope makes everything more terrible. In real life, I think it’s what captors do to hostages–dangle that little bit of hope in front of them that makes everything so much more horrific in the end. I remember reading not long ago that several months before journalist James Foley was beheaded by Isis, that he’d gotten word that he would be released within a matter of hours (as I believe some others were). How cruel and horrible to have had that one bright moment of hope and then see it disappear.

    4. I can’t put my finger on a given movie that frightened me short of Jaws and The Exorcist when I was young. Nightmare stuff.

      Today, however, to me true fear comes from being outsmarted. Intelligent protagonists are very attractive to me. I love the challenge of mind against mind, and the one-upsmanship. That’s why Gone Girl was so amazing to me.

  15. Scariest scene I ever read (in a thriller) oddly enough is in one of the early Reacher books. Reacher is crawling through a crack in this, well, mountain, trying to get the drop on the bad guys (or rescue the girl, forget which) and as he crawls the passageway keeps getting narrower and shorter until he get’s stuck. Can’t go forward. Can’t go backward. Can’t turn around. Just for a moment, then he squeezes through and eventually gets out (as twenty-dozen more novels with him attest). But for that moment, while I read that I was scared and could hardly breath. Granted, Reacher and I are similarly…unsmall?…so that may have had something to do with it.

    A little rushed today…it’s Release Day! 😉 I’ll be back tomorrow.

  16. I noticed that a lot of the comments about our scariest moments in books (or movies) involved characters who are blind. The villain’s extra sense gives him an unfair advantage–which is why it’s so sweet when, in WAIT UNTIL DARK, the heroine reverses the balance by plunging the house into darkness.

    I had the same sense of anxiety reading a Jeffery Deaver Lincoln Rhyme book. The villain is in the room with Lincoln, who is watching helplessly as the bad guy gets ready to kill him. The combination of fear for Lincoln, whose brilliant mind is trapped inside a quadriplegic body, and for his caregiver, Thom, who we know must be hurt or worse since otherwise he would be there, is excruciating.

    1. As a writer I especially like it when a character (hero-protagonist) manages to turn the tables on the bad guy in a situation where the reader doesn’t expect it — in essence, turning what seems to be a disadvantage into an advantage. I attempted that in The Last Witness with a character who is 100 years old, no less, and only hope it worked.

      1. Thanks for the good wishes everyone!

        That’s a great point, Jerry. It reminds me of Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) in the Avengers movies. When it looks like she’s at her weakest and the bad guys are getting what they want, she’s actually getting what *she* wants from them. I love that!

        On the other topic, blind characters being common to scary scenes seems to make sense. It’s when a character is at their weakest that conflict — be that violence or just confrontation — has the greatest impact. Assuming that they’ve drawn a sympathetic character to begin with, of course. It’s one of the reasons (aside from titillation) that victims in horror stories tend to be women and tend to lose their duds at the most inopportune times. Makes them more vulnerable. Same reason Bruce Willis gets caught shoeless in Die Hard.

        1. You make a good point about vulnerability, Jack. I think it works best when the character is vulnerable but not weak. DIE HARD is an excellent example of that.

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