September 28 – October 4: “Must a thriller prompt fear in readers?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5We’ve got a full house this week as ITW Members Lisa von Biela, R. K. Jackson, Grant McKenzie, Hester Young, Baron R. Birthcher, D. D. Ayres and Mark Coggins discuss whether or not a thriller must prompt fear in readers. Can a plot work without that emotion?




BROKEN CHAIN COVERLisa von Biela began writing dark fiction just after the turn of the century. Her very first short story appeared in The Edge in 2002. After working in IT for 25 years, Lisa dropped out of everything—including writing—to attend the University of Minnesota Law School. She graduated magna cum laude in 2009, and now practices law and writes in the Seattle area. On the writing front, she’s made up for lost time since law school and is now the author of the novels THE GENESIS CODE, THE JANUS LEGACY, BLOCKBUSTER, and BROKEN CHAIN, as well as the novellas ASH AND BONE and SKINSHIFT.


hard Latitudes CoverBaron R. Birtcher spent a number of years as a professional musician, and founded an independent record label and management company. Critics have hailed his writing as “The real deal” (Publishers Weekly) and his plots as “Taut, gritty and powerfully controlled” (Kirkus Reviews). His first two Mike Travis novels, Roadhouse Blues and Ruby Tuesday were Los Angeles Times and IMBA bestsellers. Angels Fall, the third installment of the acclaimed series, was nominated for the “Lefty” Award by Left Coast Crime. Rain Dogs, his first stand-alone, was nominated for both the Claymore and Silver Falchion Awards.


No-Hard-FeelingsMark Coggins’ work has been nominated for the Shamus and the Barry crime fiction awards and selected for best of the year lists compiled by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Detroit Free Press and, among others. His novels Runoff and The Big Wake-Up won the Next Generation Indie Book Award and the Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) respectively, both in the crime fiction category. The Immortal Game was optioned for a film.


girl in the mazeR. K. Jackson is a former CNN journalist who now works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He lives with his family in the Los Padres National Forest and is at work on a second Martha Covington thriller.



speakGrant McKenzie is the internationally published author of four edge-of-your-seat thrillers, plus an ongoing mystery series set in San Francisco. His riveting thrillers The Fear in Her Eyes, Switch, and K.A.R.M.A. are also available from Polis Books. Under the pen name M. C. Grant he writes the Dixie Flynn series that began with Angel With a Bullet, continued with Devil With a Gun, and returns with Baby With a Bomb. His short story “Underbelly” appeared in the First Thrills anthology edited by Lee Child from Tor/Forge. As a journalist, Grant has 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 and editor in chief of Monday magazine. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

GatesofEvangeline-BusinessCard-frontHester Young holds a master’s degree in English with a creative writing concentration from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and her short stories have appeared in magazines such as Hawai‘i Review. Before turning to writing full-time, she worked as a teacher in Arizona and New Hampshire. Young lives in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, with her husband and their two children.


Primalforce Official cover revealA veteran author of romance and women’s fiction, D.D. Ayres is new to Romantic Suspense. She believes the lure of romance is always the human connection. Put that connection in physical jeopardy, and and we learn a bit moreabout who we really are. With her K-9 Rescue series, D.D. hopes you will enjoy her sexy, suspenseful portrayals of K-9 teams at their best. D.D. lives in Texas with her husband and a soft-coated Wheaten terrier named Zoe.


  1. Fear is the propellant in our lives that makes us question everything we do. If we weren’t afraid to try, how would we know how important it was to do so? Fear may keep us from stepping off the edge, and yet it is also what brings us to that edge in the first place. We are creatures of challenge.

    Without fear, a thriller has no engine. We need to fear for the characters’ safety because without that there is no risk. When our characters reach that edge, we want a moment of panic, of holding our breath and wondering ‘what will he do?’ And if, as writers, we’ve truly connected with the reader, what that really means to them is: “What would I do?”

    I believe fear is what separates the Thriller from the Mystery novel. Both genres borrow elements from each other, but a Mystery can be told without fear (Cozies, for example) while a thriller falls flat without the high risks necessary to instill those blood-chilling moments of uncertainty, those pulse-pounding, page-churning moments of ‘How will he/she escape this?’

    This is also why my thrillers feature ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. The fear of someone who has no special training, no escape route, pumps adrenaline straight into our veins. Sure, it means my readers have trouble sleeping or leaving the couch to go to the bathroom, because without fear, the book would be too easy to put down, and that’s only what the last page is for — until you pick up the next book 😉

    1. I loved your article. “We want a moment of panic, of holding your breath and wondering what he, or she would do next. For me that the foundation of a suspense thriller. Thanks

      1. “We want a moment of panic, of holding your breath and wondering what he or she would do next”. For me that the foundation of a suspense thriller. Once you create a protagonist that the reader can get into, that the reader really loves, then heart stoppin’ suspense should be right around the corner. Some reader might feel fear, some may not, my job is to create that element of suspense that the reader needs in order to turn to the next page.

  2. Suspense is what drives thrillers—and there is a difference between suspense and fear. The successful thriller keeps the reader in suspense about the potential for events to unfold in a bad way for characters to which they have become attached. That is not the same thing as experiencing fear. In PERSONAL, when Jack Reacher is enlisted to prevent the assassination of the French President by a sniper, you are anxious—or in suspense—over the outcome. You are not personally afraid that you will be assassinated.

    That is not to say that a good thriller can’t cause the reader to experience fear. It can. For instance, after reading THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, you might become fearful of viruses, but the success of the book isn’t dependent on you becoming a germaphobe. It’s dependent on your concern for the characters that are placed in jeopardy by the outbreak and the attempts to contain it.

  3. I’m going to say: Yes and no. One kind of fear is that which a reader experiences personally, a creeping sense of anxiety or dread that’s a characteristic of certain thrillers, like “The Shining” (fear of ghosts and madness), “Jaws” (dread of sharks), or “Silence of the Lambs” (anxiety over serial killers). A great many books we call thrillers don’t produce that kind of emotion.

    But if we’re talking another kind of fear, the anxiety the reader feels on behalf of characters—sometimes because we know more than they know, sometimes because we have no idea what’s going to happen—then yes, it’s an essential ingredient. A better term for this emotion is suspense. I think it’s a necessary ingredient for all fiction, but in a thriller the sensation is amped up, and the stakes are extremely high. We “fear” for the characters because they’re in grave jeopardy—will they solve the problem at hand, will they survive physically or psychologically?

  4. Good question and the word that gave me pause is Thriller. The word encompasses a board canvass of stories, everything from spy stories to murder, mysteries, adventure, detective, police procedurals, suspense, crime, romantic suspense, and all the smash-up sub genres. The key word I came across in my definition search of thriller was exciting. There are a lot of ways to excite a reader. Fear is only one. It’s a good one, and every thriller writer wants that arrow in the quiver. But I don’t know that producing fear in the reader is required every time to take that reader on a wild ride.
    Creeping dread is one kind of a story. Stephen King is the master of this, along with a list I won’t make in case I forget someone. However, surprise after surprise of a twisty turny plot can just as easily keep a reader swiping pages to find out what happens next. I’m thinking of Sandra Brown’s most recent book, “Mean Streak”, which I just finished. As a reader, I wasn’t afraid. But I couldn’t put it down as I tried to figure out who was doing what in this intricately-plotted page turner. “Oh no she/he didn’t?” is just as good a response from a thriller reader as a shiver of fear.

    1. You’re so right, D.D. … I can even think of examples of books I had to put aside for a while because I couldn’t handle the sense of terror they were evoking in me. (Examples: “The Shining,” and more recently, “The Road.”)

      But with the majority of thrillers, the excitement is all in “what’s going to happen next?” or “what the heck is going on here?”

      1. Hi R. K. I think that heightened reader anticipation technique is a good way to make the reader part of the story, instead of being acted upon. However, nearly everyone loves a good scare. Let’s face it, Halloween is bigger than ever, beginning to rival Christmas I recently read somewhere, in terms of decorations and parties. We all seem to have a little ghoulishness in us.

  5. I don’t think that instilling fear, REAL fear, in one’s readers is a requirement for the thriller genre–or even especially desirable. Reading a thriller is like going on a roller coaster. You want a carefully engineered ride of steep mountains and wild dips, but you want that safety bar, too. You want to know there’s an end, a moment of release when you get to breathe again. You don’t want things to go completely off the rails.

    I rarely feel fear when I read thrillers, but I certainly feel tension–an unbearable mounting tension that ends only when I finish the book. Pure, unadulterated fear is generally not an enjoyable emotion. A thriller gives you fear with a safety bar. It’s the promise we as authors make to our readers: I will take you on a mad ride, but I’ll bring you back in one piece. Breathless, maybe, and a little shaken. But still intact.

    1. I agree, Hester. Isn’t it funny we almost all are writing about a roller coaster ride as being closest to the experience of reading a thriller. We want that thrilling ride, with the safety bar firmly in place. LOL

  6. Interesting question! I think first and foremost, there has to be suspense–lots of it–and that’s not the same as fear. The reader needs to want to keep turning those pages, or it’s not a thriller, it’s something else.

    I think we need to build some level of empathy for that main character, so the reader cares that the character is about to be put into greater and greater danger. That can be much harder to achieve for more “superhuman” characters, those who are just so brave, so strong, etc., as opposed to the “everyman” sort of character.

    Some thrillers give the reader that creeping dread, the kind where a creak in the house makes you jump out of your skin while you’re reading.

    But some thrillers aim to scare. I like to do that by posing a central, frightening “what if” question for the reader that is bigger than the book, and so (hopefully) lasts beyond the final page.

    What if BigPharma’s business model created markets by nefarious means? That’s Blockbuster. What if something small, but critical, went wrong at the very base of the food chain and led to utter disaster? That’s my latest, Broken Chain. I like to make the central menace at least reasonably plausible, albeit fictional, to have the reader thinking, what if this–or something like this–were to happen? (Although, LOL, the brain chip in my first novel, The Genesis Code, has actually come to fruition in the real world!)

    1. You’re talking about some genuinely scary stuff here, Lisa, and it prompts a realization for me … I tend to WRITE about things that I’m afraid of, regardless of whether I’m trying to evoke that fear in my readers.

      For example, in my first novel, THE GIRL IN THE MAZE, I sought to explore the experience of having schizophrenia. I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental illness, but I certainly doubt my perceptions of reality from time to time. (Don’t we all? The answer I’m looking for is yes.) Being in a constant state of doubting one’s perceptions is one of the most terrifying things I can imagine.

      In my follow-up novel, THE KISS OF THE SUN, I find myself exploring something else that scares the bejeezus out of me: Corporate control of politics.

  7. I love this question.

    It should first be said that, in my opinion, the Thriller is a unique beast that can assume many shapes in the realm of fiction. For me, it is the pace of the story that dictates how “fear” fits in, and it is the plot-line that ultimately dictates the proper pace to serve the story. Some plots require a certain mandatory bit of back-story in order to properly set it up. Others, however, can simply launch off the platform from page one. Both can be amazingly effective.

    Either way, I feel that it is the sense of impending chaos–the “anything can happen” element that keeps the pages turning. Like Hitchcock famously said (and I shall paraphrase): you don’t have to show everything, rather you need to allow the reader [viewer] to use her imagination to fill in the gaps, particularly where violence and mayhem are concerned. What occurs in the mind and imagination of the reader is likely far more frightening that anything that would be placed on the page and played out frame-by-frame, so to speak.

    I like to think in terms of “menace” or “dread” in place of “fear.”
    I like to see a story unfurl itself (again, in service to the pace dictated by plot) in such a way that I have no idea whether even the protagonist might make it out alive at the end.

    I am also intrigued by the idea that seemingly innocent, random actions taken by certain characters can ripple across and through the plotline in such a way that it becomes a tidal wave of potential doom. The infamous “butterfly effect,” if you will.

    This is a device that not only captures my attention as a reader, but propels me as I am writing. It is a theme I’ve had a great deal of fun exploring in my books, most recently in Hard Latitudes, and in 2013’s Rain Dogs. Sometimes I just can’t seem to type fast enough to get it all on the page as quickly as the pictures unfold inside my head!

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