November 2 – 8: “What does it take for a book to be a thriller?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5“What does it take for a book to be a thriller?” This week ITW Members Ann Farnsworth, Paul McGoran, John Hegenberger, Patrick Kendrick, Robert McClure, Anthony Schumacher, Earl Javorsky and Judy Penz Sheluk are discussing whether the answer is the stories, global threats, slightly over the top characters, or all of the above?




throneAnn Farnsworth is the mother of 10 kids and one novel. She and her family live in on the outskirts of St. Louis, just blocks from the Missouri River. Ann has been a voracious reader all her life and that hobby has served her well as she discovered a ‘Da Vinci Code’ type story buried in the Old Testament and decided to write a novel about the missing artifact. The THE THRONE OF DAVID was released in August, her book is surpassing all sales expectations and she is now trying to figure out how to write another.


SPYFALLcover (2)Born and raised in the heart of the heartland, Columbus, Ohio, John Hegenberger is the author of several upcoming series: Stan Wade LAPI in 1959, Eliot Cross Columbus-based PI in 1988, Tripleye, the first PI agency on Mars, and Ace Hart, western gambler in Arizona in 1873. He’s the father of three, tennis enthusiast, collector of silent films and OTR, hiker, Francophile, B.A. Comparative Lit., Pop culture author, ex-Navy, ex-marketing exec at Exxon, AT&T, and IBM, happily married for 45 years and counting.


Layout 1Paul McGoran lives in Newport, Rhode Island. In his lives before fiction, he was a Russian language interpreter for the Navy, a marketing executive, a management consultant, and a day trader. The most satisfactory aspect of fiction writing for Paul is disappearing into the heads of his characters. Writers like him suffer from a kind of multiple personality disorder–minus some of the negative clinical implications. Made For Murder, a noir thriller, is his first novel.


hanged manJudy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery, The Hanged Man’s Noose, was published July 2015. Her short crime fiction is included in The Whole She-Bang 2, World Enough and Crime, and Flash and Bang. In addition to the ITW, Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Canada, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society.



soloEarl Javorsky’s first novel, Down Solo, was released in December, 2014, followed by Trust Me this past July. After a long stint trying to make it as a musician in LA and clawing his way up to mid-level management in the chemical entertainment industry (just about killed him), he went back to his first love—writing. He had the good fortune to run into Lou Aronica, his editor at The Story Plant.



BritishLion_HCTony Schumacher has written for the Guardian and the Huffington Post, and he is a regular contributor to BBC Radio and London’s LBC Radio. He has been a policeman, stand-up comedian, bouncer, jeweler, taxi driver, perfume salesman, actor, and garbage collector, among other occupations. He currently lives outside of Liverpool, The Darkest Hour and The British Lion, both WW2 thrillers, are published by Harper Collins.


deadlyRobert McClure read pulp fiction as a kid when he should have been studying, but ultimately cracked down enough to obtain a bachelor’s in criminology from Murray State University and a law degree from the University of Louisville. He is now an attorney and crime fiction writer who lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky. His story “My Son” appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories, and he has had other works published in MudRock: Stories & Tales, Hardboiled, Thug Lit, and Plots with Guns.


The Savants Cover_Final_Online (2)Patrick Kendrick is an award winning author of several thrillers, including: Papa’s Problem, a Florida Book Award and Hollywood Film Festival Award winner. Extended Family, which earned a starred review from Booklist. His newest crime thriller, Acoustic Shadows, was published by HarperCollins in June and is a Royal Palm Literary Award Finalist. The Savants, a sci-fi, political thriller is his first YA novel, and is published by Suspense Publishing. A former firefighter and freelance journalist, he lives in Florida close to the sea.


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  1. Like all fiction, a thriller starts with story and character. To broadly paraphrase Henry James (an unlikely source for thriller wisdom) “Characters drive the story; the story reveals the characters.” This tight fusion between story and character is crucial in a thriller.

    But what kind of story? What kind of character? I’ll concentrate on the noir thriller here, since that’s where my heart is. Thriller or no, a noir novel will feature the moody thoughts and bleak outlook of a damaged soul. Beyond mood, noir most often includes five essentials:

    1. A CRIME or crimes—often murder
    2. An OBSESSION—revenge, drugs, a McGuffin
    3. FATALISM—a sense of impending doom, the foreknowledge of a bad outcome
    4. PERVERSITY—usually amour fou, mad desire
    5. BETRAYAL—lurking in every plot twist, from everybody the protagonist trusts

    The noir thriller—like all others—must have escalating stakes and make copious use of the ratchet-wheel of suspense. Without it, pages will not get turned, and the story will not be read—at least not by thriller lovers. Elmore Leonard totally nailed the concept, “I just leave out all the boring stuff.”

    Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

      1. You’re so right, Judy. It’s one of those quotes that are both true and at the same time awfully tough to implement. But I keep it in mind when I evaluate individual scenes and chapters during revision.

    1. Very nice summation, and I totally agree with escalating the suspense for, as you put it, readers will not continue to read the story. It also helps to create an emotional bond with the characters so that as the suspense and tension elevates, we feel for these characters.

  2. When I was a kid, back when all around here was trees, my dad took me to see the first Indiana Jones movie as a treat during the school summer break. I remember sitting there in the darkness, about ten minutes in, my hands gripping the arms of my seat, as a flimsy bi-plane took to the air and then floated into a cinematic sunset.

    I looked at my dad and said: “Wow.”

    All these years later I still say “wow” whenever I watch those opening minutes.

    For me, they put the “thrill” in “thriller.”

    Now please don’t shout at me. I know they are from a film and we’re talking about books here, but for me, if you break those opening minutes down, they’ve got the lot.

    1. The scene with the golden idol. This gives us a hero who has to use his brains, he could snatch the idol, be a bull in a china shop, but he’s too smart for that.

    2. Except the hero isn’t as smart as he thinks. The rug gets pulled from underneath him and he is running for his life until he is out the temple and safe.

    3. Except he isn’t safe. He’s running for his life again with arrows whistling past his ears. He’s hanging on by the skin of his teeth until… he’s safe and in the plane.

    4. Except he isn’t safe. There is a snake, and he is terrified of snakes.

    All of the above and we’re only into the first ten minutes?

    Now THAT is a thriller! And what it teaches us is the hero doesn’t give up. They are human, they get scared just the same as we would, and although they are half way around the world, all that matters is what they can do as an individual to stay alive in the moment.

    Real people, in extraordinary circumstances doing that most primeval of things, trying to survive another moment.

    That, ladies and gentlemen, is all I think you need for a great thriller.

      1. I love that behinds the scenes stuff of writing (although my editor doesn’t!) Those quiet moments in a book when the protagonist takes a moment to make a coffee and stare out the window.

    1. You take me back to the first time I saw Indiana Jones, and that reminded me of another movie that was out around the same time: Romancing the Stone! Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

      1. Loved that film — talk about action, characters and endlessly twisting plot! It can be said that movies have the advantage of visual and audio cues for the fans, but the equivalent of those 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark in an 85,000 word book is about 7100 words — three full chapters. So yeah, it can be done in print…so as Paul McGoran reminds us what Leonard said, just leave out the boring stuff.

  3. The foundation of every good thriller is not much different than any other form of crime fiction: a story that starts with a serious problem and a protagonist who attempts to solve the problem while encountering every possible obstacle along the way. A really wicked antagonist helps greatly. But what sets the thriller apart from the traditional mystery is the “thrill” of being right in the action. As an example, the blood and guts are usually onstage, vs. the offstage approach typically adopted by traditional mysteries.

    When I think of thrillers, I think back to one of my favorite novels, Primal Fear (1993) by William Diehl (adapted into an exceptional film in 1996, with Richard Gere and Edward Norton in the starring roles). Here we have a hotshot criminal defense attorney defending an alter boy of murdering an archbishop—with overwhelming evidence to support the charge. The twists and turns are endless as the reader is manipulated right along with the protagonist. Simply brilliant. If you haven’t read it (and/or seen the movie), put it on your to-do list. It’s a classic example of a thriller done to perfection.

  4. Having just participated in panels at Bouchercon and Killer Nashville on this subject in the past couple weeks, I’ve been able to assemble a few thoughts on the subject.

    For me, a thriller begins with plot and it has to be one you’re passionate about. If you’re not passionate about it, how can you expect readers to be? Most of mine come from my personal feelings on a subject that I’ve come across, whether it is a contemporary news headline or something I find while doing some research or personal reading.

    In my first novel, while researching Hemingway and Cuba, I came across the plight of the Jews fleeing eastern Europe trying to enter Cuba and became obsessed with this as a focal point in the novel. In Acoustic Shadows, the tragedy of school shootings, particularly Sandy Hook, haunted me so that I could not sleep until I wrote about it and the idea of “what if one of the teachers had a gun?”

    With The Savants, I watched a documentary on prodigious savants and read a wonderful book called “Islands of Genius,” and was fascinated about the abilities these people have, though they often cannot fit into society. The idea of what could they do if they worked together to save a society that typically shunned them?

    So, thrillers have to have a plot you’re passionate about it. Put your personal twist in it-maybe you’re trying to make point, or utilize your writing as a catharsis-but it has to be something that people can relate to globally.

    Characters are the next component for me and I like my characters flawed. They have to have some personal crisis they are overcoming, one that, perhaps has haunted them or caused them a physical or emotional loss. When you place a flawed character into a dangerous situation, I believe readers are compelled to pull for them and keeps the readers moving through the story to assure the character will prevail.

    And, of course, if we can add some romance to the mix, and some conspiracy, it only adds to the page turning velocity, but that will be another post, another day.

  5. I don’t know about global threats, or about over-the-top characters, but something has to be at stake for someone we care about (or come to care about). And that something has to have value to the reader: negative value until it’s resolved, positive value on resolution. The something-at-stake component has to meet a threshold of importance to qualify as thriller material. If it’s the survival of someone’s pet cat, it won’t meet that threshold but could still be a device for a literary piece—if the writing is damned good and the writer uses the cat as a window into a world of lives and meaningful events.
    So, what defines the threshold? At least a life at stake, or a lot of money—preferably both. And more lives on the line as the story unfolds. I’m no longer a fan of the global-threat genre, and long past my last Ludlum book (although I’ll probably see the next Bond movie). A lot can be packed into a small world. In the novel (and film) A Simple Plan, we start with a dead pilot and a nice chunk of cash. Three men stumble across the scene and try to devise a way to keep the money. No world-shaking consequences here, and no especially eccentric characters, but the story ramps up the anxiety as much as any Clive Cussler or Vince Flynn novel.
    Out of curiosity (not wanting to take anything for granted), I looked up the word “thriller” and got this: a work of fiction or drama designed to hold the interest by the use of a high degree of intrigue, adventure, or suspense (Merriam-Webster). “Intrigue,” of course, being the measure of complication and deception involved in an adversary’s pursuit of his or her goals; “adventure” implying events elevated beyond the mundane (the health of a cat); and “suspense” requiring an emotional investment in the outcome (with a good dose of tension in order to boost the payoff).
    Now to go finish Down to No Good (due last September 1).

  6. Like any piece of sound literature, a thriller has to have at least one sympathetic protagonist, if not more, which in thrillers these days seem to be much more of the anti-hero type than not. What distinguishes a thriller from other genres is the promise of impending violence, of threats to your protagonists from other forces, that a writer has to make practically on the first page of the book then believably deliver on throughout.

    Another distinguishing feature of a thriller is that the reader often knows the protagonist is headed for danger but the protagonist doesn’t, or one protagonist might have reason to know of the impending danger but doesn’t know enough of what the other protagonist is doing to tip him off to the danger. Then, of course, the most delicious part of any good thriller is when both the reader and the characters believe the story to be careening one way and it takes an unexpected turn in a completely different direction. So, it’s the knowledge gaps that exist between the reader and characters that make a thriller versus, say, a pure mystery, where the job of the writer is to keep the reader guessing whodunnit. You can certainly have a mystery component in a thriller, but to me the question in a thriller is always less “whodunnit” than “whathappensnext.”

    Finally, like any good work of fiction, what distinguishes the top notch thrillers form the rest of the pack is a sound theme, a societal message or life lesson that emerges from all the action, seemingly on its own accord. I think the theme should especially resonate at the ending. If the ending is a believable one that flows from a consistent thematic concept the writers has weaved throughout the work, we will observe what the protagonists learned from their trials and tribulations and how they changed.

    1. I agree about the “knowledge gap”, but am not sure that there needs to be a theme in order to qualify as a Thriller. That seems like a roller-coaster painted up to look like a dragon; the thrill is from the ups and downs more than from the decoration. Just my thoughts.

      1. You’re very right, John, that strong thematic development isn’t necessary to qualify a book as a thriller. Interesting characters, exciting action and a twisty plot is usually enough to both qualify a book as a thriller and weave a great tale.

        Other thrillers, though, won’t hold together without a central theme. My debut novel, I think, is a good example of this. DEADLY LULLABY is about mob hitman Babe Crucci who is released from San Quentin after serving a long hitch and yearns to reunite with his estranged son Leo, an edgy LA police detective. There are a lot of things going on in DEADLY LULLABY—mob politics, violence, a bank heist, a murder mystery, romance and pure lust—but at its core the book is a father/son story. Every scene in the book addresses this father/son relationship theme from different angles, the key questions being whether Babe will achieve his goal of reuniting with Leo and whether their blood is really thicker than water. Without the father/son angle, the book wouldn’t exist.

        Having a central theme is also helpful from a practical standpoint in that it kept me on task as I wrote the book. When I got stuck, I asked what type of scene would address Babe and Leo’s relationship, and pondering the question narrowed the field of possibilities to a manageable number.

  7. Most readers gravitate to thriller writing, it is the most popular genre and one of the most difficult to get right. The best thriller books make the most of 5 aspects of the thriller market.

    Characters: Thrillers need complex characters. Good guys with flaws and bad guys with vulnerabilities. Well rounded characters are remembered long after our readers set the book down and pick up another.

    High stakes confrontation: A thriller conflict is a matter of life and death for one character or all of mankind. The more high stakes the better. The battle in a thriller is epic, not mundane.

    Twists and Turns: Readers love a good shock in the story line. The unexpected blows their mind and makes it impossible for them to put the book down. Take your readers to new places and let them experience gut wrenching plot twists. Keep things interesting and your readers will stay with you to the end.

    Give your book heart: Make your readers hearts pound with anticipation or worry. Take them to the edge and then pull back into safe territory. Don’t let them get bored! Words are powerful and writers have them all at their disposal.

    Tell a great story: Make your book about something important and your readers will find themselves thinking about the plot for days and even weeks after finishing your book. Take them away from their ordinary, mundane worries and give them something important to scare them and they will thank you by staying up all night to finish your book.

    Thrillers are a vacation from the ordinary and if you get it right your readers will make it into a best seller. Get the story right and no one will notice that your writing isn’t perfect. Get the thriller part down and then you can work on the ‘high concept’ part of the equation.

    If any of you have read THE THRONE OF DAVID, I would love your feedback on how well my book rated on all these points, I am learning by reading the greats and patterning my writing after what I find effective.

    Encourage the whole genre by picking up and reading a thriller today!

  8. Like many of us, I’ve pondered this question, especially when looking at great works through the ages that could be tucked into many different genres and which, before the exigencies of market demanded categorization, were simply seen as “literature,” incorporating thrills, mystery, romance, Yiddish curses . . .

    In the end, I defaulted to Lewis Carroll’s brilliant summation of matters arbitrary:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

  9. For my stories, there has to be several plot twists to surprise the reader and, yes, there have to be global threats. Without a large mass threat by the villain, the heroes’ journey just doesn’t have as much thrill. Finally, over-the-top characters are a welcome addition, because they often add humor and color as a counterbalance to the story’s suspense. Or not.

  10. Some great points raised here. It’s always fascinating to hear what other writers think on the subject of writing. I guess this is the closest we get to sitting in the bar after work and chatting about our day!

    Speaking of bars, I was walking home from one last night thinking about this subject (such is my boring life!) and it struck me, a good thriller needs quiet moments.

    We hear that phrase “roller-coaster ride” often, but I find that lots of writers forget to take a breath at the bottom of the ride. I often enjoy reading about (and I love writing about) the occasional quiet moments, the “behind the curtain” moments when I protagonist makes a coffee, listens to a record or maybe strokes a cat. For me it makes them real when they do recognisably human things that we all do in our day to day lives. I find writers like Michael Connelly and Robert Crais capture this minutia of life so well, and it fleshes out their characters beautifully.

    1. Have not read Robert Crais (must put on my to-read list) and totally agree on Michael Connelly, one of my favorite writers.

      Very good point about the bottom of the roller coaster ride. As writers, we need to remember that to our characters, this isn’t a story: it’s their life, day to day minutia and all.

    2. Couldn’t agree more. In an exciting thriller, I love those scenes that give you a chance to know a character better, to get inside his or her persona. It’s especially fun to flesh out a villain this way, show their human side. Another thing that I like, as a reader especially, is turning the page in a novel stuffed with dialog and seeing several unbroken paragraphs of prose — not exposition, but a character’s thoughts and observations. It’s all part of what you said — a novel, even a thriller, needs to take a breath now and then.

  11. Tony, I agree with those moments of reflection a character must have to make him/her more three dimensional-those down times. I love James Bond but we always know he will win and he has one side-tough and deadly. It’s more interesting to me and I think readers, too, when there is a chance the character may not win due his/her inner demos, history, etc.

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