The 10 Things Every Thriller Novel Needs
Thrillers are popular fiction for a reason. They combine the criminality and suspense of a good detective novel with the danger and pressure of a scary horror story. And while there’s no fool-proof way of writing a successful thriller, there are ways to ensure that your story is ticking all the right boxes.
So, in today’s post, I’m going to go over the ten genre conventions that must be present in your thriller novel in order to satisfy those readers and to write a story that works. I’m also going to show you how these conventions manifest in three popular movies—Silence of the Lambs, Misery, and Gone Girl. But before we get into the conventions of the thriller genre, let’s go over some basics.
What makes a thriller?
People often get thrillers confused with mystery novels because they are shelved together in bookstores. But there are quite a few differences between the two genres that you need to understand if you want to write a thriller that works.
In a mystery novel, the protagonist has to figure out who committed a crime that’s already happened. The detective or sleuth drives the story forward as he or she tries to figure out the criminal’s identity.
A thriller centers around a crime that’s about to happen… unless the protagonist can stop it, of course. In a thriller, the reader often knows who the villain is from the beginning, sometimes watching over the villain’s shoulders as he or she prepares to carry out the crime. Unlike mysteries, thrillers are driven forward by the antagonist.
Beyond that, thrillers can have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have various levels of danger or violence. They can include different subplots as long as the quest to outsmart and stop the villain remains the main focus of the novel.
Why do people read thrillers?
Thrillers are fast-paced novels full of conflict, tension, suspense, unexpected twists, and high stakes. People choose thrillers because they want to experience the thrill of trying to outsmart and stop the villain before he or she commits a crime–all from the comfort of home.
And like all genre fiction, you have to deliver the obligatory scenes and conventions readers are expecting in order to give them the emotional experience they’re hoping for.
What are Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
Conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of roles, settings, events, and values that are specific to a genre. They are things that readers intuitively expect to be present in a work of genre fiction whether they consciously realize it or not.
Obligatory scenes are the key events, decisions, and discoveries that move the protagonist along on his or her journey. These key scenes are what will evoke emotional reactions in the reader—and when coupled with your genre’s conventions—will give the reader the experience they’re looking for.
In other words, if you don’t deliver the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre, your story just won’t work. So, what are the conventions of a thriller? Let’s take a look (warning: spoilers ahead).
What are the conventions of a thriller?
#1. A Crime
There needs to be a crime indicative of a master villain. Sometimes the villain has already committed other crimes before we enter the story on page one–for example if they are a serial killer. In most cases, the protagonist is feeling the threat of a crime that the villain is planning on committing.
- In Silence of the Lambs, Catherine Martin has gone missing and the FBI thinks she might have been kidnapped by a serial killer they’re calling Buffalo Bill.
- In Misery, Annie Wilkes kidnaps famous author, Paul Sheldon, and holds him hostage in her house. Her crime isn’t fully realized until Paul’s publisher calls the local police near Annie’s home.
- In Gone Girl, Nick comes home from the bar to find that his wife, Amy, has gone missing.
#2. A Victim or Victims
In a thriller, there needs to be at least one victim. This could include dead bodies, hostages, or missing persons.
- In Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill is holding Catherine Martin hostage in a pit in his basement. He’s a serial killer, so there were other victims before Catherine Martin–and there will be more victims if he’s not stopped.
- In Misery, Paul Sheldon is being held captive by Annie Wilkes. He’s the main victim of this story, although it becomes clear this isn’t Annie’s first time harming others. Near the end, Annie kills the local Sheriff, too.
- In Gone Girl, it first appears that Amy is the victim because she’s missing. Halfway through the story, we learn that Amy’s alive and that she’s trying to frame her husband, Nick, for her murder. At that point, Nick becomes the victim. Amy’s ex-boyfriends are also victims.
#3. A Master Antagonist
The antagonist in a thriller can’t be reasoned with. They might be intent on annihilation, devastation, or power at the expense of others. They are clever and incredibly powerful. Sometimes they manifest as a master criminal, a serial murderer, or a manipulating villain, etc. They are usually human, not a beast or monster.
- In Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill is the “master” antagonist. He is obsessed with making his “woman suit” and cannot be reasoned with. He won’t stop killing until his project is complete.
- In Misery, Annie Wilkes is delusional and obsessed with the fictional characters from Paul Sheldon’s novels. She can’t handle that Paul “killed off” Misery Chastain and forces him re-write Misery’s fate in a new draft.
- In Gone Girl, Amy is one step ahead of Nick and the police the whole time. She’s had plenty of time to make her master plan and plant all the clues to incriminate Nick. The whole town and the nation believe Nick killed her since most women go missing do so because of their husbands. Near the end of the story, Nick gets a glimpse into her manipulative past when he interviews Amy’s ex-boyfriends.
#4. Clues and Red Herrings
Throughout the story, the protagonist follows a trail of clues in order to find and/or trap the master antagonist. Some of these clues are “true,” meaning they lead the protagonist closer to the truth, but most are dead ends or red herrings that temporarily misdirect the protagonist and the reader.
- In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice follows a trail of clues (most given to her by Hannibal Lector) to uncover Buffalo Bill’s true identity and whereabouts.
- In Misery, Paul finds clues in Annie’s house that help him understand her true nature. The local Sheriff follows a trail of clues that leads him to Annie’s house where Paul is being held captive.
- In Gone Girl, Amy left Nick a “scavenger hunt” full of clues to not only frame him but to help him realize he’s being framed.
#5. A Speech in Praise of the Villain
A moment where one or more characters talks about the brilliance of the antagonist. This could be shown in a conversation, through letters, through a newspaper article, on TV, etc. Sometimes it happens in the form of a revelation where the character pieces together information in their mind and realizes they have a master villain on their hands.
- In Silence of the Lambs, this “speech” is delivered by Jack Crawford and Clarice as they’re riding together in the car. Jack Crawford says, “Three days, then he shoots them, skins them, and dumps them. Each body in a different river. The water leaves us no trace evidence of any kind. That’s Frederica Bimmel, the first one. Her body was the only one he took the trouble to weight down, so actually, she was the third girl found. After her, he got lazy.” He then asks Clarice what she thinks, and she says, “Well, he’s a white male. He’s not a drifter. He’s got his own house somewhere, not an apartment. What he does with them takes privacy. He’s in his 30’s or 40’s. He’s got real physical strength combined with an older man’s self-control. He ’s cautious, precise. And he’s never impulsive. He’ll never stop. He’s got a real taste for it now. He’s getting better at his work.”
- In Misery, Paul Sheldon finds a photo album that has newspaper clippings detailing all of Annie’s murders and how she was fired from her nursing job. These clippings, plus Annie’s behavior, show Paul who he’s really up against.
- In Gone Girl, Amy’s recounts how she set Nick up. She tells the audience how she used her broken toilet to get Noelle’s urine to use for a pregnancy test, bled out to splatter her blood in the kitchen, got Nick to sign insurance papers, created a diary, burned her diary in the furnace, hid the items in Go’s shed, staged the break-in, etc.
#6. A MacGuffin
A MacGuffin is the antagonist’s object of desire–what he or she is trying to get, accomplish, or achieve over the course of the story. Usually, the crime at the beginning of the story contains some clue about the antagonist’s MacGuffin.
- In Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill wants to create a “woman suit” out of human flesh–that’s his MacGuffin. Clarice puts this together when she’s in Belvedere, Ohio visiting his first victim’s house and hometown.
- In Misery, Annie wants Paul Sheldon and Misery Chastain to be a part of her reality. She captures Paul but quickly learns he’s killed off Misery in his latest novel. Her new goal is to get Paul to re-write Misery’s fate and essentially bring her back to “life.”
- In Gone Girl, Amy wants to frame her husband for murder because she knows he’s been having an affair.
#7. A Shapeshifter
A shapeshifter is a character who says one thing and does another, directly impacting the protagonist’s mission to stop the antagonist.
- In Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill literally wants to change his shape and become a woman. Dr. Chilton pretends to be a “helper” but really has his own agenda.
- In Misery, Annie swings back and forth from Paul’s sweet “number 1 fan” to an unpredictable, violent, psychopath.
- In Gone Girl, Amy starts off as the victim and shifts into the villain role halfway through the story.
#8. A Ticking Clock
Or some kind of deadline by which the protagonist has to figure out who the antagonist is, and stop him or her from doing more harm.
- In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice knows that Buffalo Bill typically kills his victims within three days. So, if they don’t find Catherine Martin before the three days is up, she will die.
- In Misery, Annie tells Paul that she’s planning on killing them both after he finishes writing the book.
- In Gone Girl, Nick is a suspect and must figure out what Amy’s up to before the police can arrest him.
#9. Lives at Stake
In a thriller, there must be more than one life at stake. And eventually, the protagonist’s life will be at stake when he or she gets closer to confronting or stopping the villain.
- In Silence of the Lambs, Catherine Martin’s is going to die within three days if the FBI doesn’t find Buffalo Bill. Near the end, Clarice’s life is at stake when she’s in Buffalo Bill’s basement.
- In Misery, Paul Sheldon’s life is at stake. Annie admits that her plan is to kill them both once the book is finished.
- In Gone Girl, Nick’s life is at stake, whether that means he “loses” his life by going to jail or because Amy actually kills him.
#10. A False Ending
In the end, when everything seems to be over and done, the antagonist rebounds to challenge the protagonist one final time.
- In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice calls Jack Crawford to tell him about her lead in Ohio. He tells her they’ve already found Buffalo Bill and are about to close in on him. This is the false ending because when the FBI knocks down the door, they realize the house is empty. Meanwhile, Clarice shows up at Jame Gumb’s house and pretty quickly realizes he’s Buffalo Bill.
- In Misery, it appears Paul has killed Annie, but she comes back to life to challenge him one last time.
- In Gone Girl, Nick plans to tell the truth about Amy, but then she tells him she’s pregnant and he decides to stay with her.
So, there you have it–the 10 things every thriller novel must have in order to satisfy fans of the genre!
You might think that including these things in your thriller novel sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many drafts I see that are missing more than half of them. If you want your thriller to “work,” and to satisfy fans of the genre, make sure to deliver each of the conventions listed above.
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Do you have these conventions in your thriller novel? If not, how can you add in what’s missing? Can you identify these conventions in your favorite thriller books or movies?
Want writing and editing tips delivered straight to your inbox each week? 📧
If you liked the tips in this article, you can get plenty more of them by signing up for my mailing list. Once you sign up, you'll get a new writing or editing tip delivered straight to your inbox each week. You'll also be the first to know about new blog posts, courses, free resources, and more. Unsubscribe at any time!