Definition of Thriller

A thriller is a genre that heightens feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation, and anxiety of the reader or viewer. Generally, it is a story, novel, or movie that has an exciting plot, interesting characters, and a mysterious setting. It is often used as a noun for novels.

Etymologically, a thriller has been in use in Old English after being derived from thrill which has been derived from pyrlian that means to pierce. With the passage of time, it has evolved into a thriller. In literature, it is a genre in fiction with mysterious and exciting incidents and characters to provide readers with suspense, thrill, and surprise. Most of the elements involved in these feelings are excitement, anticipation, prediction, anxiety, and a heightened sense of thrill.

Elements of a Thriller

Some of the elements are now considered necessary for a thriller.

  1. Climax
  2. Red Herrings
  3. Cliffhangers
  4. Unreliable narrators
  5. Plot twists
  6. Villain driving plots
  7. Obsessions
  8. Mind games
  9. Robots, aliens, scientists and strange experiments
  10. False accusations, spies, espionage, discoveries

Common Characters in Thrillers

Most of the common characters in thrillers as given below;

  • Assassins
  • Stalkers, criminals, killers, victims, chased women
  • Sociopaths, agents, terrorists, cops
  • Sleepwalkers, spree killers, and psycho-friends

Examples of Thriller in Literature

Example #1

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as sodawater that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.’ It made me bite my lips to think of the plans I had been building up those last years in Bulawayo. I had got my pile not one of the big ones, but good enough for me; and I had figured out all kinds of ways of enjoying myself. My father had brought me out from Scotland at the age of six, and I had never been home since; so England was a sort of Arabian Nights to me, and I counted on stopping there for the rest of my days.

Told by Dr. Richard Hannay, this story presents a mystery or a thriller. This passage occurs in the beginning when Richard Hannay is going to the Old Country in London and is asking himself many questions to reassure himself that he should take up the courage to move ahead. He also explains his background in Scotland. This shows how John Buchan has presented Hannay to thrill his readers.

Example #2

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas

‘You have the brains of an oyster, my friend,’ said Caderousse. ‘And Danglars here, who is a sharp one, crafty as a Greek, will prove you wrong. Do it, Danglars. I’ve stuck up for you. Tell him that Dantès doesn’t have to die. In any case, it would be a pity if he died. He’s a good lad, Dantès. I like him. Your health, Dantès.’
Fernand rose impatiently to his feet. ‘Let him babble,’ Danglars said, putting a hand on the young man’s arm. ‘And, for that matter, drunk as he is, he is not so far wrong. Absence separates as effectively as death; so just suppose that there were the walls of a prison between Edmond and Mercédès: that would separate them no more nor less than a

This passage occurs in The Count of Monte Cristo written by Alexander Dumas. Told by Caderousse, this passage shows Danglers and mentions Dantes that he is going to die but Caderousse does not want it happen. The entire passage creates an atmosphere of suspense and horror which thrills the readers. Almost all the elements of a thriller are present in this passage. That is why this novel is called a thriller.

 Example #3

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre

One of the policemen left the hut and walked to the sandbag emplacement two feet short of the white demarkation which lay across the road like the base line of a tennis court. The other waited until his companion was crouched behind the telescope in the emplacement, then put down his binoculars, took his black helmet from the peg by the door and carefully adjusted it on his head. Somewhere high above the checkpoint the arc lights sprang to life, casting theatrical beams onto the road in front of them. The policeman began his commentary. Leamas knew it by heart. “Car halts at the first control. Only one occupant, a woman. Escorted to the Vopo hut for document check.” They waited in silence.

This passage occurs in the story of John Le Carre about a British spy. This passage shows how he sees the policemen searching for the person. The narrative presents another one looking for somebody which means that the commentary of another policeman is about the person they are looking for. This short passage from the novel is enough to cause thrill in the readers.

Example #4

The Riddles of the Sands by Erskine Childers

The fact was that, at breakfast on the morning after the arrival of the letter, I had still found that inexplicable lightening which I mentioned before, and strong enough to warrant a revival of the pros and cons. An important pro which I had not thought of before was that after all it was a good-natured piece of unselfishness to join Davies; for he had spoken of the want of a pal, and seemed honestly to be in need of me. I almost clutched at this consideration. It was an admirable excuse, when I reached my office that day, for a resigned study of the Continental Bradshaw, and an order to Carter to unroll a great creaking wall-map of Germany and find me Flensburg. The latter labour I might have saved him, but it was good for Carter to have something to do; and his patient ignorance was amusing.

This passage occurs in the spy thriller, The Riddles of the Sands. Carruthers, after finding the letter, is examining it in detail and telling how he is going to check it. He mentions Davies, how he has come into contact with him and how he is going to Germany after looking at the map to see places that he is ordered to go. He does not mince words here as the main purpose of the author is keep the readers on tenterhooks and he has succeeded in it.

Functions of Thriller

The main functions of a thriller are to make the readers feel entertained. As they mostly arouse feelings of suspense, they make the readers enjoy the thrill, amazement, anxiety, and being on their toes when they read fast actions and unusually mysterious events.