What makes a novel a thriller? What differentiates it from mystery or suspense?
I discussed these questions and more with fellow YouTuber Alexa Donne, who’s a thriller connoisseur and author of The Ivies, a YA boarding school thriller. Her upcoming thriller Pretty Dead Queens is all about small-town murder.
We cowrote these six tips for writing better thriller novels, from designing killer endings and plot twists to exploring the darker side of humanity through complex characters and themes.
As a genre, “thrillers” are a broad category, and the definition has changed over time. In the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, the first authors to come to mind with thrillers were usually Tom Clancy and Dan Brown, along with Stieg Larsson’s runaway bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
A decade later, authors like Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins ignited a key subgenre of thrillers — domestic suspense and psychological suspense.
There are medical thrillers, legal thrillers, political thrillers, spy thrillers, Gothic thrillers, technothrillers, and a dozen other subgenres.
Mystery, suspense, and thriller are all overlapping genres, so it’s not always easy to draw a clear line between them. As the dictionary definitions state:
- Mysteries deal with “the solution of a mysterious crime,” with crime novels being a mystery subgenre.
- Suspense novels produce a feeling of “frightened anticipation.”
- Thrillers are “designed to hold the interest by the use of a high degree of intrigue, adventure, or suspense.”