What makes a really good thriller?

The thriller genre is one of the best-selling genres of books out there. It is, without a doubt, a genre of book that gets most people talking and has become a space where many authors find a lot of success.

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There are some of the massive hitters in the genre such as Lisa Jewell, Lee Child, James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Anthony Horowitz, David Baldacci, John Grisham etc (apologies if I’ve missed out any big names you can think of). These are the authors who you can guarantee when their latest book comes out it’ll shoot to the top of the best-sellers list because people have come to know what to expect from them and know they’ll deliver almost every single time.

Sometimes thriller books can be thrown into other genres, such as ‘Crime’, ‘Suspense’ or ‘Mystery’ and that’s fine. These are often sub-genres of the thriller genre to help publishers define to their audiences what they should expect from the novel, hoping this will make them sell better.

Writing a great thriller isn’t easy in this day and age. Almost every version of events has been written at this point and so thriller writers are either relying on their fan base, their unique writing style or something completely different to get their book to the top of the sales charts.

I’ve read and reviewed quite a few thrillers and so have a growing expectation when I read any new ones as I’m becoming easier and easier to bore as I get a feeling that I’ve read something like it before.

Therefore, I thought I’d write an article that highlights the absolute must for me when it comes to keeping me interested in a thriller. Yes, you get your easy thrillers where almost the whole book is predictable, but now and then a thriller will come along that genuinely impresses me so I wanted to highlight some of these techniques I picked up on.

Unique writing style

One of the techniques that will grab me almost instantly in a thriller is presenting the story in a slightly different way.

A couple of examples of this is the latest trend to have a thriller where we’re reading it from different timelines. This is often written so we’re reading current day events but often going back to the ‘time of the big event’ whether it be a crime or the incident the book revolves around. These two timelines then align at the end for the big reveal. This is a method Lisa Jewell loves to use among other authors.

Another unique style is something almost unique and that’s one of my favourite authors, Janice Hallett’s technique of presenting the story via another form of media completely. Rather than writing out paragraphs of the novel, her stories are presented in the form of emails, texts, WhatsApps or transcribed conversations. This is fascinating as she can’t always present everything she wants to you as a writer because it sometimes wouldn’t be feasible for certain information to be known via these mediums. This technique also allows Hallett to introduce a lot more personality into a character as they can throw in the use of emojis and write more colloquially into their chats.

Cliffhanger chapters

A big trend in thrillers is to give you a chapter that often ends with a big “oooh” moment that will make you want to flip the page and start reading the next chapter.

More often than not, these sorts of chapters are what influencers or bloggers will be referring to when they say a book is “gripping” or “un-put-downable”. And they’re right – even if the rest of the book isn’t the most fascinating, these chapter endings always leave you wanting to just quickly read the next paragraph is why thrillers are often so easy to just fly through. One of the best examples of these I can think of off the top of my head is T.M. Logan – his books nearly all have these suspenseful chapter finishes.

Short chapters

And then something else that makes thriller books so great to read and something I love about them is often how short their chapters are.

As a huge fantasy fan, I’m no stranger to a 30-40 page chapter where you either sit down for a long time and read it or you have to take a big break from it.

My partner loves thriller books for this exact reason: she doesn’t have a lot of time to read as she has a job that takes up long hours and then often has to have early nights so being able to squeeze in 2 or three chapters in 10-15 pages or so makes her reading feel so much more accomplished.

And then that sort of leads me to the sense of satisfaction you should feel from reading these shorter chapters on thrillers. If you’re someone who struggles to read because you often find yourself putting the book down, these shorter chaptered books make good sense as you can flip the page and often see the next chapter break coming up which motivates you to just read for five more minutes.

The twist!

Is it even a thriller if there isn’t some twist either halfway through or right at the end that you never saw coming?

Now, I’m going to start this section that by stating half of the thrillers I’ve read have been ruined by the fact that people have told me that there is a thriller. This then means I spend the whole book trying to work out what the twist is going to be, being suspicious of every character and often then being disappointed when it’s not this mind-blowing moment.

However, there have been some books where I was genuinely shocked by the twist with two specifically blowing my mind.

*Minor spoiler warnings for two books*

The first was The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. The twist is one of the absolute best things about the book, along with the fact that you don’t ever see it coming and even when it happens, you’re flipping back and forth through the pages still in shock that it all actually makes sense.

The other book is Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson which I think is probably one of the more famous books for having a twist in it. The whole story is surrounded in confusion and then at the end, it flips everything on its head with just a couple of lines that make you wish “oh no they didn’t” was still a modern saying.

But yeah, a great twist is an absolute must in a book like this. And I don’t have time for those thrillers where you feel the twist was thrown in at the end to make it all seem a little more interesting. Or a twist is thrown it that when you begin to think about it, doesn’t actually make any sense and leaves loads of plot holes.

I think an author needs to know what “the twist” is before they even start writing the book and then write around it so it all adds up and makes sense.

So that’s what makes a good thriller

So that’s what, in my opinion anyway, makes a good thriller.

Thrillers, as I said at the start, are best-seller lists’ ideal book – they grab people in whilst reading them and they give that perfect feeling of suspense and mystery that makes people recommend them to others both tangibly and online.

What for you makes a thriller? And what for you are you getting sick of seeing in thrillers? As I said at the start, it takes a lot to impress me with a thriller these days as it’s like films where you can go “Oh he’s definitely the killer”. Books, despite being able to execute much deeper and more intelligent stories are becoming a medium I feel I can guess a little easier now.

Let me know down below if this article was helpful to you. I imagine it will be more useful to authors than actual readers, but if you’re either, let me know via my social media handles.

2 thoughts on “What makes a really good thriller?

  • Sarah Collins

    I’m the same, I read a lot so bore easily. I also expect thrillers to work a lot harder than other genres. What makes a thriller stand out for me is the twist, I don’t want to have guessed it but I also don’t want to be that out there that it’s absolutely ridiculous 🤷🏻‍♀️ very much enjoyed this article

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