Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Genre Jungle redux

The conventional wisdom states that you should read widely in your genre or you won't know the conventions and won't be able to hit the mark for the market.  But Genre is a tricky thing and 'Thriller' is less well defined than most.  I like to read thrillers -- or at least what I consider to be thrillers -- and yet I spend precious little time reading the clock-tickers and time-racers that get 'Thriller" stamped on the spine by New York.  Rarely does my "heart race like a meat hammer pounding against a blood anvil*." 

Someone once told me that the difference between suspense and thriller is that in the suspense novel, consequences are personal and in the thriller, the consequences are global.  I disagree.  For a political or military thriller ala Tom Clancy, perhaps that's true, but I think that puts too much emphasis on plot and for my money, it's about engaging in thrilling storytelling.  For heaven's sake, tell me a story.  Give it an air of menace, convince me that there are consequences for the protagonists should they fail, consequences that make me own their peril and take it into myself.  The world doesn't have to be jeopardy; making me worry about the characters is quite enough.  Impending nuclear Armageddon is just icing on the cake if I care about the characters making it through the next scene.

I mentioned Joseph Finder yesterday.  In his address to the PNWA last year, he defined dramatic tension in a thriller as "Characters in peril".  Not necessarily "The World in Peril", the characters.  I have to give a crap about the characters and their arc or I won't care that the world is going to hell behind them.

The recent NPR poll of audience favorites from the thriller genre showed me very few books that New York would plop into that genre. When was the last time you heard Stephen King referred to as a thriller writer? He was the most nominated writerof the bunch, above Lee Child, Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton.  How surprised are you to find Truman Capote? Conan Doyle? Bram Stoker?

For the most part, the takeaway from this is that no one knows what a thriller is except the person reading it.  But I can tell you that it has everything to do with writing and style and little to do with the stamp on the cover.  And I stand relieved to see how little the audience seems to care what section of the store their 'thrillers' are sold in -- they're looking for a good story that thrills them.  And quite frankly, everything else is marketing.


* Yes, that's an actual line from a "Thriller" handed to me by an excited publisher's rep long ago with the assurance that it would be "The Next Big Thing".  It was less than thrilling and sold less than well.


  1. tell me about it. I'm doing my thesis on what constitutes the thriller genre on film, which is proving annoyingly difficult. but part of my conclusion is, as you say, that the viewer needs to care enough about the characters to find what happens to them suspenseful.

    Maybe the ”what the hell is a thriller anyway” from your tweet should be the title of my thesis. or would that be passive aggressive?

  2. Or it could just be refreshingly honest. The deeper I dig into this, the less I'm convinced that there is a definition. I guess it's in the eye of the beholder like beauty, pornography and when the guy coming at you after dark has headlights that are too bright.

  3. I suppose the definition of a thriller would be the sum of all the ways the genre is written, consumed and sold, so a thriller lies somewhere between the way a book shop, a critic, a reader and a writer would use it.

    But for some reason I find genre definitions far more useful in reference to film than to books. I prefer my books defined by broader categories that allow a book to be several things at the same time. I wish my local bookshop would agree.


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