This article, written by Elaine Isaak, is from the January 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Thrillers are the third-ranked fiction genre, according to Bookscan. On the Kindle side, K-lytics ranks “Mystery/Thriller/Suspense” third as well, with thrillers leading the category. As of August 2021, analytics firm The NPD Group, which owns Bookscan, said, “The evergreen staple of summer reading, thrillers make up nearly one in eight adult fiction books sold.”
That said, the market overall showed a downward trend during the pandemic. Explanations range from people not needing more tension in their lives to the placement of many recent thrillers, especially those written by or for women, in other categories.
Snapshot of bestsellers
On Sept. 30, 2022, the top 100 bestsellers on the Amazon Thriller list included works by 73 authors or co-writing teams. Eighteen authors had multiple titles on the list, with domestic thriller author Freida McFadden leading the pack at 12 titles (all at $3.99, representing nearly all of her total output of 15 books).
Thirty-three of the titles are branded as series volumes, and 68 are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. Prices ranged from $0.99 to $15.99, with an average price of $6.41 and a median of $4.99. Interestingly, five of the books are priced at $1.99—a price once considered untenable—including titles by James Patterson and Tess Geritsen. Eighteen of the titles are listed over $10. With so many thriller titles in KU, most readers are likely not paying full price, but most of the books at the high end are not enrolled in KU.
Some trends definitely jump out, and I would highly recommend anyone considering the indie thriller market do a similar analysis in their subgenre. For instance, 32 of the books used descriptive subtitles (not just “Book X in the Jane Doe series”), including some top names like James Patterson and Jeffrey Archer, who included subtitles referencing their bestseller status. Other subtitles rely on adjectives and superlatives, like “utterly addictive and unputdownable.” For those interested in targeting the Domestic Thriller subgenre, one font is used on almost all of the book covers (similar to Monocle Bold). These titles also included family-oriented words (wife, child, family, husband, sister).
Domestic and psychological thrillers have been trending upward since the release of popular titles like Gone Girl. Political thrillers are also a hot area. Authors I spoke with and my analysis pointed to an expansion in the market, especially more women as both writers and protagonists.
What makes a thriller?
The principal hallmark of a thriller is the pace. As New York Times bestseller Brendan DuBois, who writes political thrillers with James Patterson, says, “Usually the first chapter sets the pace, and then it goes quickly from there. In thrillers, there’s not much in the way of retrospection and long chunks of dialogue. Good thrillers tend to be action-packed, with cliffhangers at the end of most chapters.”
Military/techno thriller author M. L. Buchman agreed. “Pacing, extreme stakes, and often exotic settings, but mostly pacing.”
Cindy Dees, who writes spy thrillers, said, “The promise of the genre is usually to save the world, or at least save your part of the world.” Dharma Kelleher, who writes crime thrillers, had a slightly different take: “A focus on justice, the escalating action, and the burning question of how (or if) the protagonist will stop the villain.”
Many thrillers set up several different narrators, often using the perspective of the antagonist to create additional tension for the reader. Mystery novels focus on “Who done it?” Thrillers may spotlight the villain from the start, and the tension revolves around when and how they’ll be stopped. This structure places the protagonist on a collision course with the antagonist, often with a deadline for taking action before the next catastrophe.
Because of the emphasis on pace, thrillers have a reputation for neglecting character development in favor of pure action. Buchman observed, “To readers coming to thriller from romance or even mystery, I think they’d be shocked at how little characterization is commonly accepted in most thrillers.”
However, other authors are seeing a change in this area, with Dees noting, “Nowadays, I find thrillers are more willing to explore the human side of all that action. I think outsiders might be surprised by the depth of character development you can find in a thriller. Because of that, I find there to be more political and social commentary in them these days.”
In my own reviews, I was surprised to find that some readers strenuously objected to the use of cursing (by my ex-military protagonists, for whom it seems perfectly natural). Other thriller authors had a similar experience. An informal survey in an online readers’ group suggests that many readers prefer not to have sexual content as well, and I’m starting to see the designation “Clean Thriller” used in reviews and promotions.
Resources for writing
Several authors emphasized doing your research—and that the readership will let you know if you’re getting it wrong, especially in the area of firearms. The Writers’ Police Academy (no 2023 dates announced) is one way to learn the ins and outs of law enforcement and get some hands-on experience. You may also find that your local police department offers a Citizens’ Police Academy.
Firsthand memoirs and blogs from retired military personnel, law enforcement and those in other exciting careers can be great sources of inspiration and the details of lived experience. DuBois recommends reading the genre like “a forensic scientist, trying to see how and why things work together.”
To structure her ideas, Dees uses Plottr to organize virtual note cards, laying out the different plotlines, and keeping track of the timeline to keep the thrills coming. I find that the outlining tools in Scrivener provide a similar function. Thriller authors James Scott Bell and Steven James have each authored several how-to books with exercises that might help you make the genre shift.
If you’re not used to thinking of pace as the guiding principle, it can take some adjustment. One thriller author introduces a plot turn every three pages to keep the pace moving. In a workshop years ago, Dan Brown introduced specific types of plot turns including the time bomb, time trap (a choice must be made, and something will be lost), dilemma, crucible (character can’t flee the conflict), reversal, revelation, and confrontation. Varying what type of plot turns you employ is another way to manage pace.
It is possible for a narrative to be too fast-paced, however, especially if the plot relies on the same kind of plot turns. Relentless action can grow monotonous if it’s not having an impact on the characters, escalating the conflict or exploring new areas of the premise. Think of some recent action films where the scenes pile up but don’t appear to create a cumulative effect. As Dees framed the thriller’s focus on plot: Insert chase scene A followed by threat B followed by bomb C.
Thrillers have a different balance for scene versus sequel, to employ Dwight V. Swain’s useful distinction. If you think of a scene as a unit of action, moving the plot forward, then a sequel is the character’s response to that action. Sequel typically includes reflection, dilemma and decision, and a time to absorb what’s happened and consider what happens next. For thrillers, sequels are short and may occur while the characters are speeding toward their next adventure. There’s little inner monologue.
Another place to research those exotic settings is the CIA’s world factbook. Finding newspaper archives online can set you up with local information, even historical information if your plot calls for it—one Clive Cussler novel incorporated not only the facts of an early 20th century mining accident but also the advertising around the article.
Some recommended resources on the professional side include the International Thriller Writers (ITW) who offer a number of promotional and educational opportunities, including ThrillerFest, (May 30–June 3, 2023, New York City). When I took ITW’s online Thriller School I found it to be aimed at the beginning writer, but that may have changed. Their survey of the thriller readership is immensely valuable.
Sisters in Crime (which does admit male members) is a nationwide organization offering support and promotional opportunities. Local chapters offer good value for the professional seeking to expand their audience. Aside from ThrillerFest, major events with a thriller component include Killer Nashville (Aug. 18–21, 2023) and Bouchercon (Aug. 30–Sept. 3, 2023, San Diego).
Marketing your thriller
Asked about effective marketing tactics, most authors I interviewed pointed to Facebook, whether for advertising or just for engaging with readers through frequent posting. Facebook’s ad platform allows for ready targeting of the older middle-aged women who are the most voracious readers of fiction—including thrillers.
DuBois, a prolific short fiction writer, frequently appears in the pages of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and in specialty anthologies.
While thriller readers seem drawn to ebooks and print in about the same ratio as for other genres, Buchman has found that audiobooks are especially popular with this readership.
What makes it awesome?
Kelleher takes joy in the research required to craft a great thriller plot. “We all wonder if Homeland Security has us on a list due to our online search history. I’ve researched everything from the kill radius of C-4 to the process for manufacturing heroin to black-market organ harvesting. Also, we get to kill fictional people on the page.”
Dees agreed on the delight of killing fictional (or fictionalized) people. At the same time, “They can be time-consuming to plot. Sometimes I can get stuck for weeks on a single question of how or why something is going to happen.”
Buchman said thrillers can also be exhausting to write. “I find other genres to be a relief to duck back into now and then. A good thriller for me is complex, intricate, and fast-moving. Sustaining that as a writer takes immense concentration and energy.”
When Dees made the transition to thrillers (from romantic suspense), she found, “They’ll tend to be long, dense-packed with plot points and action, and take more time to research, plot, and revise than you’d think. I consistently under-planned my writing time when I started working on thrillers.”