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Thriller Genre Definitions

Thrillers are a wildly popular type of story, due to their enthralling and exciting nature. They can make you think and keep you on the edge of your seat without utterly horrifying you. Many people cannot handle horror, and a thriller is a great way to take a step down from that without losing the intrigue and adrenaline.

As the popularity of the thriller has grown, with it has come the creation of many subgenres. As a writer, it is important to remember the definition of a thriller, in addition to the meaning of its subgenres. While it is also essential to be creative and think outside the box, genres have their definitions and guidelines for a reason – they work.

A thriller is fast-paced and exciting, always trying to create feelings of suspense, excitement, anticipation, surprise, and anxiety. The dictionary definition of a thriller is this: “a work of fiction or drama designed to hold the interest by the use of a high degree of intrigue, adventure, or suspense.”

A thriller often focuses on the emotions and inner workings of the protagonist, and they will usually have some sort of weakness that must be overcome for them to be successful. Regardless of the type of thriller, this will help create conflict and drive the plot. There will also typically be an underlying theme of good vs. evil. While some elements and characteristics will be present in all thrillers, each sub genre also has its own unique set of each.

Action Thriller

Simply put, an action thriller will be full of just that – action! It will be fast-paced and aimed to entertain. It will keep you engaged, excited, and always on edge. Plot lines will be big and dramatic with a lot of twists. Action thrillers tend to share a typical theme, and that is the idea of heroes and villains. They will usually include guns or other weapons, as well as some level of gore, blood, and/or violence.

Some well-known examples of action thrillers are Inception and The Bourne Identity. Both movies are very fast-paced and check everything off the action list: heroes, villains, weapons, and violence.

Crime Thriller

A crime thriller is a story that includes all aspects that make something a “thriller,” but the plot will focus heavily on a crime that has been committed. The protagonist will be directly affected by said crime in some way, and they are typically the one fighting for justice and working to stop the criminal. They can be anything from a cop or special agent, to a superhero. The crimes that are used in these stories are usually dramatic and very serious. They will include things like murder, drugs, identify theft, and large-scale robbery.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, written by Stieg Larson, is an excellent example of a crime thriller that is now both a novel and a movie. It focuses on a 40-year-old murder that is yet unsolved. Family members are suspected, and things get complicated.

Psychological Thriller

These stories will often focus on characters with profound and severe psychological disorders. Psychopaths and split personalities are quite common. These characters will easily create conflict as they attempt to traverse the complicated and often tortured relationships they have with those around them.

While exploring psychological disorders can be a great way to craft an excellent thriller, the protagonist does not have to have an actual disorder to be the focal point of a psychological thriller. They can also be a “regular” person who has suffered some type of emotional trauma or is otherwise unstable or delusional as a result of their circumstances. A psychological thriller will use these mental and emotional elements to create suspense and mystery, rather than the guns and chase scenes utilized by an action thriller. They tend to be less exciting and more disturbing. Some consistent themes throughout psychological thrillers include death, existence/purpose, perception, identity, and reality.

Split and Shutter Island are both excellent examples of a psychological thriller. Split explores the life of a man who is battling not two, not even three, but 23 different personalities.

Legal Thriller

A legal thriller, as the name suggests, will typically focus on a legal situation of some sort. The protagonist is generally a lawyer of some description who is fighting to prove the innocence of their client. In a thriller set, the client is usually being framed by an enemy or a criminal organization, or they are otherwise falling victim to a corrupted justice system. This is where a lot of the exciting and dramatic conflict will stem from that will create the suspense and intensity that is required for it to be considered a thriller.

Considered by many to be one of the best legal thrillers in existence, Presumed Innocent is a novel by Scott Turow that follows a lawyer who has been assigned a murder case. The story is rich with secrets, hidden affairs, missing evidence, and much more. It was also adapted into a movie in 1990.


Writers often take many liberties when creating their stories, and that is totally fine! Rules were made to be broken, especially when it comes to fiction. However, keeping the definition of a thriller in mind when creating one is always a good idea. A thriller is not a thriller without the excitement, the intrigue, and the plot twists. You can be as crazy and as different as you want, while still maintaining the key elements that will make your thriller as thrilling as possible.

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