My Post at The Kill Zone: Presenting Controversial Ideas in Fiction


Jodie Renner — a respected editor, and author of several great how-to books on writing — is a regular contributor to the prestigious group blog “The Kill Zone,” an online hangout for prominent mystery and thriller writers (and readers). Recently, Jodie invited me to submit a guest post.

Titled “‘Preachiness’ in Novels: How to Present Controversial Ideas in Fiction,” I challenge the conventional advice (spread by many genre gurus) that writers should avoid discussing politics, religion, or other “divisive” topics in popular fiction. And I use my own thrillers as examples of how a writer might approach the presentation of controversial ideas in popular genres. Enjoy.


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Best Book Video Trailer Ever?


I want to share with you a brand-new video “book trailer,” promoting the “Emily Stone” thriller series by my criminologist-friend and author, Jennifer Chase. Actually a mini-movie clip, it is THE most sophisticated, gripping, and exciting book trailer I’ve ever seen, bar none. Jennifer wrote the script; the acting, direction, and editing is first-rate.

Sit back and enjoy; it’ll take about 5 minutes. Comments welcome!

After you do, you might also enjoy my interview with Jennifer.

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Interview with Thriller Writer Ian Graham


Ian Graham is the third generation in his family to be born on the Fourth of July. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that he writes thrillers rooted in the historic intersections of politics and religion. And perhaps that also explains why his thrilling tales dramatize themes of patriotism, revolution, the struggle for liberty, and the clashing loyalties of violent partisans.

A self-employed entrepreneur in his mid-thirties, Ian has been writing since his teens. To date he has published two short-story collections—Signs of Violence and Patriots & Tyrants—and his first novel, Veil of Civility. Along with their first-rate literary qualities, what distinguishes Ian’s thrillers is their protagonist, Declan McIver: a former terrorist in the “Black Shuck” unit of the Irish Republican Army, now trying to make a new life in America. (Of course, things never stay that simple for thriller heroes.)

Ian had just published Veil of Civility in April 2013 when he was touched by one of the serendipities that occur frequently in the lives of authors. The tale was inspired by a real-life incident a decade earlier, when 25 Chechens were smuggled into the United States and disappeared, never to be found. In Ian’s telling, the 25 Chechens were terrorists smuggled here to wreak chaos. Declan McIver, hiding out in America to escape his own terrorist past in Ireland, is roused to action when the Chechens assassinate one of his friends.

Just two weeks after the book’s publication, Ian was parked by the side of the road near Roanoke, Virginia when news came over the radio that the Boston Marathon bombings were committed by two immigrants from Chechnya. “For several minutes I was speechless,” he told the Roanoke Star. “I knew it was possible . . . Still, it blows you away.”

Ian’s stories have appeared in Action Pulse Pounding Tales Volume 1  and Volume 2, alongside stories by best-selling thriller authors Matt Hilton, Stephen Leather, Adrian Magson, and Zoe Sharpe. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with his wife and two daughters, where he is at work on Rules for Revenge, the second full-length novel in the Black Shuck / Declan McIver thriller series.


Ian Graham larger b&WThe Vigilante Author: Congratulations on your books, Ian. They’re getting stellar reviews from readers. Why don’t you tell us about them.

Ian Graham: First off, thank you for having me as a guest here at The Vigilante Author. It’s an honor to talk with you and the many fans of your thriller hero, Dylan Hunter.

In addition to my two short-story collections—Signs of Violence and Patriots & Tyrants—my first novel is titled Veil of Civility. It’s the debut novel in the “Black Shuck” thriller series, which follows a former Irish Republican Army volunteer named Declan McIver who has left his former life behind and moved to America to begin again. Events in the story kick off with a small group of Chechen Islamists crossing the US / Mexican border in September 2004—which isn’t fiction, it actually happened.

Earlier that same month, Chechen Islamists had taken a school full of children hostage in North Ossetia, a sub-region of Russia. Many in the American law enforcement and intelligence communities feared the covert nature of their entry meant they were here to perpetrate the same type of attack against Americans. Fortunately, that never came to pass, but the Chechens were never found either, so we really don’t know what they were up to. Veil of Civility explores the possible explanations, in the setting of a globetrotting political thriller.

As far as the reviews are concerned, to borrow a phrase from one of my British characters, I’m chuffed to bits. To have received so many positive comments from both readers and book bloggers is a high mark I hadn’t expected to experience on my first novel.

The Vigilante Author: Wow. You’ve covered quite a bit of ground there. You have the Irish Republican Army, Chechen Islamists, American law enforcement and intelligence . . .

Ian Graham: (laughs) Yeah. It probably sounds a little ambitious for one book, but the whole thing actually came together in a very organic way. As I researched the various backgrounds and situations around the world that gave birth to groups like the IRA and other terrorist organizations, I was struck by how, in a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon kind of way, they all seemed interconnected.

Being non-professional civilian fighting forces, without the backing of legitimate governments, these organizations were always trying to stay one step ahead of the state authorities who were trying to stop them. That led them to reach out to many of history’s greatest villains—including the Nazis, the Soviets, and the early predecessors of today’s Islamic hordes, such as Yasser Arafat and Moammar Qaddafi—for funding, training, and weaponry.

So in a sense you had on one side this sort of unholy alliance between communist and fascist states and loose-knit terror organizations; and on the other side you had America, Great Britain, Israel, and their allies. The states played ball because the terror organizations had “boots on the ground” behind enemy lines, and the terror organizations desperately needed the support even though they didn’t always agree politically with their benefactors.

When you really step back and look at all the lines that can be drawn, the phrase “It’s a small world” takes on a whole new meaning.

The Vigilante Author: How would you describe or characterize your fiction, either by genre, by themes, and/or by subject matter?

Ian Graham: It’s hard to nail down one specific genre, but in a broad sense my stories can all be considered thrillers. The Black Shuck series contains elements that are popular in political fiction—John Le Carré or Frederick Forsyth; in military fiction—Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn; and in action-adventure fiction—Brad Thor or Clive Cussler. The pace speeds up and slows down throughout, and I love blending in history, both factual and speculative.

Veil of Civility coverThere are several themes in Veil of Civility that will run throughout the series: the exploration of the effect someone’s past has on their present and future; an exploration of the circumstances and attitudes in the various cultural and religious hot spots that give birth to or play an integral role in the larger picture of a world at war—which you could say we have been in since World War II; and the role of America and her allies in deterring and combating that epidemic while still providing their citizens with freedom and liberty.

Ultimately though, what I really hope people come away with is a feeling of having been entertained, first and foremost, and secondly, with a feeling of having learned something they didn’t know about the world and the people around them.

The Vigilante Author: As a thriller writer, I second those priorities. So, where did your hero, Declan McIver, come from? Real life? Totally from your imagination?

Ian Graham: The idea for Declan McIver came to me several years ago—’05 to ’06—while I was listening to a popular radio show host talk to a woman whose husband had moved to America from Eastern Europe. He had built his own business—something he was unable to do in his home country—and was now very prosperous. I didn’t have a name for Declan or any kind of a background yet, but I thought it would be really cool and unique to build a story around a man who had come to America from somewhere else; who appreciated everything born Americans tend to take for granted; and who chose to fight and defend the country, as well as himself, when confronted with a terrible problem. And that is in a nutshell what Declan does in Veil of Civility.

The Vigilante Author: What is unique about Declan that distinguishes him from other thriller heroes?

Continue reading

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Thoughts About Book Piracy


As some readers know, various online “pirate” sites electronically duplicate thousands of popular ebooks from legitimate sales sites, then make them available to readers — either free or at a nominal charge — without paying their authors for each downloaded copy.

Now, there is considerable debate among authors and publishers about whether ebook piracy is really harmful. A number of prominent indie authors argue that ebook pirates are actually beneficial: They increase the audience for an author’s work, providing him or her with readers who wouldn’t have bought the book otherwise.  Some even come close to glorifying and encouraging piracy of their works. They draw the analogy to the popular practice of running “free” ebook promotions: If free downloads are beneficial for an author, they argue, then why object to a pirate doing essentially the same thing?

Well, there is an essential difference. An author chooses if, when, and how to run a “free” promotion, and with what title; a pirate deprives the author of any of those choices about his own work, forcing him to participate in a free distribution scheme, whether he wants to or not, and whether he benefits or not.

As an author who has had both of his books pirated, I have a dog in this race. Here is what I think:

All property, including even what we tend to think of as mere “physical property,” is in reality rooted in the concept ofintellectual property. Someone had to apply a level of intelligence to transform those physical things for human benefit, or else they would have remained just worthless “stuff.”

piracyIt’s that intellectual element — the value added by somebody’s creative human intelligence — that creators expect to be paid for when they offer products of their intellectual efforts for sale in the marketplace. The moral-legal principle of property rights, including “intellectual property” (IP) rights, is intended to benefit those who take the initiative to create and market products that benefit others. Property rights recognize, protect, and reward creative causal responsibility, in the form of ownership rights. And our laws codify property ownership regarding creative works in the form of patents (for inventions) and copyrights (for literary and other intellectual works).

Now, whenever we sell something that we’ve created to a willing buyer, that relationship is trade. And trade is “win/win.” A reader benefits from what he gains from an author’s creative efforts; the author gains from the reader’s payment for the work.

By contrast, pirates are thieves — period. Instead of trading for the benefits that creators have to offer, they simply take them. Instead of “win/win” relationships, in which readers and authors mutually benefit, they impose “win/lose” relationships on authors, in which pirates and their reading clientele simply appropriate the benefits provided by authors without compensating them. They win — authors lose. That is especially of concern to authors like me, who aren’t simply seeking readers, but who are trying to make a living by publishing and selling our intellectual property.

Book piracy is analogous to counterfeiting. Pirates, by flooding the marketplace with free, “counterfeit” copies of a book, undermine the paying market for the book. And if book piracy becomes rampant, it can threaten an author’s livelihood every bit as much as rampant shoplifting threatens a store owner. The argument that “A pirated author hasn’t lost a paying customer, because that reader wouldn’t have bought your book, anyway” is akin to saying, “Don’t fret about the guy who stole the merchandise in your store, because he wouldn’t have bought it, anyway.” And while it is true that the loss of an ebook is unlike the loss of physical merchandise, since the ebook can be instantly duplicated and replaced, the loss of financial compensation is real.

All that said, what to do about piracy is a trickier question.

In principle, I believe that enforcing serious legal penalties against the hackers/sellers of pirated works can help somewhat.  But of course that becomes problematic when the pirates are located in other countries and are using the internet to distribute across borders. DRM (digital rights management protection) and similar software measures against piracy are usually counterproductive, because they impose inconveniences on paying customers while failing to stop determined hackers.

For now, as long as piracy theft remains at the margins of the book marketplace, authors and publishers probably have to resign ourselves to accepting it as an unavoidable business loss — just as store owners and their insurers have to “write off” a certain percentage of losses due to pilfering and shoplifting.

But morally condoning piracy is another matter.

If you as an author wish to give away your books, that’s fine, as long as it’s your voluntary choice. And if you don’t mind having pirates simply take your work without compensating you, that’s your choice, too.

But for those of us struggling to make a living from our work, having the products of our long, grueling hours of creative effort stolen from us without compensation is no cause for celebration. No, we don’t have to like piracy — let alone rationalize or even glorify it.

I hope readers tempted to download from a pirate site will pause to realize what will happen if your favorite writers finally give up, because piracy no longer makes it possible for them to write for a living. Ebooks aren’t expensive; in fact, they provide more value for their price tags than any other form of entertainment and information. Please remember that, and honor the authors who work so hard to provide you those values by purchasing their works only from authorized sites.

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A New Interview of Me by Lisette Brodey


Author Lisette Brodey has conducted a long, expansive interview of me on her site, “Lisette’s Writers’ Chateau.”

Lisette Brodey

Lisette Brodey

Our far-ranging conversation explores more than I’ve previously revealed to any interviewer about my writing methods, the merits of self-publishing, the challenges authors face in marketing and promotion, as well as some personal revelations.

I hope you enjoy it. You will find it here.



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One Word You Won’t Find in My Novels


Okay. Call it a symbolic, personal protest thing.

Those who know me well know that I’m anything but a prude. They also know that my private language can get salty, from time to time.

But when I read fiction, I like a respite from the gutter language and crudeness that bombard us constantly.

So, I’ve declared private war on the “F-bomb” in my thrillers.

F-Bomb imageNow, I don’t claim that my characters don’t curse at all; they do. Many are rough, hard people in rough, hard lines of work; so it would seem oddly, even distractingly, out of character if they all spoke like ministers, rather than like rough, hard people.

But by today’s “standards” (yes, the word is in quotations, for irony), my characters’ language is fairly tame. I’ve found that a little swearing goes a long way in defining a character or their moods. Incessant “eff this” and “effing that” is not characterization; it just drags the dispiriting crassness that we must endure every day in real life into fiction, where I think many people go seeking something better.

Banning the F-bomb from my novels may seem a small and silly form of protest. But it’s something. Readers who have romantic, idealistic, or just plain civilized preferences and expectations in their reading can open a Dylan Hunter novel without fear of such bombardments.

Similarly, despite the fact that there is romance and violence in my thrillers, I try to avoid the gratuitous, the graphic, and the gory. Anyone with a working knowledge of sex acts knows the physical details. I think they will find my love scenes steamy enough, but in a romantic-sexy way, without fixating on an avalanche of anatomical detail and wince-inducing metaphors for the same. The same can be said of scenes of violence. Some of mine are brutal; but again, I try to hold back a bit on the descriptive details.

It’s not just that I have a desire for tasteful restraint. I have another, more literary reason. To me, scenes of sex and violence should focus primarily on the inner experience of the characters, and not on the external specifics of what is happening to their bodies. The former focus individuates characters and makes them uniquely memorable; the latter focus dwells on physical details that are generic to everyone in such circumstances. As a novelist, I think it is foolish to reduce characters to the status of interchangeable pieces of meat in the readers’ minds.

No book is for everyone, and some people may find mine to be too “tame” for their taste. Which is fine. However, I bet that millions of fiction readers share my own preferences regarding language, sex, and violence in novels. At least, many have already told me that they appreciate the way I handle these matters in mine.

Posted in BAD DEEDS: A Dylan Hunter Thriller, Essays, HUNTER: A Thriller, Writing Advice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Authors Behaving Badly


In an excellent blog post, bestselling author and writing teacher David Farland takes on purveyors of plagiarism, fake reviews, purchased reviews, review-swapping schemes, attack reviews, etc. [Correction: The post was penned not by Farland, but by an associate, Kami M. McArthur.]

Reader reviews are enormously helpful to authors. Honest reviews often encourage browsing buyers to take a chance on a book they may have otherwise overlooked. Large numbers of positive reviews also open the doors to important marketing opportunities.

[Kami McArthur's] comments have prompted me to declare my own policies about writing book reviews or “blurbs” for other authors, and seeking them for my own books:

Book reviews

1. I am proud that my books have received a large number of glowing reviews from readers. But I do not seek or want “puff” reviews that inflate the merits of my works, just because you may be my friend or a fellow author. If your positive review isn’t honest, then it’s worthless to me and deceptive to book buyers. Like Dylan Hunter, the hero of my thrillers, I champion justice. So, please give my books the reviews and ratings that you think they deserve — nothing more, nothing less.

2. Likewise, I won’t hype a book that I didn’t like, just to do a fellow author a favor. My credibility means a lot to me. If I explicitly, specifically praise a book, it means I honestly think it has a lot of merit. If I merely mention a book’s availability and say it looks interesting, it’s because I think it does, in fact, appear to be promising, even if I haven’t yet read it.

3. If you are a fellow author and want me to review or “blurb” your book, please understand that I have limited time to do so. Hounding me is pointless and counter-productive. And I won’t blurb a book that I haven’t read.

4. Writing a good book is exceedingly hard work, and I hate to discourage authors with criticism. For that reason, if I have read your book, but can’t give it a ringing endorsement, you may never even know that I’ve read it. Amazon one starMy general policy is: If I can’t give a book (especially one by an author-friend) a glowing review and rating, I prefer to leave no review at all, rather than pan it publicly. So, if you want me to review your book or give you an endorsement blurb, but I haven’t, it may be that I did read it, but can’t in good conscience offer a 4- or 5-star review — in which case, you should be relieved that I haven’t reviewed it publicly.

5. While I may privately share with friends my opinions of the works of various authors (including prominent ones), I generally don’t believe in publicly criticizing their books.* It lacks class and dignity; and targeting books by prominent, successful authors also gives the appearance of envious motives. Again, writing good books and becoming a successful author are extraordinarily difficult achievements; they require talent, drive, and an enormous amount of hard work. Those who “make it” deserve respect, even if some of their work may be sub-par.

6. For all the preceding reasons, I won’t engage in any “review-swapping” schemes with fellow writers. If you’re an author, don’t even bother to ask. Nor will I ever ask anyone to give one of my books a “blurb” or a positive review before they’ve even read the book. Nor will I ever buy reviews — whether from Kirkus and other supposedly “reputable” review sources, or from any for-hire scam shops that create fake, “sock puppet” reviews to hype books. All of that is dishonest, unjust, and ultimately counter-productive, too. I’ll never be that desperate or lacking in self-respect.

7. Here is what I will do: If someone tells me that he or she has already read and enjoyed one of my books, I will thank the person, then ask him or her to consider leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads. I’m comfortable doing this, because it involves no deception: no inducements, machinations, or pressure (such as trading on friendship) in order to generate a phony-but-positive review.

Again, I am proud of the hundreds of reviews garnered for HUNTER and BAD DEEDS. To the best of my knowledge, all of them — positive or negative — represent the honest opinions of the readers. I always learn a great deal from their comments, including areas where I can improve as a writer. The fact that the overwhelming majority of their reviews have praised my books also delights and encourages me.

That’s why I’m grateful to all the many readers who have taken the time not only to buy and read my books, but also to leave their candid opinions about them on Amazon and Goodreads. To all of you, my sincere thanks.


* NOTE: I once wrote a scathing review of a novel by the late William F. Buckley, Jr., and published it while he was still alive. The reason is that it purported to deal with real people and events, but presented them in a demonstrably dishonest and slanderous way. In addition, the individuals were dead and couldn’t defend themselves. Finally, the writing itself was simply execrable: Whatever his talents with language, Buckley couldn’t plot, characterize, or write decent dialogue to save his soul. However, had he written the book as complete fiction, with imaginary characters, I would have ignored it rather than pan it for his appallingly poor writing.

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Amazon Creates a Self-Publishing Platform for Illustrated Children’s Books


I am often asked by authors how they might self-publish illustrated children’s books. Until now, I never had a good answer.

Well, I’m pleased to report that Amazon has just announced “KDP Kids,” a new program in their Kindle Direct Publishing ebook division.

Their news release reports that it is “designed to help children’s book authors prepare, publish and promote both illustrated and chapter books in Kindle Stores worldwide. Children’s book authors can use Amazon’s new Kindle Kids’ Book Creator tool to easily create illustrated children’s books that take advantage of Kindle features like text pop-ups. Once the book is ready, authors can upload it to KDP in just a few simple steps, and use KDP’s category, age and grade range filters to help millions of Amazon customers choose the right books for their kids.”

This could be a huge boon for children’s authors. If that is you, then check it out.

KDP Kids page image

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Book Categories: A Modest Proposal


Fiction categoriesI’ve been pondering the whole way that books are categorized and classified, and how “genres” and “subgenres” are generated. I do so because we indie authors are always agonizing about how to categorize our own books within the existing genre and subgenre classifications on Amazon and elsewhere.

The process is now totally haphazard. There’s no defining principle or rational method underlying any of this. The ad hoc process seems to be: Some writer comes up with a fresh new story concept; he or she then spawns a host of imitators; next, somebody, maybe a reviewer, slaps a cute label on what all the copycats are doing, and voila! We have a new “subgenre.”

I mean, how else to explain things like “steampunk”?

Anyway, studying the Amazon fiction classification trees, it seems that there are two general ways in which genres and subgenres are defined:

1. By psychological interest — that is, by the kind of emotion or mental experience that we seek from certain kinds of books (e.g., horror, romance, humor, inspiration, mystery, fantasy, sexuality, adventure, etc.) There are a limited number of these core human emotions and experiences.

2. By topical interest — that is, by the kind of subject matter that arouses our personal interest and curiosity (e.g., history, biography, crime, espionage/spy, gay/lesbian, children, sports, politics, military, nautical, technology, science/sci-fi, Westerns, urban, etc.) Our topical interests can be unlimited in number and variety.

Given this, I’ve been toying with an idea — a way perhaps to think about and categorize stories a bit more intelligibly (I won’t say “intelligently”; others can be the judge of that). Maybe online retailers and booksellers might find it useful.

The concept involves combining readers’ interest(s) in specific topics, with the emotional experiences that they hope to get out of them.

Here is how it would work:

Take one or more topical interest, then combine it with one or more psychological/emotional interest, to come up with a subgenre. In short:

Topic + emotion = subgenre.

Examples: Western adventure, urban romantic-comedy, historical fantasy, sports mystery-thriller, technological horror, military humor, political-espionage thriller, etc.

This scheme would create a fiction classification system in which the relatively limited number of human psychological interests provide the “genuses” (the broad “genre” categories), while the myriad of topical interests provide the ever-expanding “species” (“subgenres”).

After perusing the existing Amazon fiction classification trees, here is a fast-and-dirty (and obviously incomplete) list that I came up with, ready for your mixing and matching

I.  Psychological Interest Categories (basic genres)


II. Topical Interest Categories (for defining subgenres)

Coming of Age
International (or specific nations)
Young Adult

Okay, this is my weekend stab in the dark, after a glass of wine. Thoughts and opinions, anyone?

Ummm . . . Jeff Bezos . . . are you there?

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So, What Is a Thriller?


Fiction genres tend to have porous boundaries, mixing and blending into each other. Many books are hybrids that cross genres.

For instance, you can’t define a “thriller” solely by its settings, since they can take place almost anywhere, and in any time period. But I think all thrillers share most of these elements:

Jaws* High concept — some startling, even outlandish premise that immediately captures the reader’s imagination. Think of books like Mark Greaney’s The Gray Man, Alex Berenson’s The Faithful Spy, Vince Flynn’s Transfer of Power and Term Limits, Thomas Harris’s Black Sunday, Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal, and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

* High stakes: usually some life-and-death threat(s) to the protagonist and/or to people and values vitally important to the protagonist. Examples: Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, Peter Benchley’s Jaws, Vince Flynn’s Transfer of Power, Jack Higgins’s The Eagle Has Landed. The high stakes compel the protagonist to take…

* Courageous actions, often involving violence, to overcome the threats, which present themselves as…

guns of navarone* Constant, escalating perils, in the forms of great obstacles, ordeals, and/or opponents. In The Gray Man, the protagonist has to run a gauntlet of highly trained killers across Europe to rescue some children. In The Guns of Navarone, a small commando team must face a violent storm at sea that sinks their boat, then climb a sheer cliff in the middle of the gale, where one team member breaks his leg; then fight a host of Nazis; then find a traitor in their midst — all to blow up fortified German guns and allow the rescue of 6,000 Allied troops about to die. These perils come at the reader at…

BAD-DEEDS-COVER-EBOOK-FINAL-REDUCED 4* A fast, relentless pace — often in the form of a race against time to stop the threat. In my thriller HUNTER, acts of violence escalated and accelerated throughout the book, while the pending release from prison of a sadistic sociopath provided ongoing suspense. His kidnapping of two women near the book’s climax ratcheted up the suspense and the pace even further, as the hero had to race to rescue them before they were tortured and murdered. In the sequel, BAD DEEDS, two ecoterrorists launched an escalating campaign of deadly bombings, and the hero and heroine had to stop them before an innocent family was murdered in a literal “ticking bomb” scenario. All of this is designed to make the reader feel…

* Intense, mounting suspense and anxiety about the outcome — which compels the reader to keep turning pages and not put the book down till the end.

Thriller readers expect these elements. A good thriller is a roller coaster ride of relentless action, nonstop thrills, and gnawing suspense. You can write a great story without most of these elements, but it won’t be a thriller.

SherlockConsider, for example, how mysteries differ from thrillers. Mysteries are usually about solving a crime that has already occurred, in the pursuit of justice. Mysteries give readers the cerebral satisfaction of figuring out and resolving their curiosity about “whodunit.” Information is withheld from the reader, who (if the novelist is skilled) always remains one step behind the protagonist/investigator.

Thriller Dirty HarryIn thrillers, though, the main focus is on a future, impending threat, and on the action taken by the hero or heroine to stop the threat and, often, to exact justice. A variation is the revenge story, where a crime has already occurred, and the protagonist is going after the bad guys through action rather than detection alone. In thrillers, the reader is often provided more information than the protagonist knows, which ramps up the tension and suspense. (Will he learn the truth in time?)

There are hybrid mystery-thrillers, of course, where the probing hero arouses the threatened culprits to retaliate — for example, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Whether the story is considered a mystery or a thriller usually depends on which elements predominate. The novels of Robert Crais, Robert B. Parker, and Mickey Spillane, for example, could be plausibly classified in either genre, since they contain many elements of both.

The same can be said of other kinds of cross-genre hybrids. Is The Silence of the Lambs a horror novel, or a thriller? I’d say Thriller High Noon“thriller,” because as horrifying as the events are, the dominant elements are the thriller components. On the other hand, is the film “Star Wars” sci-fi, or a thriller? Because the interplanetary setting and alien characters are such strong elements of the story, I’d say “sci-fi,” though it has every element of a thriller. Likewise, is “High Noon” a thriller or a Western? I’d say the same thing applies: The setting is so much of the story that I’d have to classify it as a Western, though it is a great thriller, too.

Similar considerations apply to defining thriller subcategories. These are established largely by the story settings, which can often overlap in various hybrid combinations.

thriller elements chart

To show the versatility and ever-evolving nature of the thriller genre, here are just a few thriller subcategories and their noted writers — and also some separate, established genres that frequently employ many thriller elements:

1. Generic Action/Adventure (John D. MacDonald, Lee Child, Clive Cussler, Peter Benchley’s Jaws, Wilbur Smith’s Hungry As the Sea.)

Thriller Bond
2. International Espionage (Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming, Daniel Silva, Gayle Lynds). These often blend and morph with…

3. Political Intrigue/Conspiracy (Brad Thor, Vince Flynn, David Baldacci, Nelson DeMille). These, too, often blend with…

Thriller Clancy4. Military (Tom Clancy, Brad Taylor, Andy McNab).

5. Crime (My HUNTER, Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector stories, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer stories). These sometimes blend with…

6. Legal (John Grisham, Scott Turow, Lisa Scottoline, Michael Connelly’s “Lincoln Lawyer” series).

7.  Historical (Ken Follett’s The Man from St. Petersburg, Wilbur Smith’s African adventure sagas).

8. Medical (Robin Cook, Tess Gerritsen, C.J. Lyons, Patricia Cornwell).

Towering Inferno9. Techno-thriller (Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress).

10. Disaster/Apocalypse (Think of all the Irwin Allen disaster films of the 1970s. Today, these are often based on sci-fi premises. And a classic is War of the Worlds.)

Here are some categories of fiction that are often considered to be their own genres, but which rely on many thriller elements:

11. Romantic Suspense (Nora Roberts, Linda Howard, and thousands of others).

12. Psychological Suspense (Most Hitchcock movies like “Vertigo” and “Rear Window”; David Morrell’s “damaged hero” thrillers; Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley; Richard Hitchcock imageCondon’s brilliant hybrid political/military/psychological/international espionage thriller The Manchurian Candidate. Romantic and psychological suspense thrillers are usually characterized by the anticipation of violent action, rather than violence throughout).

13. Westerns (“High Noon” is a classic example. A completely original example of a hybrid form is Michael Crichton’s film “Westworld” — an imaginative blend of sci-fi and Western, but in the classic thriller pattern).

14. Horror (Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Ira Levin, Stephanie Meyer. While the creepy premises and settings put these in their own category, they unquestionably employ all the elements of the thriller form.)

ShiningCreative novelists are constantly carving out new thriller subgenres and subcategories, simply by using fresh settings or new, imaginative “high concepts.” Grisham helped establish the “legal thriller”; Clancy invented the “techno-thriller”; Dick Francis created a mystery-thriller hybrid set in the world of horse racing. They’ve all spawned numerous imitators and knock-offs.

And when you think about it, is a tale about vampires, or “hunger games,” or unstoppable “Terminators” really in a separate genre — or is it merely a new “high concept” variation of the classic thriller?

To thriller fans, the important thing is not the setting or somebody’s artificial category differentiation. It’s the thrill ride itself. What counts is a tale that gives them a riveting, imaginative premise; high stakes; courageous protagonists taking heroic, violent actions against formidable foes, in the face of constant pitfalls and terrors; a relentless pace; and ever-mounting, white-knuckle suspense until the satisfying climax, where justice triumphs.

That, to them, is “a great thriller.” It is a story form as old as Homer — and even older, as primitive people gathered around their tribal campfire to listen raptly, while a skilled storyteller wove enthralling tales of adventure.

Thriller covers

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