Tomorrow is the beginning of Thrillerfest, the first annual event for thriller writers, readers and booksellers. Thrillerfest will take place this weekend in Phoenix at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa. On Saturday night, there will be a banquet at which they will present the organization's first Thriller awards.
An article in Saturday's Arizona Republic (AZR) claimed that "Thrillers are easily the most popular category in fiction today, dominating the bestseller list: Eight of the top 10 hardcovers in this week's New York Times list are thrillers."
So this seems as good a time as any to talk about thrillers. What is a thriller insofar as a novel is concerned? I find it fascinating that there is no definition of the genre on Thrillerfest's website. What the heck??? An article by David Morrell on the site refers readers to the home page to read "What is a Thriller," but apparently that definition has since been removed.
To try and define thriller, I started out at Wikipedia, my favorite place to begin research. Here's what it says: "The thriller is a broad genre of literature...that includes numerous, often-overlapping sub-genres. Thrillers are typically characterized by fast pacing, frequent action scenes, and plots in which a small number of resourceful heroes must thwart, often violently, the plans of more-powerful and better-equipped villains. Thrillers typically emphasize plot over character development, and make extensive use of literary devices such as suspense, red herrings, and cliffhangers."
Whew! That's a mouthful. In addition to its being overlong, I have a problem with Wikipedia's definition in this line: "resourceful heroes must thwart, often violently, the plans of more-powerful and better-equipped villains."
What about those thrillers where there is no villain? I'm thinking of a book like "The Perfect Storm" by Sebastian Junger. While you *could* describe Nature as the villain, I tend to think of a villain as having evil intent. Do we really want to ascribe the role of villain to the wind or to God?
At another site dedicated to publishing terms, I found this: "A thriller is a novel of suspense with a plot structure that reinforces the elements of gamesmanship and the chase, with a sense of the hunt being paramount. Thrillers can be spy novels, tales of geopolitical crisis, legal thrillers, medical thrillers, technothrillers, domestic thrillers. The common thread is a growing sense of threat and the excitement of pursuit."
That Arizona Republic article included an interview with Dana Stabenow (whose book Blindfold Game was on my shortlist for a Thriller award this year). She suggested this definition: "In a mystery, Aunt Ida is at risk, and in a thriller, Aunt Ida's nation is at risk."
While Stabenow's definition gets points for cleverness and brevity, it's far too weighted toward spy novels and political thrillers to serve our purpose.
David Morrell, already referred to earlier, also had some comments on the subject. I should note that I have been a huge Morrell fan since the early '80s when I read First Blood and The Brotherhood of the Rose. First Blood was the book that spawned the Rambo film series.
Morrell says high stakes are common in thrillers, but are not the most important aspect. "There is one theory that says genres can be defined by the emotions they evoke...Thus, science fiction evokes awe, romances evoke sentiment. Mysteries evoke puzzlement, whereas thrillers evoke a sense of excitement. . . . Basically, it's about intensity of pace, intensity of emotions." (AZR)
We could go on like this all night. I suspect there are as many definitions of thrillers as there are thriller writers.
Using everything we've read so far, my personal definition is: A thriller is a novel genre that may cross other genres. It is characterized by suspense, fast pacing, a growing sense of threat and intense emotions.
Works for me.