What Is a Thriller? Definition & 25+ Examples

Have you ever found yourself unable to put down a book, your heart pounding as you feverishly turn pages late into the night? Welcome to the world of thrillers.

These are the narratives that drop us into a whirlwind of suspense and excitement, compelling us to navigate through twisting plots and high-stakes scenarios. They are the rollercoasters of the literary world, offering us a taste of danger and mystery, all while letting us stay safely ensconced in our favorite reading nook.

Let’s embark on a journey to understand the sheer power of this pulsating genre.

Table of Contents

Defining Thriller

A thriller is a genre of literature, film, and television that uses suspense, tension, and excitement to engage the audience. It aims to evoke strong emotional responses, such as fear, surprise, and anticipation, by presenting the readers or viewers with a series of unexpected twists and turns, high-stakes situations, or complex scenarios.

Often, thrillers incorporate elements of mystery, action, or crime, but the primary focus is on creating an atmosphere of constant unease.

The narrative pace in a thriller is typically fast, with events unfolding in quick succession to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. This is achieved through a combination of tight plotting, well-developed characters, and high-impact scenes that reveal the intricate layers of the story.

Though the settings and contexts in which thrillers take place can vary widely, they generally involve a central protagonist who faces considerable obstacles or threats to their safety, well-being, or values.

Ultimately, a thriller aims to deliver an adrenaline-charged experience, one that leaves the audience with a sense of satisfaction and resolution, having vicariously experienced the trials and triumphs of the protagonist and the intense emotions along the way.

Thriller vs. Horror

Thriller and horror are two popular genres in literature and film that often overlap or share some common elements. However, they do have distinct features that set them apart from each other. In this section, we will explore the key differences between the thriller and horror genres.

Thrillers are characterized by suspense, tension, and excitement. They often feature a protagonist facing a high-stakes challenge, such as solving a mystery, stopping a villain, or surviving a dangerous situation. The pacing of a thriller is typically fast, with numerous twists and turns that keep the audience engaged and guessing about the eventual outcome.

On the other hand, horror stories aim to evoke fear, dread, or terror in the audience. They often involve supernatural or threatening elements, such as ghosts, monsters, or malevolent entities. The atmosphere in a horror story is usually dark and ominous, with an underlying sense of impending doom.

This genre focuses on the more macabre and grotesque aspects of life and generally elicits a more visceral, emotional reaction from the audience.

While both genres can contain elements of violence and danger, the key distinction lies in the primary emotion they intend to evoke. Thrillers focus on suspense, intrigue, and keeping the audience on the edge of their seat, while horror aims to elicit raw terror and evoke a sense of fear.

Additionally, thriller stories often involve more grounded elements, such as crime-solving or pursuit, while horror tales frequently delve into supernatural or otherworldly phenomena.

History of Thriller

The thriller genre has its roots in ancient storytelling traditions that captivated audiences with suspenseful tales of heroism and danger. These early stories laid the foundation for the development of the thriller as we know it today.

In the 19th century, literature began to feature suspenseful stories with elements of fear and excitement. Popular authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins are considered early pioneers of the thriller genre, weaving intricate tales of mystery and intrigue that captured the attention of their readers.

The early 20th century saw the emergence of more diverse thriller subgenres, such as spy fiction and crime thrillers. Writers like John Buchan, Dashiell Hammett, and Agatha Christie contributed significantly to the expanding realm of thriller literature, setting precedents for future generations of authors.

During the mid-20th century, the thriller genre expanded even further and began to transform into the style we recognize today. Renowned authors like Ian Fleming, famous for his James Bond series, and Alfred Hitchcock, who successfully adapted numerous literary works into thrilling films, played pivotal roles in shaping the modern thriller.

Today, the thriller genre is more varied and vibrant than ever, with countless authors and filmmakers around the world continually pushing the boundaries of what defines a thrilling story. Indeed, the rich history of the thriller genre serves as an enduring testament to the timeless appeal of suspense and excitement in storytelling.

Functions of Thriller


Thrillers primarily serve the purpose of entertaining readers or viewers. They achieve this by creating a tense and gripping narrative, keeping the audience hooked and constantly wondering what happens next. The suspense, unexpected twists, and high stakes make it an exciting genre that people of all ages can enjoy.

Exploration of Fear and Anxiety

The thriller genre explores various aspects of fear and anxiety by pushing characters into dangerous situations, which allows readers to experience these emotions from a safe distance. It provides a vehicle for confronting and understanding our fears by examining how characters deal with them, giving us insights into our own emotions and reactions.

Commentary on Society

Thrillers often highlight societal issues and create a dialogue surrounding them. These narratives might use their stories to shine a light on issues such as political corruption, crime, and social injustices or to question authority figures and their motivations. By doing so, thrillers can provide thought-provoking commentary through their narratives.

Stimulation of Intellect

This genre encourages the audience to think critically and solve puzzles or mysteries alongside the characters. It requires paying close attention to unfolding events, deciphering clues, and connecting the dots to uncover secrets or find the truth. It motivates the audience to use their problem-solving skills and stimulates their intellect.

Emotional Engagement

Thrillers create an emotional engagement by making the audience care about the characters and their struggles. As readers become invested in the characters’ situations, they can empathize with their dilemmas and experience a range of emotions like fear, anger, sadness, and satisfaction when conflicts are resolved.

Exposure to Different Perspectives

By exploring diverse characters, settings, and situations, thrillers expose the audience to different perspectives. This can help broaden their understanding of cultures, social norms, and human behavior, ultimately promoting empathy and tolerance.

Cultural Exchange

Since thrillers often incorporate various cultural elements, they can open avenues for cultural exchanges between people from different backgrounds. Reading or watching thrillers with international settings or foreign characters can help people learn about and appreciate different traditions, customs, and values.

Influence on Other Media

The thriller genre has had a lasting impact on other forms of media, such as movies, television shows, and video games. It has inspired filmmakers and game developers to create engaging content with gripping storylines, tense atmospheres, and memorable characters. This influence has further expanded the reach of thrillers, drawing in even more fans.


Thrillers provide a form of escapism for people to forget about their everyday problems momentarily and become immersed in a fictional world full of excitement, danger, and intrigue. It’s an opportunity to break away from reality and let the imagination take over.

Importance of Thriller

Engages Readers and Audiences

Thrillers captivate readers and audiences with their fast-paced narratives and unexpected plot twists. The suspense and tension keep people on the edge of their seats, making it difficult to put down a book or walk away from a movie.

Stimulates Imagination

By presenting intricate plots and vivid descriptions, thrillers stimulate the imagination, encouraging readers and viewers to envision different scenarios and consider possible solutions. This mental exercise can be both challenging and enjoyable.

Offers a Safe Exploration of Fear

Thrillers allow people to confront their fears in a safe environment. By creating intense situations and incorporating elements of horror, they enable readers and viewers to explore the darkest aspects of human nature without direct exposure to real-life dangers.

Provides Social Commentary

Many thrillers incorporate social and political themes, offering insights into societal issues and human behavior. Through the actions of their characters, these stories often shed light on moral dilemmas and encourage reflection on the world around us.

Promotes Empathy

As thrillers delve into the minds of their characters, they provide a glimpse into the motivations and emotions of individuals from diverse backgrounds. In doing so, they promote empathy and understanding, helping to break down barriers and forge connections between people.

Encourages Critical Thinking

Thrillers often present complex scenarios that force audiences to think critically. By following the plot and attempting to solve the story’s mystery, readers and viewers develop problem-solving skills and strengthen their analytical abilities.

Influences Other Media

Thriller elements can be found in various forms of media, from literature and film to video games and graphic novels. The genre’s influence is evident in how it has shaped storytelling across multiple platforms.

Contributes to Cultural Diversity

Thrillers come in many forms and are enjoyed by people worldwide. By presenting stories from different cultures and subgenres, the thriller genre contributes to cultural diversity, broadening the understanding and appreciation of global storytelling traditions.

Elements of Thriller


In thrillers, suspense is an essential element that keeps the audience engaged. It creates tension by holding back information or creating uncertainty about the outcome. Readers are left on the edge of their seats, eagerly turning pages to find out what happens next.

High Stakes

The stakes must be high in a thriller. The protagonist must face a situation with life-altering consequences, such as preventing an act of terrorism, solving a murder, or stopping a kidnapping. The high stakes make readers care about the outcome and invest in the story.

Twists and Turns

Unexpected plot twists and turns are common in thrillers. These surprises keep readers guessing and prevent the story from becoming predictable. They can involve sudden changes in the protagonist’s goals, the antagonist’s strategies, or even the state of the world around them.


Conflict is the driving force behind any good story, but in thrillers, it is often heightened. The protagonist and antagonist are usually locked in a turbulent struggle, with each trying to outwit or overpower the other. This conflict can be physical or psychological, but it is essential to create tension and maintain interest.

Danger and Threat

A palpable sense of danger or threat must permeate a thriller. The protagonist must face the risk of dire consequences if they fail to achieve their goal, creating a sense of urgency and reminding readers of the high stakes involved.

A Strong Protagonist

A strong protagonist is key to a successful thriller. They must be resourceful, intelligent, and able to think and act under pressure. They should be flawed but likeable, with clear goals and motivations that readers can empathize with.

Antagonist (Villain)

The antagonist, or villain, is equally as vital in a thriller. They should be intelligent and powerful, posing a genuine threat to the protagonist. The antagonist’s motives must be clear and relatable, making the central conflict compelling and suspenseful.

Fast Pace

A rapid pace is essential in a thriller, with events moving quickly and maintaining momentum throughout. This creates a sense of urgency, heightening the tension and ensuring the reader remains engaged.

Mystery and Intrigue

Mystery and intrigue go hand-in-hand with thrillers. The story should be filled with questions and secrets that the protagonist and the reader are seeking to uncover. Unraveling these mysteries keeps the reader invested in the plot and adds depth to the story.

Realism or Plausibility

Finally, a good thriller must strike a balance between realism and plausibility. While the scenarios may be extreme, the reader should be able to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the story. The protagonist’s actions and decisions should feel reasonable and relatable, making the story believable and engaging.

Techniques Used in Thriller Writing

Plot Twists

In thriller writing, plot twists play a crucial role in maintaining suspense and excitement. A plot twist is an unexpected turn of events that changes the course or the outcome of the story. This technique keeps readers guessing and engaged, wondering what will happen next. Plot twists often occur in the middle or near the end of the story, and they can dramatically alter the expected conclusion.

Red Herrings

Red herrings are another common technique in thriller writing. They are false clues or distractions meant to lead the reader and the characters astray from the true plot. By adding red herrings, the writer creates confusion and heightens the suspense, making it more difficult for the reader to predict the story’s outcome.

This technique is often used in tandem with plot twists to keep the reader guessing until the very end.

Unreliable Narrators

Unreliable narrators are characters who cannot be fully trusted to provide an accurate account of events in the story. These inconsistent narrators can be intentionally deceptive, or they may have a skewed perception of reality due to personal bias or mental health issues.

The use of unreliable narrators in thriller writing adds further intrigue and uncertainty to the storyline, as the reader is forced to question the validity of the information presented.


Cliffhangers are a technique used in thriller writing to leave the reader hanging in suspense, eager to find out what happens next. This technique often involves stopping a scene or chapter at a critical moment, with the outcome still uncertain. Cliffhangers encourage readers to continue reading, as they generate an almost irresistible sense of curiosity about future events in the story.

By utilizing cliffhangers, thriller writers ensure that their readers remain invested and engaged throughout the entire narrative.

Types of Thriller

Psychological Thriller

Psychological thrillers focus on the mental states and emotional turmoil of the characters. This sub-genre explores the complexities of the human mind, often through the eyes of the protagonist, who may be experiencing a mental breakdown, battling with inner demons, or facing deep-seated fears.

Crime Thriller

Crime thrillers revolve around criminal activities, suspenseful investigations, and the pursuit of justice. Characters within this sub-genre include detectives, criminals, law enforcement, and victims. The plot often involves a race against time to solve a mystery or catch a dangerous criminal.

Political Thriller

Political thrillers involve the political arena and centers on characters engaged in power struggles, intrigue, or conspiracies within governments or political institutions. The stakes are often high, with potential impacts on global stability or national security.

Legal Thriller

Legal thrillers focus on the world of law and the legal system, featuring lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals as the central characters. These stories often depict high-stakes courtroom dramas or investigations connected to legal cases.

Spy Thriller

Spy thrillers revolve around espionage, covert operations, and intelligence gathering. The stories often involve national security threats and are filled with action, intrigue, and suspense, as spies and counterintelligence agents navigate complex global landscapes.

Supernatural Thriller

Supernatural thrillers combine the tension of a thriller with elements from the paranormal or fantastic realms, such as ghosts, psychic abilities, or mystical entities. These stories often blend the inexplicable into an otherwise realistic world.


Techno-thrillers encompass stories that explore the intersection of technology and danger, usually involving cutting-edge or advanced technology at the heart of the conflict. These stories may feature cyber warfare, artificial intelligence, or experimental inventions as plot points.

Medical Thriller

Medical thrillers center on medical professionals or institutions, with plots that involve the intricacies of the healthcare system, biomedical research, or the threat of diseases and outbreaks. These narratives can highlight ethical dilemmas or threats to public health.

Military Thriller

Military thrillers focus on armed forces, national defense, or warfare, with the setting often being military bases or battlefields. Characters may include soldiers, officers, and commanders, and the plot can involve military operations, strategy, or combat scenarios.

Disaster Thriller

Disaster thrillers involve impending or ongoing large-scale disasters, whether natural or man-made. These stories center on the efforts of characters to prevent, mitigate, or survive the catastrophe, often highlighting human resilience and resourcefulness in the face of immense danger.

Domestic Thriller

Domestic thrillers unfold within the realm of the home or family relationships, focusing on the emotional and psychological tensions that can arise in these settings. Dealing with themes such as marital strife, betrayal, or family secrets, these stories often evoke a sense of paranoia and unease.

Mystery Thriller

Mystery thrillers revolve around solving a complex puzzle or enigma while maintaining the high-stakes suspense of a thriller. Characters are often driven to uncover the truth, with the reader following along as they piece together clues and unravel mysteries.

Examples of Thriller in Literature


"Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn 

This suspenseful novel follows the story of a marriage turned toxic, leading to deception, betrayal, and the twisted unraveling of the couple's secrets.
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson 

A gripping thriller about a disgraced journalist and his quest to solve the complex mystery of a girl's disappearance with the help of an extraordinary young woman.
"The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown 

A fast-paced and historical thriller, unfolding a tantalizing puzzle involving the works of Leonardo Da Vinci while delving into the realm of secret religious societies.
"The Silence of the Lambs" by Thomas Harris 

This chilling thriller immerses readers in the world of FBI trainee Clarice Starling, as she enlists the help of a ruthless, cannibalistic serial killer to catch another sadistic murderer.
"The Bourne Identity" by Robert Ludlum 

An action-packed thriller following a man suffering from amnesia, trying to piece together his past while evading those who want to control him or end his life.

Short Story

"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe 

An unnerving story of an unreliable narrator's descent into madness, revealed through their guilt-ridden confession about the murder they committed.
"The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell 

A suspenseful tale about shipwrecked big-game hunter who finds himself on an island with a sadistic General who has found a new, terrifying prey: humans.
"A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor 

This disturbing short story sets readers on edge as they follow a dysfunctional family on a road trip that ultimately intersects with a murderous fugitive.
"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson 

A provocative and thought-provoking story, examining the dark side of tradition and the cruelty of human nature disguised as a harmless, annual small-town ritual.
"The Monkey's Paw" by W.W. Jacobs 

A spine-tingling story of supernatural retribution, featuring a cursed monkey's paw that grants wishes with disastrous consequences for its owners.


"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge 

This gripping, ominous poem recounts a sailor's tale of retribution, guilt, and supernatural forces on a doomed voyage.
"Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe 

A haunting and mournful poem about the tragic death of a beautiful woman and the devotion of her lover, encapsulating the dark romanticism often found in thriller literature.
"Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti 

An eerie and grotesque narrative poem featuring two sisters ensnared by sinister creatures who inhabit the mysterious Goblin Market.
"The Conqueror Worm" by Edgar Allan Poe 

A macabre poem painting a fearsome vision of worms feasting on human remains, symbolizing the relentless march of death and decay at the heart of human existence.
"Lenore" by Gottfried August Bürger 

A supernatural ballad revolving around the protagonist's encounter with his deceased lover's ghost, evoking the spine-chilling atmosphere common in thriller poetry.

Examples of Thriller in Pop Culture


"Jaws" by Steven Spielberg 

The groundbreaking movie from 1975 about a great white shark terrorizing a small resort town kept audiences on the edge of their seats.
"Silence of the Lambs" by Jonathan Demme 

This 1991 psychological thriller follows Clarice Starling, an FBI agent investigating a serial killer with the help of an incarcerated cannibalistic psychiatrist.
"Se7en" by David Fincher 

A 1995 masterpiece, in which two detectives track down a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi.
"The Sixth Sense" by M. Night Shyamalan 

From 1999, the story of a child psychologist helping a young boy who claims to see and communicate with the dead.
"Inception" by Christopher Nolan 

This mind-bending thriller from 2010 is about a skilled thief stealing corporate secrets through dream-sharing technology.

Television Shows

"Breaking Bad" by Vince Gilligan 

A high school chemistry teacher turns to crime after discovering he has terminal cancer in this acclaimed TV show.
"Stranger Things" by the Duffer Brothers 

A group of children confronts supernatural forces while trying to locate their missing friend in a small town.
"Black Mirror" by Charlie Brooker 

A series that explores twisted, high-tech realities where humanity's greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.
"The Walking Dead" by Frank Darabont 

A group of survivors navigates the brutal, post-apocalyptic landscape filled with flesh-eating zombies.
"Westworld" by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy 

This sci-fi series is set in a futuristic Wild West-themed amusement park with sentient androids, where chaos quickly unfolds.


"Serial" by Sarah Koenig 

An investigative journalism podcast that follows a non-fiction narrative, focusing on a single true story throughout a season.
"Limetown" by Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie 

A fictional thriller that delves into the mysterious disappearance of over three hundred people in a small Tennessee town.
"Homecoming" by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg 

This psychological thriller tells the story of a caseworker at a transitional support center and her experiences with a soldier adapting to civilian life.
"The Black Tapes" by Paul Bae and Terry Miles 

A serialized fictional podcast that follows a journalist's investigation into paranormal occurrences, supported by a skeptic and his collection of black VHS tapes.
"Rabbits" by Terry Miles 

This mystery podcast centers on an ancient alternate reality game that may pose real threats to players' lives.

Impacts of Thriller in Literature

Thriller as a genre has significantly impacted the world of literature over the years. Its popularity is evident in the regular bestsellers and critical acclaim the genre garners. Thriller novels often explore multiple themes such as crime, espionage, and psychological intrigue, which have resulted in diversified stories and plotlines that attract and entertain a wide range of readers.

Thriller Influences Storytelling Techniques

One of the most notable impacts of thriller literature is its influence on storytelling techniques. The fast-paced narratives and carefully crafted suspense have led to engaging stories that keep readers on the edge of their seats. This suspense-building approach has been adopted by many authors, even within genres outside of thrillers, to improve their storytelling.

Thriller Has Led to An Increased Interest in The Exploration of Complex Themes

Additionally, the thriller genre has led to an increased interest in the exploration of complex and often dark themes. The focus on psychological elements and character development in thriller novels allows readers to delve into the depths of human emotions and behavior, offering them a unique opportunity to reflect on and analyze these aspects of human nature.

Thriller Encouraged Cross-Genre Blends

The popularity of thrillers has also encouraged cross-genre blends, as authors experiment with mixing elements from various genres to create innovative works. This has resulted in many subgenres such as romantic thrillers, historical thrillers, and sci-fi thrillers, which combine the tension and excitement of a thriller with their respective genre’s unique characteristics.

These hybrid creations have expanded literature’s boundaries and opened up new opportunities for storytelling.

Thrillers Has Sparked a Surge in The Global Sharing of Stories

Finally, the international appeal of thrillers has sparked a surge in the global sharing of stories. Many thriller novels have been translated into various languages, allowing readers from different cultures to access and enjoy these engaging narratives.

This cross-cultural exchange has led to the dissemination of ideas, values, and perspectives from different corners of the world, enriching the reading experience for all involved.

The Influence of Thrillers on Film and Media Adaptations

Thrillers have been a captivating genre since their inception, capturing the attention of audiences worldwide. The influence of thrillers on film and media adaptations is immense. This genre has seen a myriad of iterations across various forms of media, including movies, television shows, books, and podcasts.

The Incorporation of Suspenseful Storytelling Techniques

One notable effect of thrillers on film adaptations is the incorporation of suspenseful storytelling techniques. Directors and screenwriters frequently use elements such as cliffhangers, twists, and unreliable narrators to evoke tension and curiosity from the audience.

This has led to classic films like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” gaining widespread acclaim and popularity.

Thriller genre has led to its adoption in television series

The thrilling and suspenseful nature of this genre has also led to its adoption in television series. Crime dramas like “True Detective” and “Breaking Bad” incorporate thriller elements to draw viewers in and keep them engaged throughout multiple seasons.

Additionally, anthology series such as “American Horror Story” and “Black Mirror” incorporate thriller aspects into their episodes, allowing for a diverse range of stories within a single show.

Moreover, thrillers have paved the way for various immersive and interactive media experiences. Podcasts like “Homecoming” and “Limetown” use auditory storytelling techniques to build suspense, while interactive games such as “Her Story” and “Until Dawn” engage the player in narrative decision-making, creating an engaging experience that goes beyond traditional media formats.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do thrillers only deal with crime and mystery?

While crime and mystery are often central to thrillers, they can also involve other subjects, such as politics, espionage, or science fiction. Ultimately, the main requirement for a story to be considered a thriller is its ability to create tension, suspense, and excitement for the audience.

Are thrillers always violent?

No, thrillers are not always violent. While some thrillers do involve physical violence or threat, others may focus on psychological tension, intellectual puzzles, or emotional conflicts. The key element of a thriller is suspense, which can be achieved in many ways.

Can thrillers have a happy ending?

Yes, thrillers can have a happy ending. However, the road to that ending is often fraught with tension, suspense, and numerous obstacles that the protagonist must overcome. The resolution is often hard-won, adding to the satisfaction of the conclusion.


Thrillers, with their potent mix of suspense, tension, and high stakes, truly offer a unique literary experience. They invite readers into a world of uncertainty, keeping them on the edge of their seats and making their hearts pound. But beyond the excitement, thrillers also shine a spotlight on the complexity of human nature, social issues, and the multifaceted world we inhabit.

They stimulate our minds, trigger our deepest emotions, and captivate our imagination like no other genre. As we close the final pages, thrillers remind us of the thrilling journey literature can take us on, providing both an escape from reality and a deeper understanding of it.

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Aerielle Ezra is an enthusiastic student of architecture who has a wide range of interests, including psychology, lifestyle, and relationships. Apart from her studies, she also likes to engage in athletic activities, particularly volleyball. When she is not playing, she spends her free time watching her preferred sitcoms or reading her favorite books, which include fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.