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Literary Fiction Genres

Thriller/Suspense Subgenres

Fiction Genre Definitions


Thriller/Suspense Subgenres


(Definitions and Examples - All)

This genre has been known by several names over the decades. 'Action' is somewhat dated, while 'adventure' remains as a broader description.
Perhaps a 'thriller' concentrates more on fast external action, and a 'suspense' tale on the buildup of tension beforehand. (Any such distinctions are subtle, and not widely advertised.)
Usually these tales are set in the present day, or within 20 years or so. Hollywood loves thrillers, and all of these subgenres have inspired numerous movies.


Aviation thrillers focus on air flight, and the battle of human wits and technology against the force of storms, or sabotage, and always of sheer gravity. Written in 1920, The Flying Legion, by George Allan England, comes early enough to qualify as 'science fiction.' William Wellman's 1954 film The High and the Mighty is a classic of this subgenre. Elliston Trevor's novel The Flight of the Phoenix, and the Robert Aldrich film based upon it, depict an airplane hand-built to escape the Sahara Desert. Hundreds of other tales have followed.

Comedic thrillers go against type by playing for laughs, if amid serious action. Carl Hiaasen is a master of this subgenre, as with his recent novel Nature Girl. Hollywood often spoofs James Bond, as with the "Austin Powers" movies.

Conspiracy is a subgenre with a secret. Perplexing forces pull strings in the life of the protagonist -- if not throughout the world. Usually the hero becomes a threat to the conspirators, and must escape their response. Often these stories depict the abberations caused by secrecy, and the corrupting influence of power. Robert Ludlum's novel The Chancellor Manuscript is a famous example. (Sometimes the conspiricy is broken up, or at least revealed to the world; but in many tales it is not, and the broken protagonist is allowed to live.)

Disaster tales usually involve the response of those in power to an impending threat. Often some industrial carelessness provides the threat, and thus an incentive to cover it up. A policy that "panic must be prevented" via secrecy gives the hero (often a reporter) something to pursue. For example, Scortia and Robinson's novel The Glass Inferno, filmed by John Guillermin as The Towering Inferno, has shoddy construction result in numerous spectacular deaths. Mike Nichol's 1983 film Silkwood has a real-life basis.

Ecothriller tales, as the name suggests, involve some threat (natural, or more often manmade) to the environment. The damage may be local or even worldwide. Paul Tabori's novel The Green Rain is a strange example. Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear became a best-seller. (The science invoked might be rigorous, but either way, sometimes these novels are controversial.)

Espionage thrillers are seldom about the routine lives of actual spies or analysts, but rather the mythical havoc created by relentless agents and those who oppose them. This subgenre is usually set in periods of international tension, such as World War Two, the Cold War, and more recently the war against Islamic extremism. Gay Courter's novel Code Ezra leads up to Israel's strike against Saddam's reactor at Osirak, while Vince Flynn's novels are 'torn from the headlines.' (Often these authors have some real-life experience.)

Exploration subgenre stories were more popular when much of the globe was mysterious, and long before Google Earth. Even now the hero's stint in rugged mountains, or along jungle rivers, can provide a thrill. John Darnton's novel Neanderthal fits this category, as does Michael Chrichton's novel Congo. (Often the explorer-hero has a scientific motive.)

Legal thrillers take place in and around the courthouse. Often a lawyer finds a new case to be anything but typical, and soon lives are at stake. Those who bypass the law are ultimately judged by it. This subgenre was popularized by John Grisham, with his blockbuster novel The Firm. Also popular are Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent and others. David Ellis's novel Line of Vision is another example.

Medical thrillers are well-described by their name. Often a doctor's life is threatened (perhaps because they helped a certain patient), or a mysterious (usually artificial) disease has broken out. Robin Cook and Tess Gerritsen are leaders in this subgenre. Sandra Wilkenson's novel Death On Call is an early example. (Often the authors are themselves doctors.)

Mercenary tales center around this morally ambiguous type of character. Frederick Forsyth's novel The Dogs of War, filmed by John Irvin, is a powerful example. (Because of mercenary involvement in various infamous conflicts, Hollywood often creates this type of movie as a political statement.)

Paranormal or Supernatural thrillers bring in an otherworldly element, overlapping the 'horror' genre, though usually in a restrained fashion. Often the hero and/or villian has (or at least claims) some psychic ability. Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum is fantastically complex, and touches upon many elements of European occultism.

Political thrillers are a popular subgenre, and often reflect poorly upon what Mark Twain called "America's only native criminal class" -- the U.S. Congress. Usually a low-level protagonist attracts unwelcome attention from the powerful and desperate. Brad Meltzer's novels combine deadly action with genuine civics lessons. Jeffrey Archer's novel Shall We Tell the President? is a gripping example.

Psychological subgenre tales build up slowly, with ever-increasing doubt and tension, until some explicit action/violence takes place at the finale. Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, filmed by Anthony Minghella, is an oft-cited example. Many of Alfred Hitchcock's movies fit the bill.

Religious thrillers evoke this compelling aspect of of our psyches. Usually a sacred artifact or historical secret centers up the plot, and groups both known and secretive vie for dominance. Often the protagonist is drawn in through research into a seemingly innocent topic. Many of David Morrel's and Jon Land's novels contain such elements. Julia Navarro's novel The Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud has vivid historical depictions, while Dan Brown's hit book and film The DaVinci Code have unleashed controversy -- and a horde of imitators.

Romantic is a fairly new thriller subgenre, primarily from romance publisher Harlequin's Silhouette division. (Their offerings are technically known as a 'continuity series.') Instead of a 'romance' style plot-line, these novels/series follow 'thriller' patterns, with long story arcs and numerous crossover characters, emphasizing strong and compassionate heroines. A pioneer of this style is Fern Michaels, with her "Sisterhood" novels. A major example is Harlequin's "Athena Force" series, with numerous authors.

Survivalist thrillers center upon such rugged specimens of humanity. A disaster has struck a specific group of people, if not the entire planet, and survival depends upon toughness and skill. Jerry Ahern's epic "Survivalist" series leads this pack, and devotes long descriptions to every knife, gun, and other weapon in use. David Brin's novel The Postman, filmed by Kevin Costner, reverses this by making survivalists the villians. On a more personal scale, Michael Armstrong's short story "A Little Walk Home" depicts its stranded protagonist hiking 500 miles across the Alaskan wilderness.

Technothrillers are a category large enough to almost merit full genre status. Tom Clancy is the undisputed father of this subgenre, mostly via his "Jack Ryan" franchise. These tales overlap with 'science fiction,' in that cutting-edge technology always plays a key role in the premise and ongoing conflicts. Dale Brown, Harold Coyle, and numerous others have followed suit. In Dean Ing's novel Loose Cannon, the nerdy protagonist saves himself via hand-tinkered little devices. (Experience and advisors often lend authenticity, yet some of these novels -- and their film versions more so -- slip badly on the science.)

Treasure Hunter stories usually overlap with other 'thriller' subgenres. Whatever their motive, these protagonists seek lost treasures of obvious innate value, such as hidden gold. (Inca, pirate, Confederate, etc.) Many of Clive Cussler's novels fit the bill. The "National Treasure" movies, from Jon Turteltaub, take this premise to ludicrous extremes.


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