What Makes a Thriller Great?

I’ve been attending ThrillerFest 2013 in New York City.  This first part, CraftFest, offers sessions on the craft of writing thrillers, mysteries and suspense, and my head is spinning from everything I’m learning!

This topic is just one example.  Today I attended a session presented by Andrew Kaplan on what makes a thriller great.  According to Andrew, a great thriller should have at least one of the following six characteristics.

1>> The thriller could invent a completely new subgenre, or it could reinvent a former subgenre that was no longer in favor.

2>> A revolutionary or completely new set up (log line in the movie trade) or stylistic breakthrough takes place.  Stylistic here means a new compelling voice.

3>> The protagonist captures or represents the zeitgeist.  In other words, she or he represents the common prevailing ideas of a time or place, a common man approach.

4>> A unique plot device, structure or twist that becomes a model for others may be the thriller’s great characteristic.  By model for others, I don’t mean subject to copying, but rather,a model that can be applied to new story ideas.

5>> The thriller contains memorable, quotable dialogue.  We all remember certain phrases that stick with us, long after we’ve forgotten the context of the plot or the specifics of how the conflict is resolved.

6>> Finally, a unique and unforgettable character can make a story unique.  Who can forget George Smiley or Hannibal Lecter?

Remember, the thriller only needs one of these characteristics to have the potential for greatness.  Many, like those of John LeCarre, Eric Ambler, and Len Deighton, contain more than one.

Based on the characteristics listed above, what are some of the great thrillers you’ve read?  Why do you consider them great?


About The Author

Yvonne Kohano

Award winner and storycatcher Yvonne Kohano writes contemporary romantic suspense in her Flynn's Crossing series. She is also working on a psychological thriller trilogy, and producing nonfiction books with tips for creative types. In addition to running an indie press, Yvonne loves to cook (dedicated foodie), garden (plantaholic), travel (anywhere), and read and learn (anything). She, her husband and their dogs love their home in the Pacific Northwest. Follow her at www.YvonneKohano.com and on Facebook and Twitter to learn what tickles her about being a writer.


  • Deborah Knowles

    July 23, 2013

    So many good thrillers. I like the unpredictable. I enjoyed a play, Veronica’s Room. It’s full of unexpected happenings. Also enjoyed Silence of the Lambs – Hannibal makes the macabre seem “normal”, though I am not a fan of blood and gore. I prefer a more heady thriller, psychological.

    • Yvonne Kohano

      July 24, 2013

      Just finished “The Last Victim” by Karen Robards – wonderful tense read!