The thriller is a genre encompassing literature (e.g. The Day of the Jackal), film (e.g. The French Connection), television (e.g. 24), and theatre (e.g. Sleuth). It’s a particularly large genre with many sub-genres, for example the technothriller (Firefox) and the spy thriller (The Constant Gardener).
The thriller typically employs a number of ‘tropes’ or set metaphors and elements that appear again and again: the chase, the threat to identity, mistaken identity, betrayal, the plot reversal, suspense and the cliff-hanger.
In terms of settting, the thriller is more likely to take place somewhere exotic or unusual — on a submarine beneath the polar ice cap in MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra, post-war Berlin in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, or on board a hijacked aircraft in Executive Decision — and this is usually intended to maximise the difficulties facing the hero or heroine, heighten their sense of alienation, and play to the escapist nature of the genre.
The form of protagonist is quite central to the thriller. In older examples, like the Homer’s Odyssey, the protagonist is somewhat unusual, hardy, and possesses extraordinary skills. More recent thrillers help to generate tension by making the hero more ordinary, either in the sense of a person moved from the ‘ordinary world’ of their life to the ‘extraordinary world’ of the story, or in the sense of giving a character an Achilles heel that takes them to the brink of failure in all the testing moments of the story.
In more modern examples, the hero (using this word to mean both men and women, though the genre has a strong male bias) is often more concerned with preserving a sense of identity. The Hitchcockian device of mistaken identity, which was used frequently in his films, and most memorably in North by Northwest, is a very powerful motivator. Not only is the life of the hero Roger Thornhill threatened, but so too the sense of what it means to be Thornhill. He struggles to maintain his identity until the point comes where he must assume the mantel of the violent man for whom he has been mistaken. By accepting this change of identity — and raising (or lowering) — himself to the level of his enemies, he enters into their world, and defeats them. At the climax of the film atop Mount Rushmore, Thornhill pulls the character Eve, to safety, and the film ends with the couple on honeymoon — Thornhill has literally pulled Eve back into the world of the ordinary man, and he has reclaimed his identity.
For me, the threat to identity, and the fear of one’s mind becoming infected or possessed, is an important part of the thriller. In John Le Carré’s books, such as Our Game, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and A Small Town in Germany, this is represented by a struggle between one’s humanity and the ruthlessness of the spy game. The hero does not necessarily win by defeating the villain; the hero wins by passing in and out of the villain’s world with their identity as a human being intact. At the close of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the character of Alec Leamas (played by Richard Burton in the 1965 film), who faces certain death on the Berlin wall by reaching back for his innocent girlfriend, has defeated his demons. Even as he is shot in sight of safety, he has won; he has kept his humanity.
Applying some of this stuff
My novel Flashback is a thriller with science fiction elements; it involves time travel and people with microchips in their head.
As usual with a story, you want to create characters with whom the reader might identify and then put them through Hell — the characters, not the reader. I decided that I wanted to make this story as much psychological as physical — though it does contain a lot of action — so I concentrated on the threat to identity.
Saskia Brandt, a character from my first novel, is a time traveller from the year 2023 who is stranded in 2003. Loosely speaking, she’s the heroine. Cory, a time traveller from fifty years or so later, is also stranded in the past.
Without going into the plot, they both have a problem. They have seen the future and know the form that it takes. They are in a past that, for them, has already happened. Essentially, then, they are both confronted daily with a demonstration that they have no free will. They’ve become part of a machine that will move unstoppably in a particular direction, and nothing they say or do can change things.
This is a direct threat to identity, specifically the component that tells us our actions are generated by ourselves, and that we must take responsibility for them. This threat is particularly acute for Saskia, because, in my first book, she met herself as a middle-aged woman, and knows that it is impossible for her to die. However, she manages to maintain her essential humanity by acting as though what she does makes a difference.
Cory reacts quite differently. He can’t accept the evidence of his eyes that everyone he meets is an automaton, because that means he must be an automaton too. He becomes unstable, insane, and grows into the villain of the piece.
Of course, the book employs the standard tricks too: the chase, betrayal, plot twists, suspense and cliff-hangers…