Thrillerfest VII: What Is a Thriller, Are There Thriller Laws, and Does Evil Exist?

Held in New York on July 11-15 and including both a Craftfest and an Agentfest, Thrillerfest VII is a great place to meet thriller writers, both gilt-edged and newly minted, and to engage in discussion about the genre‚ even if, like me, you’re no thriller writer. This year’s conversation seemed to proceed in almost question-and-answer mode. What is a thriller? In the What Are the Bones of a Thriller? panel, agent Pam Ahearn called it a story pitting a generally sympathetic protagonist against a generally unsympathetic antagonist, building suspense to a satisfying conclusion Ahearn added that there must be a conflict, and when it comes to attracting her attention, voice is everything.

Carla Buckley (The Things That Keep Us Here), one of Ahearn’s authors, said Pam always told me that in a thriller you know the antagonist from the beginning, unlike a mystery. Buckley, whose works fall into the emerging family thriller or personal thriller subgenre, added that she wanted to explore a villain with no emotion‚ in her first book, a dreadful pandemic. Tosca Lee, who writes speculative fiction with Ted Dekker, focused on pacing and story questions, adding that the foremost concern is moving the story forward. Tim Wohlforth (No Time To Mourn) offered that in a thriller you know who the bad guy is, and you’ve gotta stop him, further pointing out that short chapters with cliffhanger endings do the trick.

Kate White, editor of Cosmopolitan and the author of the Bailey Weggins mystery series and several suspenseful standalones, defined thrillers as books that meant that she had to sleep with the lights on. Asked by her publisher to work more in the thriller mode, she looked to add dread: the look on a face, something misplaced in a room that the reader notices but the protagonist doesn’t. Those moments are really scary.

Finally, Tom Young (The Renegades), noted that thrillers are essentially novels on steroids. Any novel has a problem to solve but in a thriller it’s really, really urgent. Young looks to establish a clearly identifiable obstacle right at the beginning, and, as a big-hit author, seems to succeed. He writes military fiction, where the stakes are high, and obstacles are not hard to come by.

By definition, a thriller must deliver thrills, but how to do it? Here are some insight from the authors on the panel How Do You Create Suspense on Every Page? Andrea Kane (The Line Between Here and Gone) advises no sidetracking. Legal thrillmeister Philip Margolin (Capitol Murder) agrees: Get rid of anything that will slow the action down.

Grant Blackwood, author of the Briggs Tanner series, picked up Margolin’s rollercoaster metaphor and ran with it, adding that you create suspense through story beats (changing how the character sees things), different scripts (two characters want different things), a must-do-it-but-cannot conundrum, and sudden, purposeful action. Best-selling romantic suspense and historical romance author Catherine Coulter likes subplots, as you peel away the narrative like an onion. Her word for it: complexify.

When her agent called her first work boring, Australian visitor Katherine Howell, award-winning author of the Detective Ella Marconi series, went back to figure out what went wrong. She learned that you must care about the characters, and there must be uncertainty about what will happen.

Finally, South Dakota‚ based Sandra Brannan, author of the Liv Bergen series, argued that to keep the flow going one must pepper the narrative with the data you need early, not when the scene comes. She also pointed out that suspense isn’t always a blood-and-guts thing but can be found in tender moments, citing poignant events from her own life to illustrate.

Are There Thriller Laws? That was the question posed by one panel, and though throughout the conference authors advised attendees to find their own way, a few bits of advice did emerge here. Pamela Callow (Tattooed): Put your character in jeopardy. John Dobbyn (Black Diamond): When you write, entertain and do anything you want. Allison Leota (Law of Attraction): The threat of violence is more interesting than violence itself.

John Lescroart, author of the best-selling Dismas Hardy series: Conflict is the root of all drama; I like conflict in every scene. Tracy March, who comes to the ethical dilemmas of thriller writing after a career in pharmaceuticals, where there really is ethical dilemma, said: Don’t get bogged down in letting people know you did your research. Finally, legal thriller author Larry Thompson, a longtime trial attorney who’s been through over 300 jury trials, advised, Pull out the boring parts working up to a trial and save the testimony for the courtroom.

You can’t have a thriller without a bad guy, which does beg the question Does Evil Exist? At that wide-ranging panel, T. Jefferson Parker (The Jaguar) said that few topics are more interesting than good vs. evil and went on to argue that there are gradients of good and evil in all of us. Moderator Peter James pointed out that evil can be seen as supernatural, as something inside us, or as something imposed. But the real argument came down to nurture vs. nature, with several panelists agreeing that Thomas’s Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs has changed thriller writing in the last decades by tilting it from the former to the latter.

When it comes to evil, Alma Katsu (The Taker Trilogy) had the last word. Her novels have a gothic/fantasy flare, but her longtime work at the CIA was deadly earnest: she was a senior analyst investigating genocide and mass atrocity in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Genocide occurs not because you are hungry but because you want to demonize your neighbors,” she observed. “Is there evil? Honestly, yes. A sobering thought for thriller fans, whose favorite reads not only entertain but highlight the darkness around us every day.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.