Nothing carries more emotional wallop than fear. And running from something that wants to catch you, injure you, eat you or otherwise kill you is the essence of a thriller.
Examples of thrillers are nearly infinite and include Jean Valjean running from a relentless Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, the railroad building crew being stalked by the almost supernatural man-eating lions in The Ghost and the Darkness, the crew of the USCSS Nostromo battling horrific monsters in Alien, and civilization facing eminent peril from an unseen virus in Hot Zone.
A general rule of thumb is that the greater the innocence and vulnerability of the hunted, the greater the sense of peril experienced by the reader or audience.
My first novel, Soul Catcher, features a deaf boy no one believes who is being hunted by a powerful wind spirit. When it finishes wreaking revenge of the citizens of Seattle for the murder of an Native American shaman, it will be coming for the boy as a sacrifice.
In my recently published second novel, Swimming with the Angels, an innocent young man, the son of immigrants, is forced to flee from a Mexican drug cartel known for cutting off the heads of their enemies when his wife steals a $100 million from the hedge fund where she works. The cartel not only wants their money back, but to make a savage statement in case anyone else should be crazy enough to try stealing from them. Meanwhile, the other main character, a beautiful young blind woman, is secretly using self-harm to deal with the grief of losing her mother and unfair treatment by her family. We watch in horror as she becomes progressively more disturbed during the course of the novel.
My personal satisfaction comes from ramping up the tension between the reader and the story. Being told, “I couldn’t put the book down,” is the greatest compliment as a writer that I can think of. James N. Frey, whom I was fortunate to meet at the Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference, offers several key ingredients to writing a good thriller in his book How to Write a Damn Good Novel.
A worthy protagonist
A compelling conflict
An underlying organization that propels the story and rises to a climax
A resolution that satisfies the reader
There is another key element that I think separates a great thriller from the ordinary and that is Theme. Les Misérables includes themes of love, honor, and passion but, at its heart, you are most emotionally moved by injustice.
Soul Catcher includes themes of love and courage but is significantly concerned with preserving respect for the earth and its peoples, both living and dead, including the handicapped and even those spiritual beings we cannot see.
In addition to love and respect for the handicapped, Swimming with the Angels deals with the central theme of loss and the profound effects that grief can inflict upon our psyches.