The Universal Appeal of the Thriller

We’re working our way down the Foolscap Global Story Grid and the next line we need to fill in are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions of our chosen genre/s.  But before I lay out the nuts and bolts of the form, it’s absolutely worth taking the time to consider why The Thriller exists in the first place. So in that spirit, here’s my take on why the well tuned thriller is irresistible:

Al Zuckerman, a very experienced and successful literary agent who founded and runs the esteemed literary agency Writers House, wrote a book some years ago (1994) that is still vital, Writing the Blockbuster Novel. In it, Zuckerman recommends that if a potential novelist wants to succeed commercially, he should write a novel with multiple points of view. This is sage advice from someone who represents the extremely successful writer Ken Follett. In his book, Zuckerman actually walks the reader through Follett’s multiple outlines for The Man from St. Petersberg. I highly recommend reading it, as you’ll get a very clear understanding of one writer’s analytical process before he even contemplates writing his first draft.

Follett is a big believer in outlining. I worked for one of his Editor’s years ago at Delacorte Press, the wonderful Jackie Farber, and had the pleasure of reading a number of his outlines before he wrote word one. While innovations in his story came to him during the drafting that he hadn’t anticipated before he dove in, his outline was comprehensive. That is, he tackled the very difficult work of creating a Beginning, Middle and End to his book before he began writing. He didn’t depend upon the guiding light of the Muse alone to steer him to shore, he mapped out his journey before he set sail. And wouldn’t you know it, while he worked fresh ideas that took his outline from a “B” story to an “A” story emerged.

He made sure he knew where he was going before he set out on the journey. Through his example (and many other extremely gifted and hardworking writers including the master Elmore Leonard), I began my quest to conceive and develop The Story Grid.  Twenty plus years later…here it finally is!

Follett’s kind of sweeping novel that is as much about an historical time and place as it is about its characters requires a very unique set of skills. Al Zuckerman is certainly right that when a novel of great scope hits the marketplace and touches a nerve, it can become a blockbuster success.

However, it is my contention that while the broad, often multi-genre historical saga (Dr. Zhivago, Pillars of the Earth, the entire James Michener backlist etc.) can result in very compelling story, it does not have the commercial potential today that it did only a few decades ago. That is, beyond Ken Follett, there are few writers making hay with this approach today. Just take a look at today’s bestseller lists and you’ll see that this kind of work is not as represented as it once was.

As time passes, things change. Like everything else, story changes too. What was once a dominant Genre just a few decades ago often recedes in popularity. Why aren’t there novels like Rich Man, Poor Man or The Carpetbaggers or even Less than Zero on bestseller lists anymore? Audiences grew weary of them and moved elsewhere.

But then again if I were to give advice to a young writer looking for an angle…I’d suggest writing a Saga.  When there is a hole in the marketplace, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no market for that kind of book.  It usually indicates an opportunity.  Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch being a major bestseller and critical sensation stands as direct proof. In fact, I can anticipate that within the next few years, we’ll have more of these epic realistic sagas with deep story reaching larger and larger audiences. The good old-fashioned epic social drama is on the ascendant.

What determine the degree of popularity of any one particular Genre are the vagaries of the time period in which it has been written. What were once the popcorn Stories of a time, decades later prove to be dusty and unpopular. Westerns were once the bread and butter of book publishing. Paperback houses survived on churning out Westerns, sometimes five of them a month. Now the Western is all but forgotten. Other than a few classics from the arena, Lonesome Dove and the Louis L’Amour oevre perhaps, or post-modern takes that splice the Western into other genres, you can’t give away Westerns today. There was once a genre called the Pennydreadful that was hugely popular in the Victorian era. Not so anymore. Although there is a television series just out working hard to revive it.

So what is the story genre of our time?


The thriller is the Story form of our time because it concerns the individual coping with omnipresent and often difficult to even comprehend antagonism.Thrillers boil down our modern experience to a psychological core that every literate person and even illiterate person on the planet can understand, sympathize and empathize.

Contemporary civilization is a dizzying mix of sensory input designed to elicit individual compliance and unconscious behavioral action. We are inundated with psychically damaging messages—we’re too fat, we’re ugly, we’re low class, we’re not cool, we’re lazy, we’re never going to make it. On top of those assaults are prescriptive solutions to overcoming our inadequacies—go on a diet, join a health club, go to college, wear hip hop clothes, take this seminar. They are targeted to us every single day, hour, minute, and even second of our lives.

And these are no longer static images from the Mad Men era. They are loaded in full High Definition motion on billboards, in cabs, on buses, on the Internet and every single cable channel. While the commercial messaging is impossible to ignore or avoid, it is modern life’s “control” messaging that really knocks us on our ass. I’ll not get into the work of Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays here, but he’s the ghost in all of these machines.

The granddaddy of all messages we receive is this: WE’RE NOT SAFE.

We are told that there are boogeymen at every corner. Al Qaeda, and now ISIS and a slew of other terrorist organizations that we know little of, want to destroy us. Pedophiles are stalking our children. Our government is failing us. The world is getting so hot, it will soon melt down. Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, are imminent. Storm watches, breaking news, lone gunmen, sociopaths, psychopaths, liars, cheaters, swindlers, gangs, feral youth, pirates, unstable veterans, racists, sexists, drones, the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the Police, MI5, MI6, the Stasi, KGB, DEA, IRS, drunk drivers, texting drivers, homeless people… The fear factory is churning out product like no other time in history.

To make matters worse? We all live alone. We belong to no protective tribe. The nuclear family is a couple or just one parent with a kid or two or three. Perhaps all from different partners. Single parents pulled in a million directions. It’s just mano a mano.

This is why the thriller is the form that holds the blockbuster baton these days. [Let’s not forget that Ken Follett has written one of the best thrillers of all time, Eye of the Needle as well as his epic sagas.]

I also think we are attracted to the thriller because of the chaotic and yet intricately connected character of our age. Modern man is assaulted with data from the moment he wakes to the moment he falls asleep. While we are all connected now by the world wide web, we don’t see any real grand humanitarian design coming to bear as a result. There are millions of people starving, being slaughtered, used as slaves, and our economies are in complete flux. Everything that modern man once held dear and believed (technology will solve all of our problems) is now in doubt. There just doesn’t seem to be any way to navigate the world without feeling in one way or another victimized by forces beyond our control.

In order to find our way in this chaos, we seek stories that give us hope and faith that we can persevere.

While over the top Action fantasy stories are certainly still viable and commercially irresistible (hence the Batman, Superman, Avenger, comic book movie franchises), long form stories in novel form that do not sugarcoat reality or simplify success help satisfy our need for order. As we often feel like we have no impact on the world whatsoever and are treated by the powerful as consumption machines to be programmed by the latest algorithms, we deeply identify with thriller protagonists.

The thriller is all about one individual negotiating a complex world, living it to the limits of human existence, and usually triumphing over seemingly overwhelming forces of antagonism. Isn’t this a description of what we often feel we are up against every day of our lives? We love thrillers because they reassure us that there is an order to the world and one person can make a difference, have an impact. When we leave a great movie thriller or finish a great thriller novel, we have a catharsis. The experience purges our gloom and gives us reinforcement to stay the course.

If Clarice Starling can survive having Hannibal Lecter in her head, all the while chasing a schizophrenic serial killer flaying women to make himself a woman suit, we can certainly make it through another day at work.

So in the next post, I’ll lay out the conventions and obligatory scenes of this vital genre.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.



23 comments on “The Universal Appeal of the Thriller

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks for the Zuckerman recommendation. I remember coming across that book and being turned off by the title, but I will definitely read it now. My own brain is wired to outline, so it will be helpful to see Follett’s process. I’m still optimistic that I can boil the whole thing onto one Foolscap page though, so I’ll be tuning in to the rest of this series. As always, thanks Shawn!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mary,
      I find the work behind the work fascinating no matter the process. And you will find the way Follett works to be very encouraging.
      All the best,

  2. Joel D Canfield says:

    I love knowing why. This nudges me toward deeper stakes in my books.

  3. Although I didn’t own a TV for eight years, I married a guy with two TVs. So, naturally, now I see the current shows and take note that most of them are thrillers of sorts. I’ve often wondered why… Now I know. If those people can make it through that drama, I should be able to make it through another day at work/home/wherever. You really hit the nail on the head. Thanks for that!

  4. Steve says:

    I always end reading the post wanting more……

  5. Michael Perkins says:


    I’ve been reading along since the site went up but never commented before. Love all the posts.

    Today I listened to both podcasts you linked to in an earlier post. Really great stuff. It was very helpful to hear you talk through a lot of the stuff you’ve been posting.

    Eagerly awaiting future posts as well as the book next year.

    Thanks for sharing your insights.


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      Thanks for checking in. Glad to hear. Lots more to come. More podcasts scheduled and Steve Pressfield and I are working up a whole slew of other stuff to share down the road. Plus I’m not halfway through yet with the introductory material for The Story Grid. Hang in there.
      All the best,

  6. Shawn,
    Like others, I’ve been reading your posts since Day 1, always with bated breath for the next. (In fact, I’ve read them all at least 6 times now including the comments others have posted.) I learn something new every time I re-read your posts. They are so brilliantly laid out that I’m gaining tons of knowledge in both a linear and cyclical fashion. (That’s really tough for a teacher to achieve so kudos to you!)

    I’ve commented once so far (to say thanks for being so generous with your time and your brilliance of craft) but I’m a newbie at writing and I’m not only in awe of you and your brain but I’m also in awe of many of your contributors and their brains. Needless to say, the “newbie and in awe combo” has kept me rather quiet.

    However, I feel compelled (and also a little more confident now) to say I loved this comment you made: “…I can anticipate that within the next few years, we’ll have more of these epic realistic sagas with deep story reaching larger and larger audiences. The good old-fashioned epic social drama is on the ascendant.”

    I’m currently writing a transformational memoir (as the external genre) but I’d like to try telling the story as if it were an “epic social drama” because that’s how I see it in my Ally McBeal mind. (If you don’t know who Ally McBeal is, she is the main character in the legal comedy-drama tv series of the same name in the late 90s. She and other characters in the show are eccentric, humorous and dramatic.) I don’t see myself as the hero of the story. I see myself as more of the anti-hero bumbling along, making mistakes, figuring things out as I go and accidentally achieving something I didn’t set out to achieve. I was trying to achieve something else.

    In thinking this through (and in synthesizing everything you’ve written so far), I’d like to tell the story in 3 parts (I’m going to use the structure of the heroine’s journey which is a bit different than Campbell’s heroic structure). Part 1 would be mini-plot, Part 2 Arch Plot, and Part 3 would be back to mini-plot.

    I want to make sure I’m understanding and synthesizing everything correctly. Is it possible to write a transformational memoir and epic social drama mash? If so, would the epic social drama part be the internal genre or would that still be external genre? (Worldview Revelation would be in the mix, too.) Also, is it possible to make a mini-plot, Arch Plot, mini-plot switch work?

    Thanks so much for EVERYTHING (and sorry for such a long post)!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Debbie,
      The Structural genres are a PICK ONE kind of deal. As you are describing what seems like an INTERNAL GLOBAL GENRE I’d suggest the MINIPLOT as structure. Remember that the MINIPLOT still has many of the same elements as the ARCHPLOT. In fact, it’s basically an INTERNAL story more than an EXTERNAL one. I think the longer you hang out here and if you get the chance to read the final book THE STORY GRID, you’ll be in a much better place to answer these questions. Remember that the STRUCTURE genres support the CONTENT, but it is the CONTENT that will drive your three part Story (Beginning hook, middle build, ending payoff) More on all of this to come. Thanks for chiming in.
      All the best,

      1. That’s super helpful, Shawn. Thank you! (I think I’ve been over-analyzing things as I attempt to absorb all the info.) I will definitely be HANGING OUT and BUYING THE BOOK!

  7. Bonnie M. Benson says:

    Interesting description of the times we live in – especially as portrayed in the media. Wonder if the flip side to it is the huge popularity of the romance today?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Bonnie,
      I could write a whole book on the LOVE STORY. It’s a primal genre that changes with the times as well. Thanks for the input.
      All the best,

  8. Kim says:

    Dear Shawn,
    I’d like to read a few of your thoughts on the love story, particularly a romantic comedy script, reading suggestions are also appreciated.

  9. Herbert Exner says:

    I read The Goldfinch (Der Distelfink, in German) and my impression was: D. Tartt has made a film first and then wrote a precise “retelling”.

    BTW, I read 3 different “books” – the NY book, the Las Vegas book and the Amsterdam book.

    1. Tina Goodman says:

      I’m still reading that epic saga, THE GOLDFINCH. (I read several books during the same time period.) I read Joyce Carol Oates’ THE GRAVEDIGGER’S DAUGHTER recently and it too seemed like an epic saga.

  10. Michael Beverly says:

    I reviewed this book on Amazon in 2001. So, 14 years later…..

    As I started reading this post I thought of Eye of the Needle, and then, Shawn you mentioned it in the midst of explaining something I could see from my own reading habits, the giant epic story like Pillars is not something I seek out reading.

    Oddly, one of the reasons I’m not a Follet completist is he’s written too many books I read and barely liked or didn’t even try to read.

    Which leads me to a question you’ve probably have been asked before and has been brewing in my mind since starting to read every post here.

    Why/how do books like Eye of the Needle and Time to Kill by Grisham get followed up by such lessor works? I mean, how does Grisham write his best work at the beginning of his career and, honestly, same for Follet?

    And don’t even get me started on Silence of the Lambs….I mean, seriously the follow up to that? What happened?

    When I compare Carrie to later works, I think to myself, this makes total sense, King wrote a good book, but compared to so many others, Carrie is like a dime pulp fiction trade paperback.

    Nelson DeMille reminds me of the same thing, for both examples, I mean the Gold Coast, one of the best novels I’ve ever read (and it came along well into his writing career), but the follow up to it, one of the worst stinkers that I actually made myself finish, and he’s done a few other bland books mixed in with great ones.

    The contrast is crazy.

    Why do some writers evolve so, and other do not, and some waver back and forth…

    Is it just money/fame/laziness or some other unknown thing that nobody can answer?

    1. Joel D Canfield says:

      In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell suggests that inborn talent rises early, then falls off through life, but learned talent starts slow and builds to infinity. Or death.

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        I was more under the impression that “inborn” talent was mostly a myth. 10,000 hours and all.
        Sure, if we are talking sports skill or a natural singing voice, it’s either in your genes or not, but I think the fact of the matter is that to be a star in sports or Hollywood you have the best chance if you are born into it, not because of genes but because it’s “who you know”.
        King’s work would seem to counter this idea that inborn talent drifts off over time, clearly he has evolved immensely over his career.
        While Grisham…if you asked me if I’d rather read his latest book (of which I don’t even know the title), or read A Time to Kill (again, for the third or fourth time), I’d choose the later.

        1. Mozart. Picasso. Sure, they built on what they were born with, but they had more than most of us from day one.

          Quoting from this article:

          1) conceptual innovators who peak creatively early in life. They know what they want to accomplish and then set out with certainty to accomplish this. (Examples include Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Wells).

          2) experimental innovators who peak creatively later. They dabble, try new things (some of which succeed and some fail), learn from their mistakes, and make incremental improvements to their art until they’re capable of real masterpiece. Examples include Paul Cezanne, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, and Jackson Pollock).

          When we toss around words like “genius” it’s easy to think we’re talking about the same thing when we’re not.

          Of course, all these ideas are generalities, not fast rules. And then there’s the notion of whether talent and success are even related.

          1. Michael Beverly says:

            Maybe. Maybe not.

            Mozart, I found out only recently, was born to a pianist and was basically trained from infancy.

            Tiger Woods was hitting golf balls before he could use a toilet.

            I think this kind of influence on a growing mind of a child is far more important than some supposed “innate” talent.

            The difference between writing and say, playing music, acting, singing, painting, playing football or golf, is that you cannot write with a little child as play. It’s impossible.

            You can read to a child, and children that read veraciously are the best candidates for future best selling authors.

            Wayne Gretzky was out in the back “yard” ice skating before he knew his left hand from his right, this became his play, his fun, I’m not sure there is a parallel in writing.

            But inborn genius? Hmmm.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      So sorry for not responding sooner.
      My gut re: the why some writers stretch while others stay in their comfort zones is that it’s hard to stretch. It’s hard to accept the fact that when you try to move forward you may move a step or two back. This is why the work is the thing, not the reward of the work. If you put your mind to the work and let the rest fall where it may, then you’re more likely to damn the torpedoes and press. I also think that there is a lack of analysis about the craft (hence my whole Story Grid mission) and that without a serious source of thought about what Stories are and what they are about that it becomes incumbent upon the writer to figure out all of the stuff themselves without a source of reference. So everyone has to figure out the wheel before they can get their story moving. Why not lay out the design of the wheel and give writers a leg up?
      Anyway, it’s so damn hard to write anything that I’m reluctant to criticize those who dedicate themselves to doing the work, no matter the flaws. God knows my stuff is flawed and always will be. It just takes so much to write a novel or screenplay or anything else that I can forgive just about anything of anyone when it comes to putting a project forward. Doesn’t mean I’ll recommend it to anyone thought. As long as they keep at it, I think they are on the right path.
      All the best,

    3. Tina Goodman says:

      Sometimes deadlines must be met and a writer has to turn in their work even if they know it is not at their best level.

  11. Robin Young says:

    Just to be pedantic: Mano a Mano literally means “hand to hand” in Spanish. Not “Man to man” or “Man against Man” although this is how we are using it now. Even Webster defines it as “in direct competition or conflict especially between two people”. Common use defining a commonly used phrase. I guess it is okay to use it that way in our writing too.

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