We’re All Thriller Writers Now by L.J. Sellers

How do you define a thriller? Today L.J. Sellers, author of the award-winning Detective Jackson series, is here to talk about the expanding use of the term in fiction, as well as the reasons behind the increased usage of “thriller” to describe a book. Though not as contentious as defining the term “noir” – an argument that has been known to have ruined friendships and even lead to fisticuffs – there’s no question the parameters of what counts as a “thriller” have been steadily expanding. So, read what L.J. has to say on the subject and then weigh in with your opinion in the comments: how do you define a thriller?

LJ SellersThrilling: adj., producing sudden, strong, and deep emotion or excitement

Doesn’t that pretty much describe all great novels? Yet according to librarians and bookstore owners, traditional labeling defines thrillers as fast-paced, realistic books that focus on plot more than character and have a high-stakes conflict as the heart of the story. And by high stakes they mean a lot more than a single life—or a series of selected lives—must be at risk. Whole cities or ways of life must be in peril.

But now, with many writers labeling their own work, just about any story with a crime or an element of suspense is called a thriller. Just as one example, Amazon’s #1 book on the thriller list is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, a story of a marriage gone bad and a missing wife. It’s all about the characters. Readers love the story and many have labeled it thrilling, and being a fan, I plan to read it.

As a member of International Thriller Writers, I’ve written many features about new releases for the Big Thrill newsletter. With some, I’ve scratched my head and thought: Why is this called a thriller? The stories usually sound terrific, but still, I would call them paranormal suspense or historical mystery.

But I’m guilty of thriller labeling too. My Detective Jackson series falls under crime fiction, police procedurals, mysteries, and suspense. But a year ago, I added the word thriller to the subtitles—Detective Jackson Mystery/Thrillers—to let readers know that they aren’t traditional mysteries that can be solved at a leisurely pace and that there is plenty of action and a major element of suspense.

Also, labeling the novels thrillers expands their metadata and allows more readers to find them. But are they really thrillers? Traditionalists would probably say no. Murders, assaults, and robberies in a midsized Oregon city don’t represent high-stakes conflict. My new publisher, Thomas & Mercer, doesn’t plan to use the thriller label. So in January, the series goes back to being the “Detective Jackson Mysteries.” But I hope Amazon lists the books in the thriller category, anyway.

Because I want to reach as broad an audience as possible. Still, I wonder how much readers care about labels. Some readers love thrillers of every kind, and they judge a book by its cover, description, and word of mouth reputation, rather than by its category. Other readers actively dislike thrillers, and won’t bother with any book labeled that way. Further discussion reveals that what they mean is they don’t like spy stories or novels with big explosions or long chase scenes. So for some readers, thriller can have a negative connotation.

My website says “Author of provocative mysteries & thrillers” and I’m happy with that. In addition to my Jackson series, I have three standalones—all highly suspenseful, but with no spies, explosions, or car chases.

What does the term thriller mean to you? Does the label make a book more enticing?

L.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery/thriller series—a Readers Favorite award winner—as well as provocative standalone thrillers. Her novels have been highly praised by Mystery Scene, Crimespree, and RT Reviews, and her Jackson books are Kindle bestsellers as well as top-ranked novels. L.J., who resides in Eugene, Oregon where her novels are set, is also an award-winning journalist who earned the Grand Neal. When not plotting murders, she enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes. To learn more about L.J., visit her website.


  • Becky

    November 1, 2012 - 1:21 PM

    I agree with you Gayle…a thriller has to be a pretty big thing. For instance I just finished reading “The Sacred Impostor” by J. R. Lankford, the 3rd book in the “Jesus Thief” series. The story is about the planned kidnap of a reportedly sacred child. The story plot takes you into the heart of Mexico. As a reader, you get to feel so many intense things- what it feels like to be a part of illegal immigration (what it is like to be one of those people who risk their life to smuggle across the boarder), and the desperation of trying to find a kidnapped child- really fast paced. To me this is a thriller.


  • Peg Herring

    October 26, 2012 - 6:44 AM

    Great discussion here. I’ve long been frustrated (being a recovering English teacher) with use of the term “thriller” for books that are something else. My concern has made no appreciable difference to the world’s view.:)
    We often define words according to our own understanding, and there’s no sense arguing with someone who has a different understanding (dare I say the word “marriage”?) or a good reason to expand a definition (Amazon sales would be an excellent reason!)
    The term that (IMHO) should be used in many cases is “suspense” rather than “thriller.” Some mysteries have fast pacing and immediate threat to make readers keep turning pages, not only to learn who the killer is but to learn whether the protag and his crew survive. Other mysteries are more cerebral and therefore less suspenseful. Neither are thrillers in the classic sense, but in an age when every actress is glamorous and every soldier is a hero, it’s to be expected.

    • L.J. Sellers

      October 26, 2012 - 9:51 AM

      Your last line says it well, Peg. Our culture does tend to hype certain things, and using the word thriller is a way to hype stories. Your comment about soldiers hit home with me as well. That was one of the themes in my Jackson story Liars, Cheaters & Thieves.

  • Hitch

    October 25, 2012 - 2:09 PM

    When I think, “thriller,” I think of Tom Cruise running, running, running. I know that’s narrow, but I do. I think of Bourne, though, also (the book–not the movie version); that’s not really a national “threat” in the sense that an entire city will be destroyed, etc., but more of a threat to US moralistic decency, I suppose. When I think of mysteries, I don’t think of “cozies,” per se; simply a formula that includes a dead/missing person, and a protagonist that fills the detective role, along with clues along the way and red herrings, to enable the reader to endeavor to solve the crime. I agree that the “bad guy” in thrillers is often known almost from the beginning, which is a large departure from “mystery” structure. I think mysteries tend to have more of a reveal or two; thrillers have a climax, usually violent.

    Hmmmm. Interesting question, LJ! Thanks for asking it. 😉

  • Jenny Milchman

    October 25, 2012 - 11:50 AM

    To my mind the difference between thriller/suspense/mystery has to do with pacing. In a thriller there is less time for pauses between scenes, more emphasis on action, and less on reflection. But you’re right–we’re all aiming to write something that thrills 🙂

    • L.J. Sellers

      October 25, 2012 - 1:24 PM

      Thanks for stopping in, Jenny. You’re right about the pacing, but like most things, pacing is a continuum, and the difficulty is drawing the line and having a clear label with books like mine that are in middle somewhere… but leaning toward fast.

  • Anne Hudson

    October 25, 2012 - 5:25 AM

    As a reader, rather than a writer, I do feel that there is a difference between the two terms. “Thriller” implies more action, grittier stuff, and “mystery” cosier books. There is, therefore, a whole lot which falls between the two somewhere and I make a point of checking both categories for choices. To add to the confusion, there is the whole realm of “suspense”, and “crime fiction” too and lots of other sub-groups.

    I favour “mystery” for the cosy stuff, “crime fiction” where it is an actual crime which is committed and it is investigated by the police (maybe among others), and “thriller” when the main protagonist acts outside the law (not always by choice).

    These are my definitions – I am aware that finding the type of book I want to read requires searching in more than one place.

    • L.J. Sellers

      October 25, 2012 - 9:23 AM

      I like those definitions! Which is why I refer to myself as a crime fiction novelist rather than a mystery writer.

  • Todd Ritter

    October 24, 2012 - 8:20 PM

    I must admit that this has confounded me for years now. When pitching my first novel, DEATH NOTICE, to agents, I called it a thriller. When I eventually got a publisher, the first thing my editor said to me was, “You wrote a great mystery.” That was news to me, because I was certain I had written a thriller. But sure enough, the book cover says “A mystery.” Now, as I ready my third book for publication, I still have no idea why a thriller is called a thriller and a mystery a mystery and everything in between.

    Fortunately, it seems to me that readers don’t care about such silly designations. As you mentioned, L.J., readers this summer didn’t give a damn whether GONE GIRL was a thriller or a mystery or romantic suspense. They just wanted a good story.

    • L.J. Sellers

      October 24, 2012 - 9:24 PM

      If your publisher labeled your story a mystery, it must be because the antagonist isn’t known until the very end. In thrillers, the antagonist is often/usually an ongoing part of the story, including a POV role. Thanks for commenting, Todd.

  • Jim Blanchard

    October 24, 2012 - 4:58 PM

    Thoughtful words. As a new writer, I have been somewhat at a loss to know how to nail down the genre of my novel. Understanding that there can be a great deal of subjectivity involved in genre definition, can you suggest any guidelines or a list for some guidance?

    • L.J. Sellers

      October 24, 2012 - 9:29 PM

      Jim, I can only offer guidance if your book fits into the crime genre. Thrillers not only have high-stakes action, but also, the antagonist if often known throughout the story and the question is about who will triumph. In a mystery, the perpetrator of the crime isn’t known until the end. Crime fiction is a broader category that encompasses mysteries, thrillers, crime capers, noir, cozies, and detective fiction. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  • Peg Brantley

    October 24, 2012 - 2:52 PM

    I admit it. I’m confused. A few years ago I asked a writer what the difference was between a suspense and a thriller and he said that as far as he was concerned, the only difference was the advance.

    I’m likely to remain confused and am just grateful, now, to have the huge umbrella of “crime fiction” for my books to fall into. Somewhere.

  • Charles Wingfield

    October 24, 2012 - 1:23 PM

    Personally, I think the term definitely deserves to be used for books other than those with global conspiracy, major city under siege type plots. While not every mystery has thriller aspects, I think the term is appropriate to use when a mystery also contains a lot of action and not just a post-crime piecing together of clues. As long as something, big or small, is at stake in real time that’s a thriller by my definition.

    • L.J. Sellers

      October 24, 2012 - 9:21 PM

      I’m inclined to agree, Charles. That’s why I call my series mystery/thrillers. Thanks for stopping in.

  • L.J. Sellers

    October 24, 2012 - 1:20 PM

    Thanks for commenting, Gayle. But I’m not sure I agree that serial killer stories belong in the narrow definition of thriller. I think they’re in the suspense group, or sometimes romantic suspense, because many of them also focus on the relationship between the law enforcement officer and one of the intended victims.

  • Gayle Carline

    October 24, 2012 - 12:03 PM

    To me, thriller has a rather narrow meaning, although I don’t mind if other people call their books thrillers. When I think of a thriller, I think of a threat with global, or at least community-wide, implications. A terrorist plot to blow up a US landmark is a thriller. So is a serial killer who is terrorizing a town. The “threat” part is important, too. It is not as much the past crime that must be solved as it is a future crime to be prevented. And with a thriller, there is always a ticking clock.

    One thing I can never understand: when the protagonist is in the legal profession, it seems like the stories are called “Legal Thrillers” or “Legal Suspense,” even if they meet none of the criteria for anything but a mystery. Are there no Legal Mysteries? (Or do we all write the illegal kind? LOL)