Thriller is a genre of fiction, having numerous, often overlapping sub-genres. This genre of fiction is characterized by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety. We're all guilty of loving certain tropes. Today I'm going to discuss some popular ones and offer some recommendations in case you're trying to figure out what to read next.
The Main Character Can't Leave Well Enough Alone
This thriller trope is when the main character keeps obsessing and forcing themselves into a situation, usually not of the good variety. Some digging good, being an idiot - bad. There's a fine line between enough and too much and sometimes they just can't help it.
Recommendation: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Synopsis: Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy. And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar. Now they’ll see; she’s much more than just the girl on the train...
A Dark Past and Buried Secrets
This is a super popular trope because it easily builds suspense. It's typically stretched out over the entire course of the book to keep you on the edge of your seat. This can be a major hit or miss for readers because the entire experience of the story relies on what the characters dark past is or what secrets they had buried.
Recommendation: You Are Not Alone by Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen
Synopsis: Shay Miller wants to find love, but it eludes her. She wants to be fulfilled, but her job is a dead end. She wants to belong, but her life is increasingly lonely.
Until Shay meets the Moore sisters. Cassandra and Jane live a life of glamorous perfection, and always get what they desire. When they invite Shay into their circle, everything seems to get better. Shay would die for them to like her. She may have to.
One Story From Two Perspectives or Multiple POV
Two perspectives are better than one. Multiple points of view allow you to see what's happening from various angles and it keeps you guessing and intrigued. Plus there are many ways this can be done. The chapters can alternate back and forth or half the book can be done in one perspective and the last half from another perspective.
Recommendation: The One by John Marrs
Synopsis: How far would you go to find The One?
A simple DNA test is all it takes. Just a quick mouth swab and soon you'll be matched with your perfect partner--the one you're genetically made for.
That's the promise made by Match Your DNA. A decade ago, the company announced that they had found the gene that pairs each of us with our soul mate. Since then, millions of people around the world have been matched. But the discovery has its downsides: test results have led to the breakup of countless relationships and upended the traditional ideas of dating, romance and love.
Now five very different people have received the notification that they've been "Matched." They're each about to meet their one true love. But "happily ever after" isn't guaranteed for everyone. Because even soul mates have secrets. And some are more shocking than others...
Untrustworthy Main Characters or Unreliable Narrator
Nothing is more suspenseful than not knowing if you can trust what you're reading. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see
I'm just a poor boy, I need no sympathy
Because I'm easy come, easy go, little high, little low
Any way the wind blows doesn't really matter to me, to me
(Queen moment over. You get the point.)
Recommendation: He Started It by Samantha Downing
Synopsis: Beth, Portia, and Eddie Morgan haven't all been together in years. And for very good reasons—we'll get to those later. But when their wealthy grandfather dies and leaves a cryptic final message in his wake, the siblings and their respective partners must come together for a cross-country road trip to fulfill his final wish and—more importantly—secure their inheritance.
But time with your family can be tough. It is for everyone.
It's even harder when you're all keeping secrets and trying to forget a memory—a missing person, an act of revenge, the man in the black truck who won't stop following your car—and especially when at least one of you is a killer and there's a body in the trunk. Just to name a few reasons.
But money is a powerful motivator. It is for everyone.
Twist After Twist After Twist
If done right, it never gets old. Everything you think you know is wrong because things are a changing my friend. What's especially juicy is when there's lots of twists that keep changing the direction of the plot or your theory on whodunit and then the final chapter (or line) changes everything!
Recommendation: The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager
Synopsis: Two Truths and a Lie. The girls played it all the time in their tiny cabin at Camp Nightingale. Vivian, Natalie, Allison, and first-time camper Emma Davis, the youngest of the group. The games ended when Emma sleepily watched the others sneak out of the cabin in the dead of night. The last she—or anyone—saw of them was Vivian closing the cabin door behind her, hushing Emma with a finger pressed to her lips.
Now a rising star in the New York art scene, Emma turns her past into paintings—massive canvases filled with dark leaves and gnarled branches that cover ghostly shapes in white dresses. The paintings catch the attention of Francesca Harris-White, the socialite and wealthy owner of Camp Nightingale. When Francesca implores her to return to the newly reopened camp as a painting instructor, Emma sees an opportunity to try to find out what really happened to her friends.
Yet it's immediately clear that all is not right at Camp Nightingale. Already haunted by memories from fifteen years ago, Emma discovers a security camera pointed directly at her cabin, mounting mistrust from Francesca and, most disturbing of all, cryptic clues Vivian left behind about the camp's twisted origins. As she digs deeper, Emma finds herself sorting through lies from the past while facing threats from both man and nature in the present.
And the closer she gets to the truth about Camp Nightingale, the more she realizes it may come at a deadly price.
Blurring the Lines Between Hero and Villain
Forget clear cut good vs. evil. This trope is all about blurring the lines. Think good guys with a bad side or a bad guy that's not all bad, just misunderstood. A character riding that line between hero and villain keeps ya guessing.
Recommendation: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Synopsis: Since his debut in 1955, Tom Ripley has evolved into the ultimate bad boy sociopath, influencing countless novelists and filmmakers. In this first novel, we are introduced to suave, handsome Tom Ripley: a young striver, newly arrived in the heady world of Manhattan in the 1950's. A product of a broken home, branded a "sissy" by his dismissive Aunt Dottie, Ripley becomes enamored of the moneyed world of his new friend, Dickie Greenleaf. This fondness turns obsessive when Ripley is sent to Italy to bring back his libertine pal but grows enraged by Dickie's ambivalent feelings for Marge, a charming American dilettante. A dark reworking of Henry James's The Ambassadors, The Talented Mr. Ripley—is up to his tricks in a 90's film and also Rene Clement's 60's film, "Purple Noon."
The Locked Room
All the doors and windows are locked but somehow a dead body is found inside. Was it suicide or something far more sinister?
Recommendation: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Synopsis: "Ten . . ."
Ten strangers are lured to an isolated island mansion off the Devon coast by a mysterious "U.N. Owen."
"Nine . . ."
At dinner a recorded message accuses each of them in turn of having a guilty secret, and by the end of the night one of the guests is dead.
"Eight . . ."
Stranded by a violent storm, and haunted by a nursery rhyme counting down one by one . . . one by one they begin to die.
"Seven . . ."
Who among them is the killer and will any of them survive?
Forced proximity and people are dying. Who can you trust? Invitations to secluded resorts/cabins/hotels/islands... What could possibly go wrong? Let me tell ya. Everything!
Recommendation: No Exit by Taylor Adams
Synopsis: On her way to Utah to see her dying mother, college student Darby Thorne gets caught in a fierce blizzard in the mountains of Colorado. With the roads impassable, she’s forced to wait out the storm at a remote highway rest stop. Inside are some vending machines, a coffee maker, and four complete strangers.
Desperate to find a signal to call home, Darby goes back out into the storm . . . and makes a horrifying discovery. In the back of the van parked next to her car, a little girl is locked in an animal crate.
Who is the child? Why has she been taken? And how can Darby save her?
There is no cell phone reception, no telephone, and no way out. One of her fellow travelers is a kidnapper. But which one?
Trapped in an increasingly dangerous situation, with a child’s life and her own on the line, Darby must find a way to break the girl out of the van and escape.
But who can she trust?
With exquisitely controlled pacing, Taylor Adams diabolically ratchets up the tension with every page. Full of terrifying twists and hairpin turns, No Exit will have you on the edge of your seat and leave you breathless.
Help! These kids are creepy! Think about taking a seemingly perfect job just to find out the kids are crazy and everything is not as perfect as you thought.
Recommendation: The Lies We Told by Camilla Way
Synopsis: When Clara's boyfriend, Luke, disappears, everyone believes that he's left her, but Clara thinks she knows the truth. Recent evidence suggests that Luke had a stalker, and Clara worries that he's been kidnapped. Then Luke's older sister, Emma, who vanished twenty years ago, suddenly reappears.
Emma wants to help Clara with her search for Luke, but she refuses to talk about what happened--even though it nearly destroyed her family when she vanished. And the deeper Clara digs into Luke's mysterious disappearance, the more convinced she is that the two incidents are connected.
My Spouse is out to Get Me
Something sinister is brewing between husband and wife and you can't quite put your finger on it. Or you've said "I do" and the real side of your spouse is revealed. Or is it all in your head?
Recommendation: Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris
Synopsis: Everyone knows a couple like Jack and Grace. He has looks and wealth, she has charm and elegance. You might not want to like them, but you do.
You’d like to get to know Grace better.
But it’s difficult, because you realize Jack and Grace are never apart.
Some might call this true love. Others might ask why Grace never answers the phone. Or how she can never meet for coffee, even though she doesn’t work. How she can cook such elaborate meals but remain so slim. And why there are bars on one of the bedroom windows.
Sometimes, the perfect marriage is the perfect lie.
A witness has memory loss, the protagonist has memory loss, the victim has memory loss, everybody is confused and doesn't remember what happened. You get the idea. Full amnesia or partial it's all possible.
Recommendation: Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney
Synopsis: My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:
1. I’m in a coma.
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
3. Sometimes I lie.
Amber wakes up in a hospital. She can’t move. She can’t speak. She can’t open her eyes. She can hear everyone around her, but they have no idea. Amber doesn’t remember what happened, but she has a suspicion her husband had something to do with it. Alternating between her paralyzed present, the week before her accident, and a series of childhood diaries from twenty years ago, this brilliant psychological thriller asks: Is something really a lie if you believe it's the truth?
Someone dies and their will summons you to their grand estate. What do you do? You're down on your luck and this money could change everything! Pack your bags you're curious and you need the money.
Recommendation: The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware
Synopsis: On a day that begins like any other, Hal receives a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person—but also that the cold-reading skills she’s honed as a tarot card reader might help her claim the money.
Soon, Hal finds herself at the funeral of the deceased…where it dawns on her that there is something very, very wrong about this strange situation and the inheritance at the center of it.
The Cerebral Psychologist
Ahh the resident expert willing to lead the reader down the rabbit hole into the darkest recesses of the human mind. Think Clarice Starling interviewing Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
Recommendation: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
Synopsis: Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.
Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.
Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him...
The Country House
Rarely just a house. Whether it's an apartment in the city, or a crumbling Victorian estate in the rolling hills these buildings become characters in their own right.
Recommendation: Lock Every Door by Riley Sager
Synopsis: No visitors. No nights spent away from the apartment. No disturbing the other residents, all of whom are rich or famous or both. These are the only rules for Jules Larsen's new job as an apartment sitter at the Bartholomew, one of Manhattan's most high-profile and mysterious buildings. Recently heartbroken and just plain broke, Jules is taken in by the splendor of her surroundings and accepts the terms, ready to leave her past life behind.
As she gets to know the residents and staff of the Bartholomew, Jules finds herself drawn to fellow apartment sitter Ingrid, who comfortingly, disturbingly reminds her of the sister she lost eight years ago. When Ingrid confides that the Bartholomew is not what it seems and the dark history hidden beneath its gleaming facade is starting to frighten her, Jules brushes it off as a harmless ghost story—until the next day, when Ingrid disappears.
Searching for the truth about Ingrid's disappearance, Jules digs deeper into the Bartholomew's dark past and into the secrets kept within its walls. Her discovery that Ingrid is not the first apartment sitter to go missing at the Bartholomew pits Jules against the clock as she races to unmask a killer, expose the building's hidden past, and escape the Bartholomew before her temporary status becomes permanent.
The Whodunit or Whydunit
whodunit = who the killer is
whydunit = why did the killer do it
The final act concludes when all the pieces come together and the killer and the method are revealed. Sometimes authors like to spice it up and tell us who the killer and victim are early on so you spend the rest of the story unraveling the mystery as to why.
Recommendation: The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Synopsis: Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last - inexorably - into evil.
Trouble in Paradise
If something seems too good to be true it probably is. Whether it's an exciting new assignment at work, a surprise honeymoon, or winning tickets to the Bahamas the characters find themselves regretting everything and unable to escape a nightmare.
Recommendation: Verity by Colleen Hoover
Synopsis: Lowen Ashleigh is a struggling writer on the brink of financial ruin when she accepts the job offer of a lifetime. Jeremy Crawford, husband of bestselling author Verity Crawford, has hired Lowen to complete the remaining books in a successful series his injured wife is unable to finish.
Lowen arrives at the Crawford home, ready to sort through years of Verity's notes and outlines, hoping to find enough material to get her started. What Lowen doesn't expect to uncover in the chaotic office is an unfinished autobiography Verity never intended for anyone to read. Page after page of bone-chilling admissions, including Verity's recollection of what really happened the day her daughter died.
Lowen decides to keep the manuscript hidden from Jeremy, knowing its contents would devastate the already grieving father. But as Lowen's feelings for Jeremy begin to intensify, she recognizes all the ways she could benefit if he were to read his wife's words. After all, no matter how devoted Jeremy is to his injured wife, a truth this horrifying would make it impossible for him to continue to love her.
Among the twists and turns of a thriller it's comforting knowing what to expect. These tropes help navigate the murky waters of the genre. Some tropes overlap. Offering these recommendations was challenging because many of them fell into several categories. Consider this information a starting point. Which trope(s) do you like best? What recommendations do you have?