Sub Genres In Psychological Thrillers, Part I

Hi Everyone,

Hope all is well, and you recouped from the hustle and bustle of the holidays.

This blog will answer another site visitor question. What is a psychological thrilller? This is the genre of Gemini, a story of a female antagonist, a psychopathic predatory murderer, and the protagonist,  a male NYC forensic psychiatrist.

Sometimes it is hard to nail down the genre. Is it a psychological crime? That was my first description of Gemini. But the crime or crimes  are not the focus. It’s not a police procedural or focused on the detectives. It’s not plot driven. So I had to rethink this. This is so important because when I submit to an agent or publisher their first question is, what is the genre?  They need to know the marketing niche. You also need to submit to the genre specific agent or publisher. Send them what they want. That’s the first way to avoid the slush pile.

Gemini is character  ‘inner psychology’ driven. Very often the antagonist reveals her thoughts to the readers first, before the protagonist finds out. This is suspense. That’s why ‘thriller’ describes Gemini better. Then there is the romantic element. The ‘heat’ level is stronger than in most crime genre fiction.

Here the genre is broken down into sub genres. I was generously given permission to reprint this by

Thriller/Suspense Subgenres

(Definitions and Examples – All)

This genre has been known by several names over the decades. ‘Action’ is somewhat dated, while ‘adventure’ remains as a broader description.

Perhaps a ‘thriller’ concentrates more on fast external action, and a ‘suspense’ tale on the buildup of tension beforehand. (Any such distinctions are subtle, and not widely advertised.)

Usually these tales are set in the present day, or within 20 years or so. Hollywood loves thrillers, and all of these subgenres have inspired numerous movies.

Aviation thrillers focus on air flight, and the battle of human wits and technology against the force of storms, or sabotage, and always of sheer gravity. Written in 1920, The Flying Legion, by George Allan England, comes early enough to qualify as ‘science fiction.’ William Wellman’s 1954 film The High and the Mighty is a classic of this subgenre. Elliston Trevor’s novel The Flight of the Phoenix, and the Robert Aldrich film based upon it, depict an airplane hand-built to escape the Sahara Desert. Hundreds of other tales have followed.

Comedic thrillers go against type by playing for laughs, if amid serious action. Carl Hiaasen is a master of this subgenre, as with his recent novel Nature Girl. Hollywood often spoofs James Bond, as with the “Austin Powers” movies.

Conspiracy is a subgenre with a secret. Perplexing forces pull strings in the life of the protagonist — if not throughout the world. Usually the hero becomes a threat to the conspirators, and must escape their response. Often these stories depict the abberations caused by secrecy, and the corrupting influence of power. Robert Ludlum’s novel The Chancellor Manuscript is a famous example. (Sometimes the conspiricy is broken up, or at least revealed to the world; but in many tales it is not, and the broken protagonist is allowed to live.)

Disaster tales usually involve the response of those in power to an impending threat. Often some industrial carelessness provides the threat, and thus an incentive to cover it up. A policy that “panic must be prevented” via secrecy gives the hero (often a reporter) something to pursue. For example, Scortia and Robinson’s novel The Glass Inferno, filmed by John Guillermin as The Towering Inferno, has shoddy construction result in numerous spectacular deaths. Mike Nichol’s 1983 film Silkwood has a real-life basis.

Ecothriller tales, as the name suggests, involve some threat (natural, or more often manmade) to the environment. The damage may be local or even worldwide. Paul Tabori’s novel The Green Rain is a strange example. Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear became a best-seller. (The science invoked might be rigorous, but either way, sometimes these novels are controversial.)

Espionage thrillers are seldom about the routine lives of actual spies or analysts, but rather the mythical havoc created by relentless agents and those who oppose them. This subgenre is usually set in periods of international tension, such as World War Two, the Cold War, and more recently the war against Islamic extremism. Gay Courter’s novel Code Ezra leads up to Israel’s strike against Saddam’s reactor at Osirak, while Vince Flynn’s novels are ‘torn from the headlines.’ (Often these authors have some real-life experience.)

Exploration subgenre stories were more popular when much of the globe was mysterious, and long before Google Earth. Even now the hero’s stint in rugged mountains, or along jungle rivers, can provide a thrill. John Darnton’s novel Neanderthal fits this category, as does Michael Chrichton’s novel Congo. (Often the explorer-hero has a scientific motive.)

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Please continue to send me questions. I will be happy to answer them on this blog. If you have content you’d like to share please email me.




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  1. My own personal take and what I found in writing my novel The Devil’s Fan Club is that psychological thrillers allow for more literary writing than one might normally find in plot–driven thrillers as so much is buried just beneath the surface, always threatening to explode but teasing the reader to the very last tantalising moment.

    • Yes Mark I agree. My killer tries to hide so much and has been doing so her entire life. I as the writer, get to think, feel, and act in all the ways I wouldn’t in real life. Delving into the inner workings of the pathological mind has always fascinated me. Thank you for posting. Best, Ronnie

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