The thriller genre is a category of fiction concerned with tales of excitement, suspense, and high melodrama. It often overlaps with other genres of literature and film, such as crime, adventure, and espionage. Characteristics of the thriller genre often include a lone protagonist or small group of heroes opposed by a vastly superior enemy while pursuing an overriding quest or objective. The threat of death or capture is ever-present, and clever plot twists usually complicate the matter. Thrillers appear in virtually every form of narrative and sometimes include elements of science fiction, mystery, or horror.
Storytellers have always employed suspense and adventure to thrill and captivate their audiences. Homer’s epic Greek poem The Odyssey, for example, features monsters, tragic plot twists, and narrow escapes as the hero, Odysseus, struggles to return to his home. The advent of print media, followed by the new storytelling technologies of the 20th century, allowed for a wide diversification of subjects, formats, and genres in fiction. Among the popular narrative forms arising from this media expansion was the thriller genre.
The Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson is considered a pioneer of the thriller genre, releasing his highly successful novels Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Kidnapped in the 1880s. In the decades that followed, writers such as John Buchan, Bram Stoker, and Agatha Christie crafted thrillers in the spy, horror, and mystery traditions, respectively. The unquestioned master of the thriller on film was director Alfred Hitchcock, whose name was synonymous with the thriller genre for most of the 20th century. Hitchcock expertly added elements of comedy, paranoia, or horror in classics such as North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Psycho.
The hero of a thriller is often an ordinary person, allowing for easy audience sympathy, although sometimes the hero is a person with specialized training, such as a detective or spy. The Bourne series of books and films combines both, offering an amnesiac hero who is pursued by a mysterious and powerful organization. This sort of group often makes an ideal enemy. A main character who is outnumbered, outgunned, and unsure whom to trust experiences the sense of desperation that is a key element in the thriller genre. Serial dramas often employ cliffhangers, in which a chapter or episode will end with a character trapped or otherwise in jeopardy, with no apparent hope of escape.
The thriller genre is unrestrained by format. Short stories and old-time radio dramas have presented thrillers as effective as those found in full-length novels and big-budget movies. Many thrillers spanned multiple narrative formats, such as the 1960s TV series The Fugitive and the novel The Silence of the Lambs, which both became successful films in the 1990s. During the same period, The X Files skillfully combined elements of conspiracy thrillers, science fiction, and horror. In the 2000s, the TV show Lost offered cliffhangers, tragic plot twists, and a quest to return home, just as Homer’s Odyssey had done thousands of years before.