Vladimir Nabokov, in his lectures at
Cornell University, said: "In an Anglo-Saxon thriller, the villain is generally punished, and the strong silent man generally wins the weak babbling girl, but there is no governmental law in Western countries to ban a story that does not comply with a fond tradition, so that we always hope that the wicked but romantic fellow will escape scot-free and the good but dull chap will be finally snubbed by the moody heroine."
Thrillers may be defined by the primary mood that they elicit: suspenseful excitement. In short, if it "thrills", it is a thriller. As the introduction to a major anthology explains:
||...Thrillers provide such a rich literary feast. There are all kinds. The legal thriller, spy thriller, action-adventure thriller, medical thriller, police thriller, romantic thriller, historical thriller, political thriller, religious thriller, high-tech thriller, military thriller. The list goes on and on, with new variations constantly being invented. In fact, this openness to expansion is one of the genre's most enduring characteristics. But what gives the variety of thrillers a common ground is the intensity of emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness, all designed to generate that all-important thrill. By definition, if a thriller doesn't thrill, it's not doing its job.
James Patterson, June 2006, "Introduction," Thriller
Suspense is a crucial characteristic of the thriller genre. It gives the viewer a feeling of
pleasurable fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, anticipation and tension. These develop from unpredictable, mysterious and rousing events during the narrative, which make the viewer or reader think about the outcome of certain actions. Suspense builds in order to make those final moments, no matter how short, the most memorable. The suspense in a story keeps the person hooked to reading or watching more until the climax is reached.
In terms of narrative expectations, it may be contrasted with curiosity and
surprise. The objective is to deliver a story with sustained tension, surprise, and a constant sense of impending doom. As described by
film director Alfred Hitchcock, an audience experiences suspense when they expect something bad to happen and have (or believe they have) a superior perspective on events in the drama's
hierarchy of knowledge, yet they are powerless to intervene to prevent it from happening.
Suspense in thrillers is often intertwined with
hope and anxiety, which are treated as two emotions aroused in anticipation of the conclusion - the hope that things will turn out all right for the appropriate characters in the story, and the fear that they may not. The second type of suspense is the "...anticipation wherein we either know or else are fairly certain about what is going to happen but are still aroused in anticipation of its actual occurrence."
Aristotle in his book
Poetics, suspense is an important building block of literature, and this is an important convention in the thriller genre.
Thriller music has been shown to create a distrust and ominous uncertainty between the viewer of a film and the character on screen at the time when the music is playing.
Themes and characters
Common methods and themes in
crime and action thrillers are mainly
kidnappings. Common in
mystery thrillers are
investigations and the
whodunit technique. Common elements in
psychological thrillers include
mind games. Common in horror thrillers are
horror-of-personality. Elements such as
false accusations and
paranoia are common in
paranoid thrillers. Threats to entire countries, spies, espionage, conspiracies,
electronic surveillance are common in
Characters may include criminals,
assassins, innocent victims (often on the run), menaced women,
cops and escaped
private eyes, people involved in twisted relationships, world-weary men and women, psycho-fiends, and more. The themes frequently include terrorism,
political conspiracy, pursuit, or
romantic triangles leading to murder. Plots of thrillers involve characters which come into conflict with each other or with outside forces.
The protagonist of these films is set against a
problem. No matter what subgenre a thriller film falls into, it will emphasize the danger that the protagonist faces. The protagonists are frequently ordinary citizens unaccustomed to danger, although commonly in crime and action thrillers, they may also be "hard men" accustomed to danger such as police officers and detectives. While protagonists of thrillers have traditionally been men, women lead characters are increasingly common.
 In psychological thrillers, the protagonists are reliant on their
mental resources, whether it be by battling wits with the antagonist or by battling for equilibrium in the character's own mind. The suspense often comes from two or more characters preying upon one another's minds, either by playing deceptive games with the other or by merely trying to demolish the other's mental state.
Story and setting
An atmosphere of menace and sudden violence, such as crime and murder, characterize thrillers. The tension usually arises when the character(s) is placed in a dangerous situation, or a trap from which escaping seems impossible. Life is threatened, usually because the principal character is unsuspectingly or unknowingly involved in a dangerous or potentially deadly situation.
Hitchcock's films often placed an
innocent victim (an average, responsible person) into a strange, life-threatening or terrorizing situation, in a case of
mistaken identity or wrongful accusation.
Thrillers take place mostly in ordinary suburbs and cities, although sometimes they may take place wholly or partly in exotic settings such as foreign cities,
polar regions, or the
high seas. These usually tough, resourceful, but essentially ordinary heroes are pitted against villains determined to destroy them, their country, or the stability of the
free world. Often in a thriller movie, the protagonist is faced with what seem to be insurmountable problems in his mission, carried out against a ticking clock, the stakes are high and although resourceful, they face personal dilemmas along the way forcing them to make sacrifices for others.