Thriller Genre Conventions & Expectations

thriller genre conventions and expectations

A friend who is an avid reader recently told me she was disillusioned with the triller genre. As an action/thriller writer this made me a bit sad but with further reflection, I’m not sure she meant exactly what she said. I don’t think she was disillusioned so much as disappointed. 

I think she actually liked psychological suspense or literary suspense and was approaching thrillers with the same expectations. That’s one way to walk away disappointed in a book.

Each genre has certain conventions, expectations, and necessary scenes to make for a satisfying reading.


What are the conventions of the thriller genre?

  • While the plot or stakes are often over the top, the atmosphere and description are realistic
  • There is a MacGuffin. This is what the villain wants and drives the plot.
  • The inciting crime must contain a clue about the villain’s MacGuffin.
  • There are typically time limits or restrictions. This ‘clock’ defines the limits of the story and whether the hero will succeed or fail.
  • The hero actively investigates and chases clues (including false leads/red herrings) in order to stop the antagonist. 
  • Lives depend on the protagonist defeating of the antagonist. There must be high stakes.
  • The villain can’t be reasoned with. The villain believes he is in the right. They are intent on annihilation, devastation, or power at the expense of others.
  • The cunning or brilliance of the villain must be praised by one or more characters. The villain must be powerful.
  • The protagonist is often the final victim. 
  • The threats and obstacles escalate in danger in a cause and effect chain of events.
  • Finally, the hero must prevail in some way.
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So what are the expected scenes for an action thriller?

  • An inciting incident setup by the big bad/villian. There must be a victim and a perpetrator 
  • The hero must have an “all in” moment where the choice is made to take action that can’t be reversed. 
  • The hero’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the antagonist fails.
  • The hero discovers and understands the villain’s plans or desires.
  • The villain must make it personal against the hero. In other words, the hero becomes the target or the victim. 
  • The key scene that exists in almost all successful and satisfying thrillers is the ‘Hero is at the Mercy of the Villain.’ You know it when you read it. And you know it when it’s missing.
  • The false ending isn’t quite as ubiquitous as the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain but it’s also prevalent in many thrillers. Just when it looks like the action has wrapped up the villain comes back one last time to challenge the hero.


I like reading and writing thrillers because you can incorporate elements from a few different genres like mystery, crime, and action. 

But the key emotion is always suspense and excitement, but you need a structure that matches up with reader’s expectations or you’ll just end up with a bored or confused reader. The story simply won’t work. 



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