Thrillers generally keep the audience on the "edge of their seats" as the plot builds towards a climax. The cover-up of important information is a common element. Literary devices such as red herrings, plot twists, and cliffhangers are used extensively. A thriller is usually a villain-driven plot, whereby he or she presents obstacles that the protagonist must overcome.
Homer's Odyssey is one of the oldest stories in the Western world and is regarded as an early prototype of the thriller.
Writer 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:
- Themes and Characters
- Story and Setting
Ancient epic poems such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer's Odyssey and the Mahābhārata use similar narrative techniques as modern thrillers. In the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus makes a perilous voyage home after the Trojan War, battling extraordinary hardships in order to be reunited with his wife Penelope. He has to contend with villains such as the Cyclops, a one-eyed giant, and the Sirens, whose sweet singing lures sailors to their doom. In most cases, Odysseus uses cunning instead of brute force to overcome his adversaries.
Little Red Riding Hood (1697), an early example of a psycho-stalker story, is a fairy tale about a girl who walks through the woods to deliver food to her sick grandmother. A wolf wants to eat the girl but is afraid to do so in public. He approaches Little Red Riding Hood and she naively tells him where she is going. He suggests the girl pick some flowers, which she does. In the meantime, he goes to the grandmother's house and gains entry by pretending to be the girl. He swallows the grandmother whole (in some stories, he locks her in the closet) and waits for the girl, disguised as the grandma.
The Three Apples, a tale in the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), is the earliest known murder mystery and suspense thriller with multiple plot twists and detective fiction elements. In this tale, a fisherman discovers a heavy locked chest along the
The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) is a swashbuckling revenge thriller about a man named Edmond Dantès who is betrayed by his friends and sent to languish in the notorious Château d'If. His only companion is an old man who teaches him everything from philosophy to mathematics to swordplay. Just before the old man dies, he reveals to Dantès the secret location of a great treasure. Shortly after, Dantès engineers a daring escape and uses the treasure to reinvent himself as the Count of Monte Cristo. Thirsting for vengeance, he sets out to punish those who destroyed his life.
The Riddle of the Sands (1903) is "the first modern thriller", according to Ken Follett, who described it as "an open-air adventure thriller about two young men who stumble upon a German armada preparing to invade
Heart of Darkness (1903) is a first-person within a first-person account about a man named Marlow who travels up the
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) is an early thriller by John Buchan, in which an innocent man becomes the prime suspect in a murder case and finds himself on the run from both the police and enemy spies.
The Manchurian Candidate (1959) by Richard Condon is a classic of Cold War paranoia. A squad of American soldiers is kidnapped and brainwashed by Communists. False memories are implanted, along with a subconscious trigger that turns them into assassins at a moment's notice. They are soon reintegrated into American society as sleeper agents. One of them, Major Bennett Marco, senses that not all is right, setting him on a collision course with his former comrade Sergeant Raymond Shaw, who has been activated as an assassin.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) by John le Carré is set in the world of Cold War espionage and helped to usher in an era of more realistic thriller fiction, based around professional spies and the battle of wits between rival spymasters.
The Bourne Identity (1980) is one of the first thrillers to be written in the modern style that we know today. A man with gunshot wounds is found floating unconscious in the