Why I Generally Don’t Like Thrillers…and 6 Types of Thrillers That DO Work For Me

Why I Don't Like Thrillers


Y’all have heard me complain about my prickly relationship with thrillers for years now. And, based on all that complaining, you’d think I’d just avoid the genre entirely. But, I don’t. Because, when I do find a thriller that works for me, it’s one of my favorite reading experiences! And, then I keep trying and failing to replicate that experience.

Ever since Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train were such mega-hits, publishers have been churning out psychological thrillers at a feverish pace, chasing that lightening in a bottle success. My personal opinion is that this has put a ton of mediocre to terrible thrillers out there. There are the ones that rely on some outlandish gimmick to surprise the reader, the ones that are completely predictable, and ones that involve the supernatural or paranormal…all of which drive me crazy.

So, I’ve been trying to choose my thrillers wisely and really consider what makes a thriller work for me. From what I can tell, I prefer thrillers…

With A Surprising, Yet Not Outlandish Ending or Twist

This is the #1 thing a thriller must have for it to work for me. After I finish, I want to be able to look back on the story and say, “I did not see that ending/twist coming, but it totally makes sense in hindsight.” And, it’s unfortunately really hard to ride that perfect line between surprise and inevitability.

Successful Examples: Emma in the Night (my review), The Wife (the Alafair Burke version), Gone Girl

That Delve Deep Into a Topic

Certain thrillers are defined by a topic they delve deep into and I like how the topics differentiate these thrillers from everything else out there…and help you learn something in the process.

Successful Examples: Emma in the Night – narcissism (my review), The Guest Room – sex trafficking (my review), The Sleepwalker – parasomnia (my review), You Will Know Me – elite women’s gymnastics (my review)

That Feel Like or Are Something Else

Some books are technically considered another genre entirely, but read like a page turner. Again, this helps these thrillers stand out from the very crowded pack.

Successful Examples: Dark Matter – Sci-Fi (my review), Bull Mountain – Grit Lit (my review)

With a Bit of Romance

Normally, I can’t stand cheesy romance in my fiction. But, the romance I find in thrillers is usually of the darker, more twisted (rather than cheesy) variety…and I can totally handle that.

Successful Examples: Quicksand (my review), The Roanoke Girls (my review), Dead Letters (my review)

That are International

I’ve had good luck over the past few years with translated thrillers. Most were run-away bestsellers in their home countries and then made their way to the U.S. market. There’s something about an international thriller (European in these cases) that has a completely different feel than U.S. thrillers. There’s more subtle emotional tension rather than a reliance on suspense driven by action.

Successful Examples: Based on a True Story (spoiler discussion), Fear (my review), After the Crash (my review)

That Feel Literary

I’m not sure how to define this except to say that I know it when I see it. Often, thrillers rely on plot-based action, but I love it when a thriller also has strong character development and great writing. 

Successful Examples: Since We Fell (my review), Social Creature

How do you feel about thrillers? Are you a fan or not? What types of thrillers work for you and what thriller elements bother you?

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  1. I love this as a topic! I love thrillers and I love some of the types you included. What tends not to work for me are cliche marriage/relationship books (anything by Shari lapena, and most recently The Perfect Mother)! 90% of the time the “twist” is a pregnancy. I tend to like more literary or very psychological thrillers, and anything that has to do with a friend group (all of these done perfectly recently: Neverworld Wake by Mariana Pessl!)

    Posted 5.8.18 Reply
  2. Ann Marie wrote:

    Great post, Sarah! I’ve still not read Emma in the Night but it’s been on my radar forever. I love thrillers. They are my brain candy. I’m not much into chick-lit/romance/beach reads so thrillers provide me with a bit of reprieve from the meatier literary fiction I love. That said, the reading of a really, really good thriller can absolutely be an intense and stress-inducing experience for me.

    Posted 5.8.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      100% agree with all that! I just wish it was easier to find the really, really good thrillers! There seem to be a lot of duds out there.

      Posted 5.16.18 Reply
  3. Have you read The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn? I think it would meet a couple of your criteria: it’s got a couple of good twists, one that you might see coming but another you probably won’t; it goes deep into classic movies (Hitchcock, etc.) and agoraphobia; and it’s got better writing than you’d expect from a thriller. I read it recently — it was literally my first thriller since Gone Girl — and I really enjoyed it.

    Posted 5.8.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I haven’t and you’re not the first person who’s told me I should! Hopefully I can get to it soon!

      Posted 5.16.18 Reply
  4. Kay wrote:

    I enjoyed reading your take on why thrillers do or do not work for you. As you know and as you and I have sort of discussed, we part company a bit on thrillers. They are my bread and butter reading. I read for the puzzle, the twist, the analysis (by me). I don’t mind guessing the solution or usually don’t mind, but it can’t be too predictable. I was one of the few people who did not like Gone Girl all that much. I liked The Girl on the Train better, but again, not the biggest fan. I am a bit weary of the domestic thriller and have returned mostly to my best love – police procedurals. However, I always keep an open mind. I also like unique and unusual settings, cross-genre books, romance is OK-ish, but mostly I have to have a character I can like (just one) and the protagonist (if they are set up as ‘smart’, etc.) cannot be TSTL (aka too stupid to live). That’s it – my philosophy of thriller/crime novel/mystery reading. Ha!

    Posted 5.8.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Haha – yes! But, I feel honored you read my blog despite our taste being a bit different!

      I used to love police procedurals, but then they started to feel formulaic to me.

      And – we’re opposite with Gone Girl and Train…I loved GG and was lukewarm on Girl on the Train.

      Posted 5.16.18 Reply
  5. Allison wrote:

    I love this! I feel exactly the same about thrillers lately. I used to be able to suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride, but lately I’m just not very tolerant of thriller gimmicks and problematic characterizations.

    I haven’t actually read any of the books you mentioned (except Gone Girl, which I liked, and Girl on the Train, which I didn’t), so I need to look into these. I recently read and loved Then She Was Gone. I figured it out pretty early on, but I was still riveted and wanted to see how it played out. I don’t need the big “twist” that all the publishers seem to want to give us; just a good story and enough secrets to keep me guessing.

    Posted 5.8.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I agree on GG and Girl on the Train! So, maybe I should check out Then She Was Gone! And, I’m with you…don’t need the outlandish twist.

      Posted 5.16.18 Reply
  6. Lauren O'Brien wrote:

    Great, insightful post, Sarah.

    Posted 5.8.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Thanks 🙂

      Posted 5.16.18 Reply
  7. Renee wrote:

    Fun post Sarah! I used to love thrillers but more of the action or police procedural type. The only psychological thriller I think I’ve loved in awhile was Since We Fell which made your list! Interestingly, Emma in the Night was a DNF for me, maybe I should give that another try this summer. I had The Wife from the library but had to return it before I read it so I’ll grab that again since you said it has a surprise ending. I’d much rather be surprised by a lite “twist” than one of those implausible ones that are in so many stories these days

    Posted 5.8.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Definitely give The Wife a try! And I thought Since We Fell was more of character-driven in the beginning…maybe why we liked it more?

      Posted 5.16.18 Reply
  8. Michelle wrote:

    I don’t know if it is because I am reading more of them or because there are just more of them out on the shelves these days, but thrillers are everywhere. I think the easiest way for me to determine whether I enjoy a thriller is when they have that little bit extra which sets them apart from the others. It could be a great and completely unexpected twist – harder to pull off these days with the proliferation of the genre. It could be a shift in understanding. It could be a unique topic, great characters, or any other combination. What it is not is your generic police procedural with the depressed detective. A good thriller needs to go beyond the cliche.

    Posted 5.8.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Totally agree! And I’d add the pair of detectives who have ridiculous cop banter.

      Posted 5.16.18 Reply
  9. I LOVE thrillers, but I tend to read more YA and the good ones in that genre are SO HARD TO FIND. In Adult, I try to stay away from anything that compares to GONE GIRL because I just know it’s not going to be anything as good as that. No one’s brain is as messed up as Gillian Flynn’s.

    I just started ALL THE MISSING GIRLS by Megan Miranda right now and I’m hoping it’s good. I like this author’s YA books. Did you read DANGEROUS GIRLS by Abigail Haas?? It’s YA, but SO GOOD. BAD GIRLS WITH PERFECT FACES by Lynn Weingarten was also perfection.

    FINAL GIRLS by Riley Sager was fun, but I wouldn’t classify it as a fave. I also really liked RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA by Kimberly McCreight.

    Posted 5.8.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Don’t get me started on the GG comparisons! I wasn’t a fan of Final Girls (rolled my eyes when they revealed who did it), but did really like Reconstructing Amelia and McCreight’s next book.

      Posted 5.16.18 Reply
  10. I 100% agree with you! Thrillers can be so disappointing even though I feel like I’m VERY selective about them. So many seem to be formulaic. Even in titles they have too many similarities: Girl, Neighbor, Wife, Secret. Titles alone can turn me off to a thriller.

    But, when a thriller works, it’s thrilling! I was so happy to see that Based on a True Story made your list. Another one that fits into the international niche would be The Bird Tribunal. Like Based, it was just plain smart.

    Posted 5.8.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Well, I’m gonna have to read The Bird Tribunal then! Haven’t heard of it!

      Posted 5.16.18 Reply
  11. Totally agree with you! I tend to avoid them now for all these reasons.

    Posted 5.8.18 Reply
  12. Patricia Anne Bryan wrote:

    I’d be interested on your “take” on “Skin Deep” by Liz Nugent.I’ve read maybe a thousand crime novels and this was absolutely original on a number of levels.

    Posted 5.9.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I haven’t read that one but I LOVED Unraveling Oliver, her latest book. I’ll have to try Skin Deep!

      Posted 5.16.18 Reply
  13. Catherine wrote:

    I really like how you did a deep dive on what you like or don’t. I can’t even answer your question that specifically. At best I’ll say plausibility is the biggest factor in separating thrillers into like and don’t like. But…that’s wholly subjective because I did not like Emma nearly as much as you did, for that exact reason.

    Fun topic!

    Posted 5.10.18 Reply
  14. I feel like my success rate with thrillers has been particularly low lately and I’m not sure if the problem is the books or what I’m in the mood to read. I’ve not read many international thrillers and I’ve not noticed romance making a difference to me, but the other four things you list are definitely important to me too. I particularly like an ending that surprises me, but which was supported by clues I can see in hindsight.

    Posted 5.12.18 Reply

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