Thriller tropes I love and hate!

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We all have different expectations for books. Sometimes that’s more general (like good writing) and sometimes it’s a bit more genre specific. In the last few years, I’ve really changed things up and discovered a new love for psychological thrillers. And over time, I’ve realised there are really specific things that can get me revved up… or completely grind my gears. So, today I’m talking about some of those tropes I love and hate. And I’m going to do it without spoilers (the book covers don’t necessarily correlate with the list and are in a random order to avoid giving anything away!). Let’s get into it!

Thriller Tropes I Love

Secret sociopaths– one of the best things about thrillers are the bad guys. I love a lot of the villain types that come up- but do get a kind of particular pleasure when the person pulling all the sadistic strings is a secret sociopath the whole time. Bonus points if I can get inside that person’s head, which leads me onto…

Multiple POVs– I don’t always love multiple POVs in books, but it can really work in thrillers. Especially if we get inside the head of the bad guy (preferably not knowing who that is!) It’s one of the biggest pulls to the genre.

Unreliable narrators– on the topic of getting inside people’s minds, an unreliable narrator can be used very powerfully in a thriller. There are lots of different ways this can create a fascinating psychological profile and keep the reader on their toes, so most of them work for me. It’s just all about the execution.

Justified bad guy– oof this can be a masterful twist, especially if they get away with it, cos then you’re kinda rooting for it.

Person you least expect did it– this can be so much fun. I know that some people like it to be paired with justified baddie, however, cos apparently I’m a messed up individual, I actually prefer if this goes with sociopathic killers. It multiplies the creep factor for me!

Creepy kids– this is taking me back to my gothic roots and my love of Turn of the Screw. If done well, this subversion of cutesy innocence can be a killer move.

Isolated in the middle of nowhere– this also plays into the gothicy vibes I love. Not only is it a great way to build atmosphere, I also love how much it builds tension because YOU CAN’T ESCAPE!!

Dark past and buried secrets– I mean, this is pretty much a staple of most thrillers, yet I still love when the past is dug up and the truth is exposed.

Cliffhanger ending or final gut punch twist- I know a lot of people like a clean ending with everything neatly tied up… but when it comes to thrillers, I want the exact opposite. I want there to be a last second reveal that turns everything on its head and makes my stomach drop. Well, within reason. I still want it to make sense, which I guess leads me onto the tropes I don’t like.

Thriller Tropes I Don’t Like

An impossible twist– or anything really that comes out of nowhere. The worst example I’ve ever seen is in a book that thought (for some reason) it’d be a good idea to have a paranormal plot twist. Which, yeah, I didn’t see coming from a seemingly realistic thriller… but that’s also what made it really dumb. Don’t genre shift at the last second! Grr!!

*Surprise* not dead– this can also break my suspension of disbelief, cos while it happens an awful lot in thrillers, it never does in real life… so maybe it’s not the best trick to pull. Plus, I’m never keen on being robbed of an emotional moment. I guess the only way this could work is if a character was believed to be dead before the plot ever began and somehow wormed their way back into the story. I could just about get behind that.

Police procedurals– okay, this isn’t really a trope, it’s more of a subgenre, but anything in this vein doesn’t do it for me.

Clueless mc– this is probably one of my most hated tropes, because even if it helps the plot, it can be annoying to be in the head of someone really stupid. A lot of the time, if the book is otherwise well written, I can let this slide. But it will still make me dock points, because there’s only so much a person can go through before I think “wow this person has the IQ of a pigeon- and not even a smart pigeon, a stupid pigeon that keeps flying into windows” (this is why so many books involve unreliable narrators with substance abuse issues!)

Bad guy is irrelevant character– quite simply, this will spoil the fun of a good thriller. You want to feel invested and terrified of the antagonist. You don’t want to get to the end and go who?!

When the red herring was a better solution- similarly, I don’t like it when the misleading subplot would’ve been a better outcome. It’s disappointing when a writer lays down a roadmap to a really entertaining outcome… then veers off course. I end up wishing they’d taken the other route.

Agenda driven twists or plots– this is another way I’m seeing authors really spoil a dramatic plot. What makes this even worse is how heavily signposted and moralising this can be. It’s not that thrillers can’t deal with hard-hitting topics- I’ve read a number that really work. It’s that it shouldn’t take away from the thrill of a thriller. It’s supposed to keep me on the edge of my seat… not make me feel like I’m slumped over, held hostage in a lecture theatre by a crazed activist, trying to tell me something painfully obvious. Yeah, no thanks. I was reading this to be entertained.

They’re not so bad, really– this is very close to the justified killer- so it’s probably odd that it’s on the hate side. Still, I can’t help hating it when a character does something terrible and everyone in the story goes above and beyond to excuse their behaviour. There are times when this can work… and others when it can fall flat on its face. Even if a character’s justified and even if the plot demands they get away with it, I think it’s a delicate balance to reach, so I can’t stand it when characters keep going on and on and on about how the character shouldn’t be punished. I think it’s just a question of knowing when to stop.

Alrighty then- that’s all I’ve got for now! Do you love or loathe any of these? And do you have any thriller tropes to add? Let me know in the comments!

25 thoughts on “Thriller tropes I love and hate!

  1. Typically, I don’t read many thrillers. I find it harder to get into them despite the fact that I can watch as many TV show/adaptations. I do feel like thrillers are the perfect villain platform. They do say, the key to a good story is a compelling villain (or have I made that up haha), and if you have one that keeps you on your toes and unpredictable. I cannot stand the “not dead” surprise. It just lessens the impact of death in the first place.

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  2. I can really enjoy a good thriller, and out of the tropes you love I think creepy kids is one that I can enjoy quite a lot myself. It can really give me goosebumps if it’s done well.
    Out of the things you don’t like, I think clueless MC is probably the one that annoys me to no end. I really like strong characters with actions that make sense instead dumb idiots, that make you wonder how on earth they are able to anything in the first place.
    Fun post! 😀😀

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  3. Aaah! I’ve been really wanting to get into some thrillers lately for spooktober and this may have just pushed me to it! I haven’t really read all that many thrillers, if any, but I have watched some shows with thriller aspects, and i have to say I’m definitely a fan of psychological exploration, secret sociopaths, characters kinda having a war with themselves ( which is under the psychological umbrella, but i digress; are they really good? or are they actually terrible?) or what’s expected of them, and i looovvee unburied secrets! I also have to agree with the hatred for the impossible twist/irrelevant side character; it really grates my nerves when I look back through the book/show for clues and there’s just…nothing.

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  4. AaAh! I’ve been wanting to get into thrillers for spooktober and this might have finally pushed me to it! I haven’t read all that many thrillers, if any at all, but I’ve watched some tv shows with thriller aspects in them and I have to say I’m a huge fan of psychological exploration as well (especially when the character’s having a war with themselves morally (are they really good? or are they actually just terrible?) and what’s expected of them) and I loooove unburied secrets! Have to agree with the hatred for the impossible twist/genre hopping/irrelevant character because it’s particularly nerve grating when you look back through the show/book for clues and there’s…literally…nothing.

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  5. “but do get a kind of particular pleasure when the person pulling all the sadistic strings is a secret sociopath the whole time”
    This is a little controversial with me, just because I’m not sure one could be a sociopath IRL and never let it on. But since i don’t read true crime, who knows…maybe it happens sometimes?

    “Don’t genre shift at the last second! Grr!!”
    Haha, big nope – not only in thrillers. I like a book that knows what it’s doing 😉. Ambiguous books are wonderful, but last-time shifts are jarring.

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    1. I get that. I think sometimes it can be a little unbelievable- like when someone is really close to the person and has no idea- but I do think they can be hiding in plain sight to an extent (like in True crime)

      haha yes! Completely agree!

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  6. Good list! I’ve discovered that I don’t really like thrillers all that much, and even an unreliable narrator won’t *really* make me fall in love with one. I guess I like plain old mysteries better? Maybe if thrillers weren’t always to do with killing people, which is why I tried The Marriage Pact, but it ended up being pretty disappointing.

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  7. I love this idea for a post! Really interesting to hear your take. I haven’t read many thrillers, but those that I have I can definitely recognise some of the tropes you’ve mentioned. 😊📚

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  8. I’ve only read one “surprise, not dead” thriller that worked for me, and that’s because of the way it was written. (I can’t say which book, because MAJOR SPOILERS.) The same author has written other books that played with death/injury timing that didn’t work nearly as well, so I know it’s not just the writing style but the way it worked into that specific plot.

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  9. I mostly like the tropes you like and hate the ones you hate, EXCEPT I can’t take creepy kids and I don’t mind police procedurals, especially when the procedure gets all tangled up with the detective’s personal style, personal issues, and relationships with others on the force. It’s also a great way to introduce colorful minor characters whose roles run the length of the series.

    May I recommend Kate Atkinson if you haven’t already discovered her? Started Early, Took My Dog features kids (not creepy, but sad); a detective with issues; and it slides around in time.

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    1. Oh I can understand not liking creepy kids- they’re creepy! 😉 I don’t know why, but I’ve just found when I want to be a bit creeped out, that works for me. Yeah I don’t have a problem in theory- I just find in actuality they don’t interest me very much! Oh I haven been thinking of reading her!

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    2. Oh I understand that- creepy kids are creepy 😉 and there’s nothing technically wrong with police procedurals- they just don’t click with me for some reason. Oh I have been meaning to check out atkinson- thanks for the rec!

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