8 thriller subgenres to explore when writing your blockbuster thriller


Matt Damon in Jason Bourne (2016). Photo credit: Universal Pictures

We love the excitement of a thriller. Its plot twists, mistaken identities, savage villains and high anxiety brought on by the element of suspense gets our blood racing. To help us relate to the protagonist (and up the terror), he is usually an “every man,” someone just like you or me, compelling us to coldly consider that the same terrible event happening onscreen could easily happen to us.

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When a thriller works, it’s like a roller coaster with a surprise curve at the end. The ups and downs of the protagonist’s struggle should leave the audience emotionally exhausted. This is one genre of film that will never go out of favor in Hollywood — as long as the story feels fresh.

Let’s take a look at some of the thriller subgenres that define a particular style and tone of the film. Keep in mind that many of the subgenres often cross over.

No. 1 — Action Thriller

The Bourne Identity, Taken, Mission Impossible and any of the James Bond films can be described as action thrillers. The audience expects the protagonist to physically fight for his survival and find himself in grave physical danger repeatedly throughout the film. Also, there are typically many locations, travel by numerous high-speed vehicles and the presence of lots of guns and explosions. The action thriller should be fast, bold and loud, like an adrenaline rush.

Angelina Jolie in Salt. Photo courtesy: Sony Pictures

No. 2  — Spy Thriller

Bridge of Spies, Salt, North by Northwest, Munich, Mission Impossible and any of the James Bond films can be called a spy thriller. While there is typically plenty of action, the focus of the film is usually on a large-scale conspiracy involving governments, cover-ups and sophisticated weaponry. Spy thrillers are often set during a war, like the recent film Allied, where the entire world order is at stake.

Janet Leigh in Psycho. Photo courtesy: Paramount Pictures

No. 3 — Psychological Thriller

Psycho, Memento, Black Swan, Repulsion and The Shining are all great psychological thrillers because they portray characters who lose their grip on reality. These type of movies are the ultimate mind-f***, and usually have a big reveal at the end. Sexual repression and guilt are big components to the psychological thriller. Alfred Hitchcock is widely considered the master of the psychological thriller because he understood the dark side of humanity, also called “the shadow” by Carl Jung.

Inception. Photo courtesy: Warner Bros.

No. 4 — Sci-Fi Thriller

Alien, Blade Runner, Inception, The Matrix and Interstellar all fit into the genre of sci-fi thriller because they involve space travel, time travel or are set in futuristic, dystopian worlds. Often, these sci-fi thrillers are a cautionary tale of all the bad things that can happen if technology goes out of control.

Michael Douglas and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Photo courtesy: Paramount Pictures

No. 5 — Sexy Thriller

Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Body Double and Sea of Love are all thrillers that involve sex, obsession, betrayal and murder. Typically the story revolves around a man who allows his sexual desire to go unchecked and gets involved with the wrong woman who’s usually a blonde. He must then suffer serious consequences for his transgression. The protagonist is usually a man because in American culture, women are seen as less driven by their sexual desires and are expected to be the moral center of society. Passion and Unfaithful are two rare films where the sexual offence is committed by a woman.

Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Photo courtesy: 20th Century Fox

No. 6 — Crime or Heist Thriller

The Italian Job, Die Hard, Silence of the Lambs, Sicario and Cape Fear are all films that involve either planning a crime or solving a crime. The detective may be a real agent of the law, like in Seven, or just a regular Joe who unwittingly gets drawn into solving a crime, like Rear Window. Either way, the “detective” finds himself in a wholly new and dangerous situation and feels in way over his head.  There is also a built-in ticking clock because he only has so much time before the killer/robber strikes again.

A Nightmare on Elmstreet. Photo courtesy: New Line Cinema

No. 7 — Horror Thriller

28 Days Later, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Ring and World War Z all qualify as horror thrillers due to their frightening supernatural or darkly fantastical elements. This is the realm of nightmares where the protagonist must not only survive, but outwit and out-battle the antagonist using inferior weaponry.

Jaws. Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

No. 8 — Man vs. Nature/Disaster Thriller

The Revenant, Jaws, San Andreas, Godzilla, Planet of the Apes and All is Lost are movies where humans are put to the test by the dark side of nature — in the form of a beast or natural disaster. The thrills from these movies are powerful because they play on primordial fears – a bear or shark attack, an earthquake, getting lost at sea are all universally scary. The key to these films is making the natural component seem as realistic as possible – then stacking the odds against the protagonist.  In Lifeboat, not only are the characters drifting aimlessly at sea, there is also a Nazi onboard, adding to the danger.

What kind of thriller are you writing? Let us know below.



Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

10 Replies to "8 thriller subgenres to explore when writing your blockbuster thriller"

  • comment-avatar
    Subbaraman Ramaswamy*(VAIRAM) July 14, 2017 (3:43 am)

    I am writing a thriller for science fiction for travelling to Alpha Centauri , a nearby galaxy and also travelling to Proxima B , a planet in the nearby galaxy with all international astronauts and cosmonauts trained in the very harsh way to encounter the realities when travelling through the asteroid belt of Jupiter and Saturn. This includes strange animals and aliens encountered in those planets and also going beyond the solar system without getting burnt or getting freeze by traveling through warp system and very advanced, sophisticated space rockets by having an array of mission from the international space station get in the space and the enmity within the nation to gain acclaim for reaching first Alpha Centauri.

  • comment-avatar
    Sira July 14, 2017 (4:14 am)

    After delivering a hostage to her contractors, a hit-woman realizes she’s fallen for him. Now, she has to fight both sides of the law in her quest to find and rescue him before the ransom deadline.

    What would this one be?

    • comment-avatar
      CK Love July 14, 2017 (11:09 am)

      I’d say it’s Crime or Heist, Sira.

  • comment-avatar
    Nan Schuler July 14, 2017 (4:26 am)

    Currently NiveK Productions newly launched pre-emptive WEB Mini Series heist thriller, “Midnight Woods” on Vimeo is an interactive episodic short followed by “Sherlockians” to solve. Absent actors, MW introduces six storytelling elements never before collaborated for a unique look into the sinister mind. Season One rules Saturdays in July. Season Two will rule on Saturdays in September.

  • comment-avatar
    Connie Farrell July 14, 2017 (5:27 am)

    And what about Political Thriller??? One of the richest and textured of all thriller sub genres to include Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, The Converstion, JFK among others.

  • comment-avatar
    Paddy July 14, 2017 (7:58 am)

    Love it! Need a collaboration partner? AND – someone should call Luc Besson!

  • comment-avatar
    CK Love July 14, 2017 (11:11 am)

    I write Crime, Psychological – mostly.

  • comment-avatar
    Jean-Marie Mazaleyrat July 14, 2017 (1:59 pm)

    Most of these subgenres are often mixed together as we can see in the examples above.
    There are many other interesting ones :
    – political thrillers (All The President’s Men, The Day Of The Jackal, Air Force One, Patriot Games, The Hunt For Red October, Body Of Lies, …)
    – Conspiracy thrillers (The Pelican Brief, Conspiracy Theory, Three Days Of The Condor, Arlington Road, …)
    – contained thrillers with few characters (Panic Room, Burried, Phone Game, Rope, Rear Window, The Boat,…)
    – Supernatural/paranormal thrillers (not Horror movies: The Others, The Orphanage, The Tenant, Harry Potter, The Sixth Sense, Rosemary’s Baby, …)
    – Cat and Mouse thrillers (Duel, Silence Of The Lambs, The Fugitive, The Thomas Crown Affair, Assassins, Terminator, Predator, No Country For Old Men,…)
    – Madness thrillers (Just cause, The Shining, Blackswan,…)
    – Society and social related thrillers (Eyes Wide Shut, Gran Torino, Mystic River, Dogday Afternoon, Extreme Measures, …)
    – Sports, cards and board games thrillers (Le Mans, The Color Of Money,…)
    – War and Period thrillers (The Pianist, The Wall, Schindler’s List, Green zone, Chinatown…)
    – Obsession thrillers (The Pledge, Scarface, Taxi Driver, The Night Of The Hunter…)
    – Comedy thrillers (Family Plot, The Lady Vanishes, Phantom Of The Paradise, The Ladykillers, Arsenic And Old Lace, Indiana Jones, Young Frankeinstein, …)
    – Western thrillers (High Noon, The Revenant, Rio Bravo,… most of these actually)

  • comment-avatar
    Miguel mickey Gonzalez October 27, 2017 (12:55 am)

    During and trying to be a young screenwriter writing for movies & plays just take my work or (stuff as some have call it) Crime Thriller a robbery of a vast collection ??/

  • comment-avatar
    Tony J Furlong March 19, 2018 (8:45 am)

    Outlining a crime/spy thriller and that’s all I’m going to say. 😊

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