Many observers predicted the demise of the spy/thriller story when the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came down. But modern-day dangers have proven to offer compelling stories for the novelist, and readers are increasingly seeking out this very specialized category. According to Ipsos Book Trends, the espionage/thriller genre is growing fast, increasing its market share by more than one-third in recent years.
The focus in this genre is on linear plot action. The story almost always involves a race against time and features lots of chases, showdowns, and rescues. Vigilante justice is a recurring theme, and treachery, subterfuge, and conspiracy are the norm. Heroes and heroines trust themselves, occasionally a partner, and their weaponry; everything else is suspect. Villains are drawn from real-life bad guys: terrorists, drug traffickers, unethical scientists, and corrupt politicians. Sometimes the antagonist is known from the beginning of the story; often, the villain's operatives are known, but the identity of the mastermind remains shrouded until the climax.
Current events can make for compelling, “ripped from the headlines” plots, but this technique can count against you when it's time to sell your novel because editors will be wary of a dated story line. You can tie your plot to a real-life event, but your themes should transcend that event to capture readers' attention after the event is over.
Although they have lost some of their clout since the breakup of the Soviet Union, spy stories still have a loyal and devoted readership. The Vietnam War and the first Persian Gulf War are popular backdrops for espionage tales, as are the Middle East and China. The proliferation of nuclear capabilities in such countries as Iran, North Korea, India, and Pakistan provides a “clear and present danger” to national and international security, and therefore offers the seed of a good espionage plot. There are half a dozen common plots in the espionage line:
Rescuing someone from a hostile country
Preventing someone from entering a hostile country
Preventing a hostile power from obtaining technology or information
Capturing technology or information from a hostile power
Preventing a hostile power's invasion or takeover of another country
Preventing an overthrow of our government
The espionage world can be as glamorous and exciting as the one in which James Bond operates, or it can be a grim, taxing, and seamy world, where good and evil are stirred into shades of gray and the happy ending is merely one in which the worst fate is averted for now. Whichever portrait you paint, readers will expect detailed descriptions of weapons, surveillance equipment, and other gadgets, as well as realistic representations of tactics.
The technothriller has grown out of the gadgetry of the traditional spy story and is highly popular, especially among readers with a military or law enforcement background. Authors like Tom Clancy have helped foster this interest by focusing on state-of-the-art technology in weaponry, information-gathering, communications, and military air, sea, and land craft. The technology is nearly as important as the plot and characters, and often even provides the
Although they sometimes deal with plots of stolen germ-warfare agents or mishandled microbes, today's scientific thrillers usually focus on stories where science is both the cause of and ultimate solution to the problem. Michael Crichton's
Courtroom Drama/Legal Thriller
John Grisham has almost single-handedly elevated the staple courtroom drama to the status of legal thriller. Where Erle Stanley Gardner used the courtroom as a setting for unraveling a mystery and ensuring justice was served, today's legal story often incorporates all the traditional elements of an action/adventure or spy plot, with harrowing chases, narrow escapes from death, and lots of conspiracy and sleight-of-hand. The protagonist usually is a lawyer or law student with an unambiguously righteous cause; suspense comes from both the action and from wondering whether good will prevail.