We asked agents from our annual roundup to weigh in on some of the most popular genres they represent—talking trends, common weaknesses, series potential and more. Here’s how to stand out in the suspense and thriller genre.
Compiled by Cris Freese
How has the thriller genre evolved in recent years?
Noah Ballard, Curtis Brown Ltd.: Readers are far more interested in character than ever before. A taut plot is a must, but the conflict has turned more internal recently, and this creates far more interesting narratives dealing with race, class, sexuality and identity. Any move away from your stereotypical white, heteronormative police detective procedural is good news for readers who are bored with the same old, same old.
Vanessa Robins, Corvisiero Literary Agency: Thrillers are an ever-changing genre, but the most notable change I’ve seen is the evolution of subgenres. When you walk into a bookstore you have your general thriller section, but the endcaps and features within the section have developed greatly. Nowadays we have sections on crime thrillers, eco-thrillers, medical thrillers, romantic thrillers and so many more.
What are you seeing a high demand for?
Robins: Psychological thrillers: Readers seem to crave the goose bumps, mind games, personal tragedies and all the twisty emotions that come along for the ride.
What about a submission inspires confidence that you’ll be able to find the work a home with a publisher?
Robins: Comparable titles should be an essential part of all submission packages with every genre, but especially thrillers. With so many subgenres it’s important for authors to show the agent or editor that they are well-versed in their field [enough to know where their work fits in].
Ballard: I only sign writers who I can tell from the jump will be appreciative collaborators and consummate professionals.
What common weaknesses do you see in submissions?
Ballard: Sample pages that begin with a dead body are my biggest turnoff. A body needs to be alive for us to care that it is now dead; otherwise it’s just a set piece. In a time where character development is of the utmost importance, take your time to create tension and stakes.
Robins: Overexplanation. Thrillers can generally be more involved plotwise since there are so many twists and turns, but please don’t include [every surprise] in the query letter.
What do you want to see more of in your inbox?
Robins: Strong independent female-driven split POV thrillers are my drug. I love when two separate stories weave together throughout the plot to lead to one common “huzzah!” moment.
Ballard: Strong-yet-flawed female protagonists.
Are there any premises or plots that seem played out?
Robins: I personally am not a fan of the boyfriend or lover being the bad guy or girl. Generally, I feel like this is always the first lead in real life, so I would appreciate if the author would steer the reader away from this premise. Maybe throw a wrench in and instead of the lover it’s the bagger at the grocery store or the neighbor who moved out seven years ago. Make it someone unassuming in the background instead of an obvious go-to.