The economic success of contemporary thriller novels

Wissenschaftliche Studie, 2012

133 Seiten



List of tables

List of figures

1. Introduction

2. The data: thriller novels
2.1 The thriller as a literary genre
2.2 Current state of research
2.2.1 Literary studies
2.2.2 Linguistics

3. The corpora 10
3.1 Main corpus
3.1.1 PLOT metadata and typology
3.1.2 Problems in retrieving data for PLOT
3.1.3 Sampling and representativeness of PLOT Sampling prerequisites Exclusion of potential sampling data Samples and sampling patterns
3.1.4 Concluding remarks
3.2 Reference corpora
3.2.1 EXCALI -corpus EXCALI metadata and typology Sampling and representativeness of EXCALI
3.2.2 OANC-Baby -corpus OANC-Baby metadata and typology Sampling and representativeness of OANC-Baby

4. The thematic and structural appeal of contemporary thrillers 44
4.1 Keywords
4.1.1 Keyword extraction and classification Technical background Method and approach The process of extraction and classification Manual keyword extraction
4.2 Reoccurring schemata and situational patterns
4.2.1 Schema Theory
4.2.2 Analysis
4.3 Expository bits in thriller writing
4.4 A linguistic approach towards plot devices
4.5 Concluding remarks

5. The style of thrillers 94
5.1 Stylistics
5.2 Analysis
5.2.1 Syntax
5.2.2 Lexis
5.3 Concluding remarks

6. Conclusion

7. References

8. Appendix

9. Notes

List of tables

Table 4.1 Semantic fields

Table 4.2 Semantic fields II

Table 4.3 n-grams

Table 4.4 Dynamic vs. stative verbs

Table 4.5 Adverbs of time and manner

Table 5.1 WordSmith statistics

Table 5.2 Negative prefixes

Table A1 Manual keyword extraction: results

Table A2 Punctuation marks: scores

Table A3 Coordinators: scores

Table A4 Subordinators: scores

List of figures

Figure 5.1 Distribution of punctuation marks

Figure 5.2 Distribution of coordinators

Figure 5.3 Distribution of subordinators

Figure 5.4 Type frequency distribution

Figure 5.5 Morphological complexity

1. Introduction

Thrillers have become the number one genre in commercial fiction with millions of potential readers across the world (Joshi 2009:24). Although bestseller lists are generally dominated by genre fiction on the whole, it is for this specific genre to stand out since “the Top 10 charts these days are stuffed with thrillers, very nearly to the exclusion of everything else” (Sante, qtd. in Joshi 2009:24). Indeed, a close look at the bestseller lists confirms this impression. Considering Publishers Weekly ’s bestseller lists of the last three decades, roughly 70 out of 340 entries can be classified as generic thrillers. Hence unlike fantasy that had its sales heydays in the last decade with the Harry Potter series, or, quite recently with the Twilight saga, thrillers display a certain degree of diachronic robustness compared to other forms of genre fiction. Apart from the recent development, fantasy fiction featured its last real bestseller with Tolkien’s seminal Lord of the Rings, whereas thrillers display an even distribution in sales ranks (Joshi 2009:26). The question as to why is tried to be answered by this study.

Consequently, the study advances two hypotheses as to why thriller fiction appeals to the reader. First, as the thriller is more successful than other forms of genre fiction it is assumed that the thriller features some genre-inherent thematic and structural appeal that is hence only true for this specific genre. Second, in order to obtain a bestselling status, a large potential readership has to be aimed at. It is thus assumed that thrillers must be stylistically accessible, i.e. an easy read, in order to appeal to the biggest possible audience. However, this feature should be true for all forms of genre fiction, not being a thriller exclusive feature. Both theses draw on assumed similarities between all representatives of the given genre. In other words, reoccurring patterns are looked for. Given this detail along with the fact that a comparative analysis dealing with the factor success must draw on a large quantity of data, it is decided on performing a corpus analysis as the most appropriate linguistic method.

In order to give plausible answers as to the success of thrillers, the two theses advanced are considered separately. First, the potential thematic and structural appeal of thrillers is analyzed. As a prerequisite, genre theory related findings from literary studies are considered in order to abduct measurable parameters for thematic and structural analyses. Since dominant themes are looked for, the extraction and classification of keywords as part of the analytic process itself can be determined a priori. The subsequent domains of thematic and structural analyses depend on the results provided by literary studies. In addition, defining the data paves the ground for subsequent corpora design, whose compilation processes are reported in a section preceding the proper analysis.

A similar approach is taken for the discussion of the second thesis. Again, a certain discipline is considered in order to transfer its respective categories of analysis into measurable parameters. As it is for the style of thrillers to be analyzed (with regards to accessibility) dimensions of analysis rely on those advanced by stylistics. For the analysis, the two dominant dimensions are considered, i.e. syntax and lexis.

2. The data: thriller novels

2.1 The thriller as a literary genre

A first step to be taken in the design of a representative corpus is a thorough definition of the subject matter that constitutes the potential sampling data. In this case, it is already predetermined by the study’s question, i.e. the literary genre thriller.

Like some of its loosely related genres (e.g. horror fiction), the thriller can be seen as a descendant of 18th century’s gothic novels (Rubin 1999). Indeed, the generic gothic novel already anticipates many narrative features still constitutive of the contemporary thriller: a dark mood or atmosphere, a focus on violence, as well as an action-packed plot (ibid). However, there are two important distinctive features: first, the generic gothic novel draws on former times, mainly the medieval period, to deploy its plot (ibid), whereas the generic thriller focuses on zeitgeisty aspects, broaching the issues of most recent historical events (Saricks 2009). Second, the generic thriller is not inclined to inclusions of supernatural elements (Rubin 1999).

Said distinguishing factors are overcome with the rise of the Victorian sensational novel approximating the form of thrillers as we know them today. Plots were equally thrilling as in gothic novels, yet the plot was getting away from supernatural elements, going back to the inclusion of contemporary (sensational) events, such as the James Greenacre murders or the Burke and Hare case (ibid). With the recourse to contemporary events, the sensational novel already displays a distinctive feature of the modern thriller novel. Moreover, the change towards a realistic setting grips the reader and allows for a higher potential for identification.

Although those literary forms get comparatively close to the contemporary thriller, it takes up to the seventies of the 20th century till the thriller in its modern form evolves (Cobley 2000). Triggered by the assassination of Kennedy (although the actual literary treatment started roughly one decade later), authors of thrillers started to cover the topics of paranoia and absurd conspiracies as known today (ibid).

The history of thriller novels and their precursors point out implicitly the defining features of the genre. First, the zeitgeist aspect: thrillers are inclined to treat almost any recent real-life event (Saricks 2009). However, this reference is often limited to (spectacular) recent scientific or historical findings, topped with an obsession for technology (ibid). Dates and facts are well researched to grant the reader an insight into a particular profession (ibid). Second, the thriller shares the action-packed plot as a defining feature. It is defined as a fast-paced, gripping piece of writing and must hence contain much action (ibid). In this respect, said action is often constituted by violence or the threat of violence (both aspects are illustrated in the analysis section). These characteristics already imply the significances of character development and depiction. Both factors are only secondary to the action which results in an easily discernible dichotomy of good guys and villains (ibid).


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The economic success of contemporary thriller novels
Universität des Saarlandes
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
1054 KB
Corpus Linguistics, Contemporary Literature, Corpus Stylisitcs, Genre Fiction
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Christoph Ruffing (Autor:in), 2012, The economic success of contemporary thriller novels, München, GRIN Verlag,


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