You may think you’re reading just for enjoyment, and reading a good thriller should be a satisfying entertainment experience. But you’re getting a whole lot more out of it than you might think.
For the quick version, click on the square above to watch the 2-minute movie I created. Then, for more detail, read the rest of this article. I hope you’ll find these ideas as fascinating as I do.
When you crack open a thriller, you have a fair idea of what you’re in for. A good thriller grabs you by the throat, propels you along, and doesn’t let go until the story ends. And sometimes, not even then.
It gets your heart pumping, your lungs in a flutter, and you may even break a sweat. But other than a neat little cardiovascular bump, what else is in it for you?
Quite a lot, as it turns out.
Four benefits of getting your thrill on
Thrillers, mysteries, and other types of suspense fiction provide a mental workout, stimulating a variety of areas in your brain. Numerous studies show that as you read, your brain processes the words in a way that puts you into a virtual simulator, experiencing the events of the book as if they are actually occurring. This helps you in at least two ways:
- It engages your brain in an active experience. Just as you need to exercise your physical body to stay in good shape, you need to work your brain to keep it in peak condition. Thrillers and mysteries provide puzzles to work through, like an obstacle course for your brain.
- You may think you picked up the latest James Patterson for sheer entertainment, but you don’t know the half of it. You always read to learn. Your brain is hard-wired to absorb information in story form, analyze it, and store it away for future reference. It’s a survival technique written into your DNA that makes fiction reading not only fun, but downright indispensable.
While this may sound contradictory, when you read these tension-filled stories that make your heart beat faster and your neck muscles bunch up, you are venting off stress. Think of it like a stress ball for your mind. You squeeze the ball, which involves tensing your muscles, but when you relax, there’s a stress release effect.
As you read, you have some physiological reactions, but the experience is vicarious. These events are not happening to you, even though your brain reacts as if they are. What you get, at the end of the book, is a catharsis—a cleansing, liberating release similar to the beneficial after-effects of physical exercise.
Thrillers revolve on the most critical values we, as humans, hold dear—life, liberty, and justice. As Sue Grafton said in her introduction to the 1998 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories, “each story touches on a facet of evil and, by implication, sheds light on its counterpart, good.” Her remark was in reference to mystery stories, but the same holds true for the sister genre of thriller.
When you read a thriller, rife with threats against these core values, it gives you a chance to weigh, measure, and wield a magnifying glass to examine your own values and reinforce them within yourself. When good triumphs over evil, you feel the world come back into balance, and receive renewed strength to carry on.
I only have time to listen to a couple of podcasts each week, and one I rarely miss is Story Grid, with Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl. In an episode last year, Shawn made a case for how thrillers benefit us as a culture and community. Here’s part of what he said:
“The reason we love thrillers is because they reaffirm a value that we, as human beings, really need to have reasserted. That heroes—individuals who make difficult choices and sacrifice for the good of others—are valuable members of society. Thrillers reinforce that meaningful message to everyone. If we can write really dramatic and wonderful thriller stories, maybe it can change people’s attitudes and remind them how important it is that we sometimes put aside our own personal interests for the betterment of others. That’s what we try to teach our children in the stories we tell.”
Reading thrillers gives us insights into who we are, and where we lie on the hero spectrum. It inspires us to rise to the best that is within us, to serve our families and communities, and to come to the defense of our most-treasured values. It gives us a chance to reflect on our greatest reach, as humans.
Get your daily dose of thriller
There’s more, and I’ll bet you can think of some other benefits you derive from reading suspense fiction. Still, I think I’ve made a good case for why you should always strive to get your recommended daily allowance of thriller consumption.
Go forth and read, my friend!