Nathan Bransford, a former literary agent, summarizes the differences between “thrillers, suspense, and mysteries” in a 2008 blog post:
Thrillers have action.
Suspense has danger, but not necessarily action.
Mysteries have mysteries, i.e., something you don’t know until the end.
2. KNOWING YOUR GENRE
* This article originally appeared at Folio Lit.
By John C. Ford
Author of The Morgue and Me (Viking)
Image © Royalty-Free/Corbis
If you want to travel to a nice place, the first step is finding it on the map. And so it is with writing a novel: if you want to get a novel up on the bookstore shelves, the first step is finding the shelf that you’re aiming for.
You’ve got a great idea, say, for a story about a young actress in turn-of-the-century Chicago, haunted by ghosts of the characters she plays on stage. A fine start (okay, just go with it for a second anyway). But if you start writing without a clear notion of whether your novel is a horror story, a young adult tale, or a historical romance, you are putting yourself in a hole — and probably a lot of reject piles. Why? Well, if you don’t know what shelf your book should be on, then agents, editors, and booksellers probably won’t either, and that will make them reluctant to invest in your manuscript.
If you are writing a crime story, this lesson applies to you. About thirty percent of novels purchased in the U.S. are mysteries or thrillers, and your first step as a crime writer should be knowing which of those two types of books — a mystery or a thriller — you are delivering to your readers.
And in order to take that step, you need to know what a mystery is, what a thriller is, and the differences between them. Relax… we’re here to help.
Mysteries begin with a murder. The major question is whodunit, and the novel answers that question. Thrillers begin with a situation that portends a catastrophe of some sort (an assassination, a bank robbery, a nuclear explosion, etc.) The major question is whether or not our hero will be able to prevent that catastrophe from occurring. This, in a nutshell, describes the difference between a mystery and a thriller.
The two genres have a number of deeper differences — in tone, point of view, and appeal — which writers should also know in order to understand the expectations that readers bring to each type of story. Some of those differences are as follows:
- The Identity of the Antagonist: In a mystery, readers do not know who committed the murder (until the end); they try to figure it out along the way. In a thriller, readers often knows who the bad guy is, and hope that the hero can stop him.
- Appeal to Readers: Mysteries readers take pleasure in the intellectual exercise of puzzling out a crime. Thriller readers enjoy the emotional aspect — riding out the highs and lows of the charged storyline.
- Point of View: Mysteries tend to be written in the first person, while thrillers more often are written in the third person, and from multiple points of view.
- Stakes: While solving a murder is by no means a “low stakes” endeavor, thrillers tend to have “higher” stakes that imperil larger numbers of people.
- Pace: Mysteries usually have a slower pace than the fast-and-furious plotting of a thriller.
- Action: Mysteries often have fewer action sequences than thrillers, in which the characters regularly find themselves in great danger.
- Plot complexity: Mystery plots tend to be less complex than thrillers, which rely on a constant flow of events to provide a sense of immediacy.
- Character depth: The slower pace of mysteries allows for greater depth of character than the thriller form.
- Sub-genres: Mysteries tend to get sub-divided based on the identity of their protagonists: “amateur sleuth” mysteries feature a main character whose main occupation is not crime-solving; “police procedurals” often follow a police detective; “private investigator” novels, naturally, star private detectives. Thrillers get sub-divided based on the cultural or professional world in which the threat arises. Thus you have “medical thrillers,” “spy thrillers,” “financial/corporate thrillers,” and many others.
Based on the above, you should be able to tell whether your story, at its core, is a mystery or a thriller. Knowing the characteristics of your genre (and sub-genre) should inform the story choices you make, help you to identify authors of similar works to read for inspiration, and to know how your novel fits into the publishing picture when you address agents and editors. In short, it should help you see more clearly where your novel will end up in the bookstore — and that’s a very good thing.
To be clear, though, the qualities of mysteries and thrillers described above are by no means absolute. They should not be taken as hard-and-fast “rules” to follow, and indeed, many successful mysteries and thrillers deviate in ways large and small from the descriptions above. The thrillers of Harlan Coben, to give just one example, tend to revolve around complicated family histories — a personal type of storyline more expected in a mystery — rather than preventing a “high stakes” threat like terrorists poisoning a water system.
Writers should not fear to tread where others in the genre haven’t, either. Many of the thriller sub-genres began with authors exploring subject matter that had not been tackled yet in their genre. Scott Turow virtually invented the legal thriller with “Presumed Innocent.” Joseph Finder has set a number of thrillers in the corporate world, and with his success the sub-genre of corporate thrillers has flowered.
If you have your own story, certain aspects of it probably do not fit neatly into the generalized descriptions above. That’s okay. Better than okay — within the terrain of your genre, you want to find a fresh spot to claim as your own.
Indeed… breaking the “rules” can be great. But the first step, even in doing that, is knowing your genre well.