Friday, July 15, 2011

Which is it? Mystery, Thriller or Suspense?

The following was written in July 2004 (a year before I started blogging) after a workshop with author Barbara d’Amato at the annual Writers’ Institute conference in Madison, WI. Originally done for a writing newsletter, I pulled it out this week after a question was posed in an online group as to what the difference was between mysteries and thrillers. Seemed only right to post it here, seeing as—for some odd reason—I had not done so previously. Though it was written for writers, I feel readers can benefit from it as well. Please feel free to weigh in with your opinion.

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Many writers use the terms mystery, suspense and thriller interchangeably, as if one was no different from the other, but such is not true. As similar as they can be, there are differences between the three genres, and what type of book you have will also help determine how it is marketed—first to agents, then to publishers and booksellers, and ultimately to readers. Knowing what type of book you have can also aid you in the plotting and, ultimately, the writing.

So what differentiates a mystery from a suspense or a thriller?

The easy answer here would be that, in a mystery you usually don't know whodunit (or why) until the very end; in a suspense you can know whodunit (and even why)—what makes it a suspense is not knowing how or if the villain will be caught or stopped in time; and a thriller is high on action.

There is much more to it than that, of course, and the differences can be broken down into four key components: number of characters, settings, plot, and source of reader satisfaction.


Characters: Few to many, depending on how big your mystery is. Think of some of the classic mystery stories. In Poe's "The Purloined Letter," there are only a few characters. In Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" we meet an entire cast of characters. Agatha Christie's books tend to have a house (or boat or train, as the case may be) full of people running around. The reader meets each character and develops a sense of who might have done it. POV is usually that of the central character and can be either first or third person.

Setting: There can be one setting (as contained as the small island in "And Then There Were None" or the boat in "Death on the Nile") or multiple settings. "The Maltese Falcon" takes the reader all over San Francisco. More recently, the Harlequin Intrigue series "Shotgun Sallys" also had multiple settings—from a ranch, to the local town and even (in one of the books) to a nearby city. Setting can be as central or as varied as is necessary to the plot.

Plot: More simplistic, with a limited number of threads. This does not mean the puzzle will be easy to solve, but makes it easier for the reader to follow along. It also allows for a few "red herrings" or false clues.

Source of Reader Satisfaction: Comes from solving the mystery along with the main character and in trying to figure out whodunit [i]before[/i] the sleuth. Do NOT introduce surprises at the end, such as the killer being someone we haven't met.


Characters: Can be only a few. In Iris Johansen's "And Then You Die" there are only three main characters—the hero, the heroine, and the villain and there are few minor characters. In a suspense, you know whodunit, it's the pursuit of the villain and figuring out why he did it that makes the story. You also want the main character to succeed largely on his or her own merit and grow out of the ordeal. For example, in "Ugly Duckling" by Iris Johansen, the heroine finds she has an inner strength after losing her daughter and nearly dying herself in an attack. Can she trust again? And whom will she trust? How will she overcome her ordeal and exact revenge? The POV is from that of central character(s), but also might include the POV of the villain.

Setting: There can be one main setting, or many. "And Then You Die" takes place in both South America and the US. "Ugly Duckling," takes place in Europe and across the US. "Face of Deception" takes us to the White House and across the country. “Ghost Walk” by Heather Graham has one central setting, New Orleans.

Plot: Usually linear.

Source of Reader Satisfaction: Mostly emotional, hinging on the survival and triumph of the main character.


Characters: Many. Think James Bond. Thrillers usually contain the POV of several different characters, which prevents an emotional attachment to any one character. The central villain doesn't have to show up right away if there is a co-conspirator who is not what he appears to be (i.e.: a bad guy who appears to be helpful and friendly, but is only doing so in order to take advantage of the central character).

Setting: Many different settings, often international/exotic. Again, think James Bond or "The Bourne Supremacy."

Plot: Usually quite complicated, with lots of action.

Source of Reader Satisfaction: Comes from defeating the villain and saving the world, but also in just being a good story. The reader doesn't want to think, he just wants to be entertained.

I hope this helps you differentiate between mystery, suspense and thriller and in determining which it is you have read or written.


Maggie Nash said...

I remember reading this the first time H. Brilliant article BTW. I'd like to add that in a suspense you may know the villain as in they have a POV, but you might know know WHO they are until the end. Does that make sense?

Otherwise lots of romantic suspense novels would be romantic mysteries :-)

Maggie Nash said...

Of course....when will I learn to proof read before I hit send!

It should read "You may NOT know WHO they are" not know know...LOL

*head desk*

Heather said...

Yes, it makes perfect sense, and you're right. Thanks for reading and commenting, Maggie!

(Oh, and I had a feeling you meant "not know," LOL).

Shelley Munro said...

Good post, Heather. Such a clear explaination of the differences.

Heather said...

Thanks, Shelley!