Last week we talked about how to avoid crossing writing-genres and lot of folks contacted me about the differences amongst seemingly similar ones. Even though many categories and sub-categories look the same from the outside, on the inside, they are rigidly distinct.
So this week let’s look at Mystery vs. Suspense vs. Thriller. For these sister genres, what are the differences?
To sort this out, let’s go up the food chain.
Œ In a Mystery, the disaster (most often but not always a murder) has either already occurred when the book begins, or is happening as the story opens (i.e., on page one). We know what has happened. But we don’t know by whom or why. For the rest of the tale, readers, along with the Protagonist, are trying to figure out whodunit, how, and why. Although physical action does occur, the majority of the plot points are mental. The Protagonist ultimately solves the puzzle, and hopefully, the reader does as well. The number of folks affected is smaller too—this is regional, community-wide, etc.—rather than global.
Sub-genres further structure Mysteries, which we’ll leave for another time, but of course the specs for say Cozies vs Detective sub-categories differ greatly (think the difference in Agatha Christie and Sue Grafton).
Œ Suspense novels present a different beast from Mysteries. Here, we’re actually waiting for something to happen, throughout the entire book. Some sort of bomb is ticking—which we see very early on. This can be a literal bomb, a meteor set to hit earth, a seeping dam about to break, etc. Think Alfred Hitchcock and you get the picture. The outcome itself is literally suspended until the end. It takes the Protagonist and usually a host of others to save the day, broadening the number of folks affected. We have lots of physical action, but not nearly as non-stop as in Thrillers.
Œ Thrillers sit atop of the food chain. Think Clancy, Brown, etc. These translate into box-office boons, and rake in most of the book and film money. (The inside-publishing truism says that the difference in a Suspense and Thriller is that if the latter, you can add a zero to the advance.)
Thrillers, while having to be realistic, take that realism to the boundary of what awful thing can possibly happen. The tone is dark, the stakes are high—for the entire planet, usually. These are truly global in scope. We have bigger issues at stake than the previous two genres. Anxiety peaks, as the ride takes on that edge-of-the-seat quality. Action occurs non-stop, with very few breathers. For this of course we must have a worthy opponent, so our Antagonist outsmarts our Protagonist to begin, and for a good part of the story. But of course, the hero beats him in the end. Or else the Earth blows up and we would have never known about it.
These are generalizations of course, but we have to do that in articles such as this, and exceptions occur all over the place. But when trying to decide in which genre you’re writing, these differences should help!