Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Difference Between Mysteries, Suspense and Thrillers

After an epic, epic day, evening, and night of work, I have successfully answered all the e-mails that were in my Inbox, including 300+ queries. Query moratorium: lifted. In my next trick, I will solve the financial crisis while standing on my head and weaving a lanyard.

Last night, somewhere around query #250, I had an idea for a blog post: parsing out the difference between thrillers, suspense, and mysteries. They're kind of interchangeable... and yet not, right? Then this morning reader Ralph Ellis e-mailed me suggesting I write a blog post on the difference between thrillers, suspense and mysteries. Either I'm becoming far too predictable or Ralph needs to sell his skills to the CIA. I'm hoping it's the latter (and I'm not telling you Ralph's lotto picks).

Here's what I came up with last night. Yes, these are to a certain extent interchangeable and there is overlap, but here's how I personally make the distinction:

Thrillers have action
Suspense has danger, but not necessarily action
Mysteries have mysteries, i.e., something you don't know until the end


Now, before you start calling your novel a mystery thriller with suspense elements, know that I'm not overly concerned with genre labels. I've seen novels that were called one thing at the query stage, something else at the submission stage, and still something else at the publication stage. For your query, just shoot for the bookstore section it would be in and call it a day.

At the same time, it is valuable to know the conventions of the genre(s) in which you're writing. These different subgenres have different expectations when it comes to plot revelations and pacing. For instance, with a thriller, you might know who the killer is from Page 1, but you're riveted by the chase -- and the action needs to be punctuated at key moments. For suspense, you might know who the killer is from Page 1 but there could be a slower pace and you're riveted by the sense of danger. But for a mystery, you might not know who the killer is until the very end.

These labels slosh around a whole lot, so again, don't sweat them too much. And if you're confused, just wait for Ralph Ellis to e-mail you. He'll know.

UPDATE: Jessica Faust at BookEnds covered a similar topic today, so check that out as well.






53 comments:

Anonymous said...

So would you categorize Ian McEwan's ENDURING LOVE as suspense?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I'd probably characterize ENDURING LOVE as literary fiction.

Lady Glamis said...

Thank you for the clarification! And congrats on answering all those emails. You are a super-agent, indeed. I appreciate your promptness and professional manner in replying to my own query (even though it was a polite no), and I am excited to keep querying all those agents out there who have varying opinions.

You are great at what you do! Good luck on keeping up with that inbox...

Jeanie W said...

Over at the Bookends blog, Jessica Faust touched on the same topic today as she addressed the importance of having your hook match your genre. Nathan, I wonder if the two of you are getting blogpost inspiration from the same set of queries.

Marilyn Peake said...

Hi, Nathan,

Wow, if the financial crisis could be solved as quickly as you answer your emails or Warren Buffet buys up stock, the entire meltdown would disappear in the blink of an eye.

I’d like to ask if you think writing to genre is important. I love books that mix genres like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

Amy Nathan said...

Is this a blogging-agents' conspiracy to suggest they want to see more of these? Bookends blog is the same topic today.

Mark Terry said...

I was thinking that Jessica Faust covered this today, too.

One thing I would ad that I'm not entirely sure unpublished writers quite get (or even some published writers, for that).

For instance:

Stephen King does NOT writer horror. Stephen King is a brand in itself. What he writes are Stephen King novels.

JK Rowling is now in that category. The Harry Potter novels are NOT YA, children's, thrillers or fantasy. They're Harry Potter or JK Rowling.

James Patterson? Well, he's probably in a class by himself in that he no longer actually writes the novels with his names on them, but it's clear he understands the concept of branding himself.

And that's always a risk for writers when they say, Well, my book is like JK Rowling's or Stephen King, because, of course, they no longer writer genre, they're almost identified as a genre.

Jordan (MamaBlogga) said...

Thank you! This has been driving me crazy for the longest time.

*patiently awaiting Ralph's email!*

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the answer. Is it because it is so much about character that you characterize ENDURING LOVE as literary fiction?
That makes sense to me too.
I think I would also have to say that it was a suspenseful page-turner too, emotionally.

There are also some fantasy novels that feel more like literary fiction to me, but that I can sometimes find in both sections of a bookstore. It can get confusing for me.

Melanie Avila said...

I've always differentiated mysteries and suspense based on when the villain is revealed, but thrillers kind of threw me. Thanks for the clarification Nathan.

Kim Haynes said...

Nathan,
As an as-yet-unpublished mystery writer, I've heard a lot of explanations of the differences, and yours is the easiest and most sensible one yet.

Can't wait to see what you do with the financial crisis...

Anonymous said...

so, how many of those 300 some queries got requests for partials/fulls?

just wondering...

Conda V. Douglas said...

Thanks for the post--excellent clarification. Of course, you might say I cheat--because I write what are obviously mysteries. But I have friends who struggle with thriller? Or suspense?

Corked Wine and Cigarettes said...

There should be one genre TO RULE THEM ALL!

Like...Thrillysterense!

No, it's not a mouth wash.

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere that the difference between a mystery and a suspense is that in a mystery the main character's goal is to solve a puzzle. In a thriller his goal is to escape a nightmare.

Scott said...

What of the "mystery" that's kept from the reader, such as a surprise revealing of character at the end? I like to work a reader like a filmmaker works the audience. What's revealed may not be the final piece to the central puzzle, but it still jars, resonates and casts a whole new light on everything that came before it.

And does anyone else believe in literary genre fiction? I'm seeing it here and there and think it fits my style perfectly.

Another cool post, Nathan. Thanks.

A Paperback Writer said...

Hey, Nathan, I wish you WOULD tackle the Wall Street issues; you'd probably do a better job than the Senate, since you obviously don't waste time the way they do.

Kathryn711 said...

I find all genre issues confusing. I use "critique circle" website, and I get plopped into the fantasy category. I consider my stuff to be literary fiction. "Raw Shark Texts" is fiction, so is "The Time Traveler's Wife" and "Handmaid's Tale". And personally, I quickly pass over any trade paperback with a winged horse on it. So why am I being pegged at a fantasy writer? Is it just up to the writer?

Cliff burns said...

I discriminate between good, original mysteries (rare) and derivative, formulaic attempts to emulate existing styles and tropes (common as leprosy on Molokai). It's the work that transcends genre that fascinates me...or cross-over efforts incorporating various elements into a new and unique vision. Harlan Ellison has always claimed that anything one needs to know about writing, you can learn from reading the entire Sherlock Holmes canon. Somewhere Artie Conan Doyle must be blushing...

Richard Mabry said...

Nathan,
I appreciate the way you boiled the differences down to simple terms. Thanks.

Adaora A. said...

Wow well done. Where's the bourbon and drunk monkey's dancing when you need 'em eh?

This is a really great breakdown of the three. They do seem to have the possbility of all being in the same novel. It's nice to know we don't have to prove it all in our query.

lotusloq said...

300 queries in a day? Wow! You're a machine! Is your brain fried? Are you babbling nonsense and flicking pigeons with peanuts? If not, I'm very impressed.

So, now for the BIG question--did you request any partials?

Thanks for the, um, clarification? I think I'll just list mine as YA and leave it at that.

So glad you're back!

Maya Reynolds said...

Hey, Nathan: David Morrell (author of First Blood, the book that spawned the Rambo series) tackled this issue in an edition of the Arizona Republic a few years ago.

"Morrell says high stakes are common in thrillers, but are not the most important aspect. There is one theory that says genres can be defined by the emotions they evoke...Thus, science fiction evokes awe, romances evoke sentiment. Mysteries evoke puzzlement, whereas thrillers evoke a sense of excitement. . . . Basically, it's about intensity of pace, intensity of emotions."

In that same article, Dana Stabenow said, "In a mystery, Aunt Ida is at risk, and in a thriller, Aunt Ida's nation is at risk."

Blending their ideas, I came up with my personal definition, which is that a thriller is characterized by suspense, fast pacing, a growing sense of threat and intense emotions.

Just_Me said...

See, I skip this and call it science fiction, because I have space ships :o) But I do like your definitions for the classifications.

Websinthe said...

Your explanation was clear enough that I felt I could almost feel the synopsis.

Kudos.

Anonymous said...

Great, succinct explanation of what is expected in each genre.

mkcbunny said...

Sorry. Last comment was *not* anonymous. Just had a long day at work and ... um ... forgot to enter my name.

"Work" happens to be movie-related, and we use these same genres. What's interesting as a comparison is that we have Suspense as the over-arching genre, with Mystery and Thriller as subgenres of that (along with several others).

Not to confuse or disagree. Just noting.

JES said...

Agree 100% with what Mark Terry said: the genre owns the writer until the writer sells a gazillion books. At which point s/he can pretty much do whatever, and will continue to sell gazillions just from sheer market momentum.

Maris Bosquet said...

Friends from the UK insist on calling mysteries detective stories, though police and detectives/PIs may not be protagonists.

I'm still trying to figure out what separates literary fiction from non-literary fiction!

sheri said...

i think it is great you broke these genre's down like this. i am writing what I term a "suspense" novel but it doesn't fit into the "formula" of "suspense". It is a difficult thing to break your book down into a genre, does it hurt a writer terribly if they query calling their book one genre and you deem it another one at the time you receive the manuscript?

1writeway said...

Nathan, thanks a bunch for the clarification. Now I feel comfortable saying that I write (primarily) suspense stories, and maybe my marketing will improve with the correct label :-) Now, what is the difference between literary fiction and non-literary fiction?

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

if writers can't figure out what kind of genre their books fall in, then I have to question their credibility as a writer.

o_O

Scott said...

I think all books contain genre-bending elements to some degree. It's just at some point you have to choose a shingle to hang in order to get it into the existing marketplace. Then, over time, genres (or "categories") begin to diversify the same way they have in the music industry.

Until then, when someone reads, say, your "thriller" they can say, "I just read this thriller that was cool because it was also kind of ––––". They're chuffed from something fresh and a little different, and you're chuffed that they didn't take you to task for being naturally diverse in your style.

Win, win.

sruble said...

Thanks Nathan! I was just over at Bookends, and then saw your post here on the same subject. It's nice to get a couple of viewpoints on the subject.

Glad to hear you survived your trip here to the big apple!

Ulysses said...

My take:

Mystery: I don't know who dunnit.

Suspense: I know who dunnit. I just don't know whut they dun.

Thriller: I know who dunnit an' whut they dun, an' I gotta keep 'em from doin' it again.

soooo anonymous said...

Nathan,

If I feel my novel is a cross between literary and commercial, do I say so in my query, or must I choose just one category?

Thanks.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

A Potentially Dumb Idea

At Bookends, Jessica Faust wrote:

"Cozy sleuths are amateur sleuths and often have a love outside sleuthing. The trend these days is a craft or hobby like knitting, crochet, glassworks, rubber stamping, quilting..."

I mean, maybe there already is such a thing as...(dumb idea alert) - cozy literary fiction? Meaning there's a craft involved, or crafts plural. Kind of like steampunk, but instead of gizmos, it's arts and crafts...or maybe cozy fantasy? Cozy literary fantasy?

I will stop now. I'm thinking of Anne Sexton's poem, "You, Dr. Martin," which mentions making moccasins during her stay in a mental hospital, and ends:

"...Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself,
counting this row and that row of moccasins
waiting on the silent shelf."

Not exactly the picture of the happy crafter. Oh well, on to other things.

Sophie said...

There is a post in FAQ re difference between literary and commercial fiction. I have just checked that I am telling truth.

I'd feel a wee bit arrogant calling my own work literary. Is that something for me or other people to decide?

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

hi Sophie. well, here's a simple break-down.

is your novel plot driven? if so, it's more likely to be non-literary fiction.

if your book is more character and emotion driven, it's probably literary.

not always, though, but that's the basic rules of "literary fiction," I guess.

Nathan Bransford said...

dbtp-

I have a different definition when it comes to commercial and literary.

Anonymous said...

If it hasn't happened it must be classified as fiction. What fiction genre would this book fit into?
A man who wrote a book detailing how and why he intended to murder his wife – before he bludgeoned her to death with a hammer – will get the chance to seek his early release from prison. But a jury has decided Runo Mark Cairenius will have to serve another 3 1/2 years of his life prison sentence before being allowed to appear before the National Parole Board.

Cairenius applied for early release under Canada's "faint hope" clause. The legislation gives convicted killers the right to seek parole after serving 15 years despite having been given parole ineligibility of 25 years when initially sentenced.

benwah said...

Nathan, thanks for the most trenchant definitions of these genres I've ever seen.

ZURIEL said...

Thanks for this..it helped me loads though I'm still confused on what genre my unfinished book would lie in as so far all three genres match in it. Thanks for taking the time to write the post. Much appreciated.

gabrielle said...

Ulysses, I'm giggling out loud at your summary.

The Sentence Sleuth said...

Hello. I'm wondering where something like "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective" series would be in here. No one dies in these stories but there are mysteries sprinkled throughout. Would these be mysteries then? Or is this more literary fiction because it's so wonderfully written? Or perhaps a cozy? Or is there a sub-genre of mysteries featuring PIs? Just wondering where non-death mysteries fit in.

Scott Woods said...

Somewhere I read a description like this that has been very helpful to me. Searched my library, but can't find it.

Mystery mode: the sleuth knows more than the reader. The reader's feeling is primarily intellectual--to figure out whodunit before the sleuth reveals it.

Thriller mode: the hero knows exactly as much as the reader. The reader is shocked by events along with the hero and wants to find out if the hero will prevail.

Suspense mode: the reader knows more than the victim. The reader feels dread. "Don't open that door!"

This typology has been helpful for me in deciding which mode will be most effective for which scene and how to pace/vary emotional intensity for the reader.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Great post helped me alot. What about spy (espionage) films in what genre does it fit?

Anonymous said...

And Crime?

jmartinlibrary said...

What if a book has a action, danger, and a mystery to be solved? Would it just be a straightup thriller?


My head hurts...

jmartinlibrary said...

What if a book has a action, danger, and a mystery to be solved? Would it just be a straightup thriller?


My head hurts...

Jill Lynn said...

Hi Nathan,

I lurk, but don't comment often. This to-the-point post (say that three times...without spitting) warrants a bravo. I finally know my WIP is a mystery. Thank you, also, for easing my mind about being exact in defining my genre in queries.

Rich said...

Nathan, I think I wrote a mystery/suspense novel. I got a response from Christopher Little - he looked at the first pages and said, no! I also got a response to my query from The Literary Group International (yes and they say they don't). They wanted me to kill the first three chapters. So I put it up on Amazon, Deaths & Disappearances. It's LOve Story meets voodoo, meets murder with even a vampire thrown in the mix. Was I wrong to call it a psychological thriller? Is that why they shot the love story elements down? I won't change this book, but I will try harder on the next one. Please advise.

chandus said...

Hi Nathan

What according to you will hook the viewers/readers throughout more, a suspense, thriller or a mystery?

Related Posts with Thumbnails