Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thrillers vs. Mysteries

by Jodie Renner

Until fairly recently, most readers were more familiar with mysteries than thrillers. Mysteries of all sorts (cozy, hardboiled, suspenseful, etc.) are still going strong, but thrillers make up more and more of the bestsellers these days. How exactly do thrillers differ from mysteries, anyway? Both are fiction stories involving criminal activity, catching the bad guy(s), and at least one murder.

The main difference seems to be in the delivery—how they are told. Mysteries are usually more cerebral, for readers who enjoy solving puzzles, whereas thrillers appeal more to the emotions and a yearning for excitement, a desire to vicariously confront danger and defeat nasty villains. A mystery, especially a “cozy” one, can unfold in a leisurely fashion, but thrillers need to be much more fast-paced and suspenseful.

David Morrell, author of 28 thrillers, explored the difference between mysteries and thrillers several years ago. His detailed description included this: “Traditional mysteries appeal primarily to the mind and emphasize the logical solution to a puzzle. In contrast, thrillers strive for heightened emotions and emphasize the sensations of what might be called an obstacle race and a scavenger hunt.” (David Morrell,

James N. Frey, author of HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD THRILLER  and HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD MYSTERY, among other “damn good” books on writing, says, “In the United States, mysteries are not considered to be thrillers, though they share some common elements.” Frey describes the differences like this:
“In a mystery, the hero has a mission to find a killer.
In a thriller, the hero has a mission to foil evil.”
Frey goes on to elaborate, “a thriller is a story of a hero who has a mission to foil evil. Not just a hero—a clever hero. Not just a mission—an ‘impossible’ mission. An ‘impossible’ mission that will put our hero into terrible trouble.”

According to International Thriller Writers, a thriller is characterized by “the sudden rush of emotions, the excitement, sense of suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace.”

ITW defines thrillers as a genre in which “tough, resourceful, but essentially ordinary heroes are pitted against villains determined to destroy them, their country, or the stability of the free world.”
Part of the allure of thrillers, they say, comes from not only what their stories are about, but also how they are told. “High stakes, nonstop action plot twists that both surprise and excite, settings that are both vibrant and exotic, and an intense pace that never lets up until the adrenaline-packed climax.” (Source: James N. Frey, HOW to WRITE A DAMN GOOD THRILLER)

I asked some friends, clients and colleagues what they thought the main differences were between these two genres. According to thriller writer and friend Allan Leverone, “The definition I like best is this: In a mystery, the crime has already been committed, but the hero and the reader must figure out by whom. In a thriller, the crime (at least the biggie) hasn't been committed yet, but the reader knows who the bad guy is; the question is whether he can be stopped.”

Mystery and romance writer Terry Odell says, “The best definition I’ve heard is that in a mystery, you're one step behind the detective, since you don't know anything until he does. In suspense, you're one step ahead, because you know things that the detective [or hero] can't know.” This is especially true when we get into the viewpoint of the villain.

My friend, suspense-mystery and thriller writer, LJ Sellers, tells me she recently read that in a thriller, the villain drives the story, versus mystery, in which the protagonist drives the story. Good one!

And finally, another good friend and colleague, thriller and horror writer Andrew E. Kaufman says, “Here's a less conservative, completely off-color definition, coming from a less conservative, completely off-color mind: A thriller is like mystery on Viagra. Everything's more amped up, fast-paced, and frenetic. A good thriller should keep your heart racing, your fingers swiping at the pages, and your rear on the edge of its seat. Of course, those lines can be blurred. Many authors straddle the fence between the two. Nothing is in black and white, and gray is a beautiful color.”

I used to read a lot of mysteries, and still do from time to time, but in the last few years I much prefer the pure escapism and “pulse-pounding suspense” of thrillers. Who are your favorite thriller writers? My top three would probably be best-selling authors Lee Child, Sandra Brown and Robert Crais, but I love and read so many more.

How about your favorite thriller characters? For popular series, I especially like Jack Reacher, Joe Pike, Elvis Cole, Myron Bolitar and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum—and the two hunks in her life!
Then there are the fast-paced mysteries that seem to straddle both genres. For suspense-mysteries, I love LJ Sellers' page-turning Detective Jackson series. And maybe I should put Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar stories and Robert Crais’s Joe Pike and Elvis Cole stories into the hybrid category of suspense-mysteries, too. What do you think? Are there any other novels you like that have elements of both?

Copyright © Jodie Renner, January 2012

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction, as well as YA. Check out her website at
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David Bishop said...

For me, mysteries are a bit more intimate. By that I mean they usually involved less people, smaller stage, solution is usually of a murder. Stop the villain. Mysteries usually solve a murder, whodunits, or might identify who did it early on (Remember Columbo) and then focus on howdunit or if and how the villain will be caught. With Thrillers it is more about stopping evil, although there is usually a specific villain as well, more about saving the country, world or planet. Both mysteries and thrillers have multiple sub-genres so these comments are highly generalized.

Miranda Parker said...

Hi, Jodie.

Thanks for opening up this discussion.

I agree, David. Mysteries have a more intimate feel to them. Perhaps because the reader unlocks the clues along with the sleuth. Usually, we also get to know the sleuth more. I think that what made the series 24 stand out--outside of the fast pace and constant ticking clock-- was that Jack became a family member to the audience. We learned a great deal about him. I still no very little about 007.

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Thanks for your excellent elaborations on typical elements of mysteries, David and Miranda. For this blog, I tailored my article more to thriller writers, with less emphasis on mysteries. I should use your comments in a revised article geared more to mystery writers.

Terry Odell said...

Jodie - I think that thrillers belong in the suspense, not mystery category. Years ago I checked the "definitions" for all 3 genres, and a thriller was separated from suspense by the level of what was at stake. To be classified as a thriller, the plot needed to deal with stakes of global proportion. Not so anymore.

Nowadays (and I think it's more because publishers are using the term as a marketing tool), a 'thriller' is simply a page turner.

I skipped over a LOT of books I ended up enjoying because they were dubbed thrillers, and I wasn't inclined to read them. One example --Barry Eisler's Rain series. To me, they weren't thrillers at all, and I regretted not finding them sooner.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Al Leverone said...

Hey Jodie, thanks for the shout-out; just as when you edited my book, you make me look brighter than I am...

I'll second Terry's vote for Barry Eisler's Rain series. Although I do view them as thrillers, they are smart and cerebral and interesting as hell.

Miranda's point regarding 24 is an interesting one, because I agree with everything she says, but don't think you can view 24 as anything other than a thriller. But the point about "getting to know" the protagonist is critical, because if the reader doesn't care about the main character, why should she care about the predicament that character finds himself in?

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Terry, I don't think I implied that thrillers belong in the mystery category, because I definitely don't think that! There's a huge difference between the two, I think, as well as the reader expectations for each. And yes, thrillers are all about suspense.

Al, thanks for your kind words about my editing for you, and your insightful commments. And I agree with you that 24 is definitely a thriller-type show, not a mystery. And you're so right about needing to get to know the protagonist and what makes him tick, his goals, fears, etc. in order to care about him and what happens to him.

Terry Odell said...

Jodie, I didn't say you put thrillers into the mystery category. Maybe I should have had you edit my post! I think that where there used to be 2 categories, with thriller being a subset of suspense, there are 3 now: mystery, suspense and thriller. Sorry if I wasn't clear enough. Just as with being a romance writer gives you a huge continuum of sub-genres, so does being a "mystery" writer. Because I think in the library or bookstore, mystery, suspense, and thriller are on the same "shelf."

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Terry, I think the two main categories or genres of crime fiction, each with its own subcategories, are mysteries and suspense-thrillers. One subcategory / subgenre of suspense-thrillers would be romantic suspense. I don't really see a distinction between thrillers and suspense fiction. What do the rest of you think?

Terry Odell said...

Don't know how the romance community would feel about putting romantic suspense in suspense/thrillers. Or readers. There are definitely different expectations.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Often it's a continuum, with no hard line in between. Many writers, like LJ Sellers, write suspense-mysteries, or mystery-suspenses. (LJ also writes thrillers.)

For romantic suspense, whether you would categorize them under romance or suspense/thrillers would depend on which aspects ae most emphasized in that story - is it mainly a romance with suspenseful elements, or mainly a thriller/suspense with some romantic elements?

Miranda Parker said...

Wow, what a discussion! I like.

Right, Al. 24 was a thrill to watch. A thriller indeed. For me I watched the show as long as I did, because I had begun to care about Jack Bauer. Even my pastor at church threw in a Jack Bauer anecdote during sermons. Lol. He was larger than life.

The thrillers I like the most, it could be because I'm southern and nosy, are the ones where I know something else about the character besides their ability to save the world. So thank you all for the recommendations. I will definitely read them.

Terry Odell said...

If you call it a 'romantic suspense' then it's going to go on the romance shelves and readers will insist on the romance being a driving force and wrapped up with a HEA or promise of one at the end. Trust me, writing a romantic suspense is like writing 3 books: you have to have fully developed character arcs for hero and heroine AND you have to write a satisfying mystery/suspense/thriller plot.

(I know you know this, Jodie - this is for others who might not be as aware of the genre expectations.)

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Terry, I think most of Sandra Brown's novels of the past 5-10 years are considered romantic suspenses, and, unlike her earlier ones, they're usually shelved under thrillers or suspense novels. It depends on how big of a role the romance plays.

For a book to be shelved under romances, I would think it would be called a "suspenseful romance" (romance being the noun and suspenseful being the adjective or descriptor), whereas the term "romantic suspense" (suspense as the noun) implies a suspense with romantic elements.

Miranda Parker said...

Jodie, I agree with you on romantic suspense. There is a balance of both the romance story arc and the suspense one. It could be mystery, thriller, paranormal or horror, even. It's a hybrid that must fulfill some basic romance story elements.

I would love to try a romantic thriller, but my brain is wired for local level small thrillers...mysteries (who killed the PTA president.) Thinking global puts too much pressure on me. I tend to get too attached to my protagonists and the pressure of saving the world would drive my house crazier than it is right now. lol.

For you thriller writers do your stories, especially what's at stake, stress you? Or do you not think that deep?

Miranda Parker said...

Also, Terry. I agree. Writing a romantic suspense is like writing three novels in one. When I accepted my contract at Kensington I thought 'oh, i can write these books in my sleep or between playdates and carpool.' Oh. Oh. No. My family wants to vote me off the island. I'm into writing Book 3 now and I am mentally still in 2011. It's a lot of work. I wished I could have written some straight suspense and not have my main character flirted back with another main character in the book.

Terry Odell said...

Jodie - as a member of RWA, I'm using their definitions. Right now I'm judging published books for the RITA contest. These are all classified as Romance by the industry (apologies for straying a bit from thrillers, but there IS a difference, and terminology is what creates confusion with readers and reviewers)

RWA has two categories that encompass romantic suspense: Series Suspense/Adventure romance (which includes their imprints of Intrigue as well as what they call Romantic Suspense in their Silhouette line as well as their regular Harlequin category romances). Then there's single title romantic suspense.

The judging guidelines for anything entered as a romantic suspense are: "Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot"

But they're still considered "romance" novels. I've never been happy with whoever decided to call the sub-genre romantic SUSPENSE because, as we see in this discussion, suspense brings totally different expectations than mystery. So because I write "Mysteries with Relationships" but they're marketed as romantic suspense, they're on the romance shelves but don't have a whole lot of suspense elements.

And this is probably more than anyone wanted to know, so I'll go back to my writing now!

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery


As I mentioned in my quote, I do think the line between thrillers and mysteries can, and often does, become blurred. For me, those are the ones that seem to intrigue me most, novels where the author isn't afraid to color outside the lines or stray beyond the definitions of their intended genre. There's a little bit of mystery in most thrillers, so I think it's only natural that the two would at times commingle, and when done well, you hardly even notice.

L.J. Sellers said...

For me, the main difference between a mystery and a thriller is the whodunit factor. In most mysteries, you don't know who the culprit is until the end. In most thrillers, the antagonist is not only known, but an integral part of the story.

Thriller used to mean the story had high stakes and that more than the life of the protagonist was on the line. Now, everything is called a thriller. On the other hand, suspense stories are often very personal, with only the protagonist's life at stake. By those definitions, my three standalones are suspense. But I call them thrillers, because that term sells books.

As for romantic suspense, it depends on the story. Some are more romance than suspense, and others, like my story The Baby Thief, are more suspense than romance. That's what I love about Amazon listings rather than store shelves. You can be in several categories at once.

L.J. Sellers said...

And I wanted to add, I consider my Detective Jackson stories to be mystery/suspense. They definitely have a whodunit factor as the main plot, but with an added level of suspense for solving the crime quickly.

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Wow! Great discussion here! Thanks to all of you for adding your valuable opinions, info and definitions to it!

All the lines are fuzzy, and most books straddle genres in some way, but as Terry says, often the issue at stake is where to shelve them in bookstores, which can make a big difference to sales. But as LJ says, that's the advantage to Amazon - they can be categorized under several genres, which is a huge plus to sales.

And thanks, LJ, for adding to the "Are suspense and thrillers the same thing?" question. I like your take on that.

Jodie Renner Editing said...

And Andrew E. Kaufman (above) has now published a horror novel and a thriller. I wonder what he's working on now? A romance? Hmmm, Drew? LOL

jenny milchman said...

Love these definitions! My first agent said suspense is a ticking clock and a mystery is where is the clock ticking? I think that was it :)

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Good one, Jenny!

M.E. Anders said...

Really enjoyed this post, Jodie. You are all over the internet as the thriller editor-expert. :)

I think the discussion in the comment section was also beneficial, since the line between thrillers and mysteries could seem blurry.

Thrillers are definitely my preference of the two to read. I like the pulse-pounding tension. One of my new favorite thriller authors is Taylor Stevens. She has a kick-butt female protagonist, Vanessa Michael Munroe.

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Thanks for your comments and compliment, M.E.!

And yes, the discussion here has added a lot to the subject - and started a few new ones, like where to slot romantic suspense, and the distinction between thrillers and suspense novels. Both of those could easily cross genres or subgenres, depending on the style and content of the story.

And thanks for the hot tip about your new favorite thriller author! I've never heard of Taylor Stevens, but I'll definitely look for her now! Has she written more than one book? Can you recommend any titles?

jenny milchman said...

I like a lively discussion, and wish we could all sit down together in person some day to elaborate on this one.

The idea that quantity (now much of an element is the romance, or the global stakes, or the puzzle) should point to one genre or another seems viable to me--where the author has placed her or his emphasis and concentration. What is the author's intention?

But I'd throw one more curve ball out there--and wait for a rain of responses hopefully :)

Do we need these classifications at all? Is genre an artifact of needing to physically shelve books? What are the inherent advantages to grouping books by type, if any?

GREAT post, Jodie. I will definitely be sending some of the thriller/suspense/mystery/romantic suspense/et al writers I know to you...

Terry Odell said...

I'll step in to respond to Jenny's questions - I do think some general categorizing helps find books you like. What do you say when someone asks, "What do you like to read?" There are labels for a reason, but I don't think they need to be rigid. And I don't think books have to be restricted to only one (says the genre-blending author here!)

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Thanks for your comments and compliment, Jenny!

As for genres, I think some kind of grouping can speed up our browsing and shopping experience, especially in a "real" bookstore, where we could waste a lot of time wandering from one section to another trying to find a favorite author or category.

But now, with online shopping at Amazon or Barnes & Noble or wherever, it's so much better, I think, that titles can be classified under several different genres, or just "fiction."

I think that as traditional publishers and bookstores play a smaller and smaller role in our reading choices, we'll see more and more authors bending and straddling genres - which could be very creative and liberating! And provide readers with an ever-expanding variety of choices.

Jenny said...

This question is raised a lot and I love hearing the different definitions. I enjoy reading mysteries when I have longer to sit and thrillers when my reading time is cut short. Both engage the mind and the emotions for me and both include a psychological aspect I love to try and understand. Thrillers usually leave me more shocked than mysteries, which is what I love about them. Great post, Jodie.