Writers: what’s your genre? If you said “I don’t know,” you’ve probably already entered The Great Genre Wars. This is an ongoing battle between authors who just want to tell a damned good story and publishers whose business is to fit those stories into neat little slots on bookstore shelves. Some of the toughest genres to call fall under the categories of mystery, thriller and suspense.
Distinguishing between mystery and thriller/suspense is comparatively simple once you know the lingo: mysteries are “whodunits,” whereas thrillers and suspense are “howdunits.” Of course, any mystery writer will tell you that there are half a dozen sub-genres you must further classify your work into, so “easy” is not exactly accurate. On the most basic of levels, though, a mystery begins with a crime and the novel leads up to naming the perpetrator; while a thriller/suspense names the antagonist out front and concerns itself with how the protagonist is going to stay alive against seemingly insurmountable odds. Mystery author Jeffery Deaver (of the Lincoln Rhyme series) puts it quite succinctly: “A suspense/thriller novel asks the question, ‘What’s going to happen?’ A traditional mystery novel asks, ‘What happened?’”
So: what’s the difference between a thriller and a suspense novel? Believe it or not, there is one—though it’s an ultra-thin line that’s blurred more often than not. Put your novel to the test to determine whether you should classify it as “thriller” or “suspense”.
You know you’ve written a thriller when: Huge stakes hang in the balance for your protagonists or group of protagonists, who must stop some ghastly plot by your antagonist that threatens a great number of people, or even the very existence of humanity. Thrillers are often divided into sub-genres like medical thrillers (Robin Cook), military or technical thrillers (Tom Clancy) or legal thrillers (John Grisham).
You know you’ve written a suspense novel when: Your protagonist is in terrible personal danger and fighting for his or her life against disproportionately high odds. Suspense novels are breathless page-turners that focus more on a pivotal character, but often include high-stakes elements of thrillers.
Now you know whether you should call yourself a thriller author or a suspense author. If you’re still having trouble distinguishing between the two, take heart: most agents and publishers who work with your genre are amenable to something called a “suspense thriller” anyway.