Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Thriller vs. Suspense

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.


Marta Stephens said...

I'm so glad you posted this article. I've asked myself the same questions several times, especially when I began to write. As you noted, all I wanted to do was to write a good story.

Although my first novel, "Silenced Cry," is classified as a mystery and rightfully so, I think my second book, "The Black Pearl" (2008) has strong elements of suspense. Now my only question is, will readers enjoy it? :)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Sonya - what an excellent piece about a totally confusing question. I've pondered the genre question so often - and I think I (like Marta mentioned) may have veered from mystery to some sort of suspense back to mystery in my series. I've called my series literary mysteries, and some have called them cozies. Others insist they are action/adventure, and yet I think Mazurka (coming out this year) is mystery/suspense... LOL. When you have a mystery that's being solved in one subplot, yet your characters are in peril and racing for their lives from neo-Nazis... it's a tough call!

Thanks for this wonderful article, Sonya. As always, chock full of great info and superbly written. So, what are you calling your Broken Angel series? Is it urban suspense?(what do I know!)

And Marta - folks will adore The black Pearl! I sure did!

pat said...

I read in awe about all of the books that tumble out of you all while you manage busy lives and families! I have never written fiction but am on the verge of trying! My friend (and critique partner...LOL) Aaron has agreed to come along as I try but I am so perplexed as to which way to go. I have setting and two characters...and by this article's description, I think I may try the suspense mode....to me it lends itself better to one who has no idea where she may go, as yet! This MB4 site just keeps getting better! I love all of the writer support here...just jealous that you are all so prolific! Better get tapping (or pounding, right Marta?)Thanks for this!

Chrissy said...

I've sat here and wondered myself. Sometimes I've even said the book I'm reading is a suspense/thriller. Now that I know, I'll be sure to clarify.

I have recently finished a book, The Osogoode Trilogy that is a suspense not a thriller.
It's full of murder and fraud and could easily be on the big screen soon. I really enjoyed this Trilogy.

jen said...

Thanks for writing such a timeless article!! This helps me a TON, as I finally figured out I'm writing a suspense, not a thriller.

New follower, now to go read some of the recent posts :)

The Survival Mama

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thanks, Survival Mama! Glad to have you here!