Mysteries vs Thrillers

A few years ago, mysteries were the hot genre. It seemed as if everyone wasMH900427785 reading a mystery novel. The thrill of guessing, “Who done it!” was the excitement that kept me, and many others, reading book after book.

More recently, however, thrillers have made up more and more of the bestsellers list. It seems as if the excitement of solving the puzzle of a mystery, even murder mysteries, is now taking second place to the thrill of the chase between the protagonist and the antagonist.

This evolution is subtle but the psychology behind the shift is not. In order to fully explain what I mean, allow me to take a step back and explain the basic differences in these two genres.

A Mystery Novel:  These stories involve a puzzle, a specific unknown the MH900385446reader isn’t expected to know about until the end.  Mysteries are often more cerebral and are considered works of revelation. There’s more mental action than physical in a mystery. The primary action (or crime) has already occurred, so the element of suspense is not necessarily the main focus of the novel. It’s in solving the puzzle.

A Thriller Novel:  These stories involve intrigue and action. A catastrophic event may have happened, as in a mystery, but the thriller novel differs in that the event triggers the possibility of an even greater catastrophe. In a thriller, the protagonist’s job is to prevent further calamity.

If the above explanation is about as clear as mud, then let me explain further. Various charts have been developed that characterize these types of novels as follows:

Mysteries ═►Suspense Novels ═►Thrillers

The main difference is in the delivery of suspense. Mysteries let the reader know up front that something bad has happened, but the reader doesn’t know who the villain is. The reader must plow through to the end of the book, or be very clever at identifying the clues along the way, to find out who the antagonist is. The mystery of “Who done it!” is not revealed until the end.

In a thriller, however, the writer is appealing to the emotions of the reader who yearns for excitement. Thriller plots create a desire to confront extreme dangerMH900443241 and defeat nasty villains. This differs from a mystery in that the reader is informed at some point early on who the villains are. The thrill doesn’t revolve around solving the mystery because we already know who the bad guys are. The excitement is the heightened emotions brought on by the chase, that literary dance between the hero and the villain when you’re not really certain who will win.

It’s been said that the threat from an unknown source is never as great as a known, villainous danger.  In other words, there’s much more suspense when we know what our hero is up against but can’t quite figure out how the hero will either survive, eliminate a specific threat or save the world. The key word here is SUSPENSE. It’s both the link and the difference between mysteries and thrillers.

A mystery may have a degree of suspense, but the story progresses logically MH900414033toward a resolution of the puzzle and this stimulates the mind. A thriller, on the other hand, stimulates the senses. The emotional rush of apprehension and exhilaration imbedded within the plot of a thriller drives the narrative at a constant, and at times a breakneck, pace.  The SUSPENSE is heightened by the known threat of the villain and his/her unexpected actions.

Author L.J. Sellers states the difference between mysteries and thrillers a bit uniquely.  She explains that in a thriller, the villain drives the story, whereas in a mystery, the protagonist drives the story.  That’s an interesting explanation that takes me back to the idea that it’s the degree of SUSPENSE that distinguishes these two genres and my previous statement that the threat from an unknown villain is never as great as that of a known one.

SUSPENSE happens when the protagonist is in danger.  In a pure suspense genre novel, the protagonist becomes aware of the danger only gradually and the suspense builds slowly as the story unfolds.  Thus, the relationship among the mystery, suspense and thriller genres become somewhat blurred.

But the basic premise of protagonist danger and degree of suspense defines what genre a book falls into.  In mysteries, the main character is occupied in tracking down the truth about an event, often a murder, but the protagonist is in relatively little danger. In thrillers, however, the protagonist is often in danger from the onset or is placed in danger by his actions and/or that of the antagonist.

So, which are my favorites? See my website and you’ll know. And I hope they’re your favorites also.

Thoughts?  Comments?  I’d love to hear them!

Now to “pass it forward”, I’d like to give a shout out to some of my writer friends. Please take a moment to stop by their blogs and websites this week also.

About James J. Murray, Fiction Writer

With experience in both pharmaceutical manufacturing and clinical patient management, medications and their impact on one’s quality of life have been my expertise. My secret passion of murder and mayhem, however, is a whole other matter. I’ve always loved reading murder mysteries and thrillers, and longed to weave such tales of my own. Drawing on my clinical expertise as a pharmacist and my infatuation with the lethal effects of drugs, my tales of murder, mayhem and medicine will have you looking over your shoulder and suspicious of anything in your medicine cabinet.
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9 Responses to Mysteries vs Thrillers

  1. Pingback: My brother Jim Murray with a superb article on the differences between the mystery and the thriller…:) « Thomas Rydder

  2. James — A good definition of the two.
    James, The Thriller Writer

  3. Thanks, James. Appreciate the comments. Will give your blog site a shout out next week!

  4. Hi James. Fascinating blog post. I have been puzzling over my own eBook “Web of Deceit”, trying to decide whether it is a mystery, a suspense novel or a thriller. In the end, I couldn’t decide–nor could the early readers! In “Web of Deceit”, the protagonist is definitely in danger = Suspense Novel; the main character and others are occupied in tracking down the truth about an event (a murder) = Mystery; but a significant part of the story is driven by the villain and entails a “cat and mouse” chase when you’re not really certain who will win = Thriller! Maybe it’s not so easy to distinguish between these three genres after all :)) Charles

  5. So True! I’ve often said the same thing about my writing. My books seem to evolve from “mystery” to “thriller” as the stories unfold. “Web of Deceit” sounds fascinating! Will read it.

  6. Thank you for the fine explanation of mystery versus thriller. I haven’t read thriller novels. But the movies with this theme can sure put me on the edge of my seat!

  7. jlaustgen says:

    Thank you for an great description. I’m moderating a panel at next week’s Left Coast Crime conference titled ‘Lawyers, Guns, and Money: Mysteries vs. Thrillers,’ and I enjoyed your discussion of the differences between the genres.

    Warm Regards,

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