Is Your Novel “Mystery,” “Thriller,” or “Suspense”?

By Maeve Maddox

In my continuing quest to understand the fiction genres featured in market listings, I’ve come to the categories of mystery, thriller, and suspense.

Sometimes the three are presented as separate genres, and sometimes they’re lumped together as Mystery/Suspense, or Suspense/Thriller.

If even agents and publishers aren’t quite sure about the terms, no wonder that writers can be hard pressed to decide how to classify a book that seems to belong in more than one of them.

The three genres are closely related. In each type, a character is trying to get at the truth of something, or prevent some bad thing from happening.

mystery: the main character is occupied in tracking down the truth about an event, usually a murder. If the protagonist is in any danger, it is usually moderate, and becomes a problem only as the detective approaches the truth.

thriller: the protagonist is in danger from the outset.

suspense: the main character may become aware of danger only gradually. In a mystery, the reader is exposed to the same information as the detective, but in a suspense story, the reader is aware of things unknown to the protagonist. The reader sees the bad guy plant the bomb, and then suffers the suspense of wondering when or if it will explode.

So what do you if your novel partakes of all three? How important is it to know what to call it?

Literary agent Nathan Bransford says

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.

That’s not to imply that labeling your submission doesn’t require careful thought. You need to aim at a label that alerts the agent to what kind of book it is. Ideally, your title and opening paragraph will set the tone and genre, but say you’ve written a cosy mystery that begins

Belinda Possum skipped to the Smackover post office….

An agent might be forgiven for mentally classifying it as humor, or expecting a children’s story.

What if your novel falls into overlapping categories? The DaVinci Code, for example, combines all three genres. If your novel has a mystery to be unraveled, numerous car chases, and scenes which give the reader information not possessed by the protagonist, should you label it mystery/suspense/thriller?

Probably not.

In Miss Snark’s view,

When you describe where your book fits in a bookstore shelving scheme, you need one or two words at the MOST.… Anyone who uses three or more words or tells me they fit in chick lit, mystery, thriller AND true crime is an automatic no because it’s clear they don’t understand categories, and they don’t know what they have.

Say you’ve written a book that falls into all three genres. How do you decide between mystery/suspense and mystery/thriller?

Blogger Lyn Hamilton says that when she’s asked the difference between “suspense” and “thriller,” her usual answer is “a hundred thousand dollars.”

I don’t know if a thriller really does bring a higher advance than a suspense novel, but, just in case, I’d go with mystery/thriller.

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21 Responses to “Is Your Novel “Mystery,” “Thriller,” or “Suspense”?”

  • Prem Rao

    Am I right assuming that apart from all that you have said, the pace of the story is a determining factor?
    One associates a “thriller” with a certain pace. It is likely to be fast- moving- both in terms of writing style as also as a finished product!

  • Deborah H

    When I first started reading writer Dick Francis’s (in the late 80s) I had trouble finding all of his books in my local library. Turns out the library shelved his older, shorter books (in the 50,000 to 75,000 word range) in the mystery section, and the newer, longer books in the general fiction section.

    I asked why, and was told that “mystery” readers weren’t interested in the longer “novels.” I responded with an earthy bovine oath, but since then I have observed that the tip sheets for mystery novels do call for the shorter word counts.

    Maybe a book publisher reading here will give us a clue.

  • Ansley

    Nice explaination of mystery/thriller/suspense. Thank you.
    I am a new writer, and I found this very helpful.
    BTW, I especially liked the $100,000 difference between thriller and suspense 🙂

  • Rebecca

    Great article! Sometimes books fall into one category. I’ve heard that it’s best to have one main category and then sub categories. I would think that an agent/editor could help decipher the category that is best for your novel.

  • Rebecca

    Oops! I meant “books fall into more than one category.”

  • Nancy Curteman

    These days there is often some overlap in the three genres. I do like your advice to stick to only two genre descriptions. Great post.

  • Amazing Blair

    So Maeve, since _The DaVinci Code_ partook of all three categories, in which one WAS it finally categorized?

    -Blair

  • Maeve

    @Blair
    I don’t know how The DaVinci Code was marketed or where it resides on bookshelves, but I’d say that it falls squarely into the thriller genre. The chase begins almost at once.

    @Prem Rao
    Yes, I think that pace would definitely be a factor in distinguishing between the genres.

    @James
    I agree that too much emphasis is placed on this genre business, but it’s the agents and publishers who promote it. All writers can do is play the game necessary to achieve publication. And yes, new genres are being created all the time.

  • James D. Magee

    I personally think we place too much emphasis on genre. As genre become more and more specific, we an increasing number of books that don’t fit in a particular genre. What happens if we have a mystery/thriller/suspense novel that takes place in a futuristic colony on Mars. Does it then become a mystery/thriller/suspense/science fiction novel? As genre become more specific, we have to invent more categories. If this trend continues, eventually each book will have to have its own specific genre.

  • Amazing Blair

    @Maeve
    I would put your response in the Mutable/Poly-targeted/Time-traveling category… i.e., you changed your initial reply to me — from “Heck if I know!” — you addressed more than one person, and you answered James’ remarks the day BEFORE he made them.

    Well done!
    -Blair

  • gabrielle T

    Mauve, where would Alexander McCall Smith’s series sit in the scheme of things?

    I’ve been visiting my file over the years wherein is written an (unfinished) fictitious chronicle about two people … my finger hovers over ‘delete’, it is so embarrassing so awful, but, I hesitate – you know, first draft – and I think as I read through the words, ‘cut the bloody bad bits out and you’ve got a bloody good book’, which is not how Steinbeck put it.

    Were I to stop internalising (gratuitously) what and how the protagonists think, (from approx hundreds of pages) I’d have one page left containing what I suspect is the essence. You’d have no suggestions ’tis up to me I guess – stop telling the reader so much about these two, they’d fall asleep, as you probably are too right now. ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’ eh what?

  • Deborah H

    @Gabrielle T—-Please do not delete the book you have written.

    Allow me to be of good cheer: all first drafts are awful; some are even worse. As a result, we’ll never know how many splendid books were burned up in the fireplace because the author couldn’t get past the first draft. You have to take the next step.

    Last year during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I wrote 51,000 words of “purely awful” in 30 days. I didn’t get to my second draft this year like I’d hoped, but I plan on spending this coming November to edit with the same diligence by which I originally wrote—a minimum of 1667 words a day.

    I encourage you to take the month of November to edit your book. And know that thousands of people all over the world are struggling with their first attempt at writing a book, too. You’ll be in kindred company.

    Let me share my favorite quote on writing, from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

    Gabrielle, you’ve started the trip; don’t turn back now!

  • gabrielle T

    Thanks so much Deborah for your generous advice, deeply appreciated, but I’m sick of the both of them, the silly creatures, want to throw them in an Otto bin where they belong. Perhaps I’ve stuck around too long with how they think, how they carry on, I don’t know really. I don’t like the couple, I think they’re stupid, but they emanated from my mind didn’t they, and that’s something to consider before sending them off to their maker.

    Gabrielle T.

  • Maeve

    @Blair
    Not only are you observant, you have a gift for genre-creation! I’ll be looking for that one.

    Upon reflection, I didn’t care for the cheekiness of my original reply so I changed it. By then James’s reply had cleared.

    @Gabrielle and Deborah
    I’ve recently picked up a novel I have begun and abandoned at least six times. This time, however, I’m not re-reading the first drafts. Maybe later I’ll mine them for usable bits, but for now I want to avoid bogging down in the “what utter rubbish” phase. What works for one writer doesn’t for another, but my begin-again-at-the beginning approach seems to be working for me. I feel the old enthusiasm building as I fashion an outline (I didn’t do a very thorough job the first time) and plan the scenes.

    I have plenty of other first drafts in my files. I’ll probably never go back to them, but they don’t take up much CD space. I still regret trashing the thick TYPED draft of a book I wrote several years ago. I believe that it very much deserved trashing, but I still regret having done it.

    If the draft of your novel depresses you, leave it in electronic limbo and begin a new one. Even if you never go back to it, it will have taught you a lot. We become better writers by writing.

    This is too long for a comment. I probably ought to write a post on the topic.

  • gabrielle T

    Hi Deborah thanks so much for your posts, ‘electronic limbo’ that’s a good one. ‘The blank page’ I believe some writers suffer is not my problem. Bursting forth and heedlessly galloping on means I come last in a two-horse race.

    Having ‘the end’ sorted out is obviously the best way to go. Incessantly reading, ‘how to write’, (Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for instance, and I don’t agree with any of them), is a useless theft of time. Short stories written in the first person and based on fact – easy done, (got one adapted for a five minute film), but a novel hmmm that’s a different matter, finding one’s own voice and all that, very difficult in comparison.

    I tend to adopt a style according to the last book I’ve read. Writing from a rampant undisciplined imagination creating characters as I go is crazy and probably why when re-reading I think – oh hell!
    Gabrielle T.

  • Deborah H

    @Gabrielle T — the last comment was from Maeve, written to both of us, and Blair.

    I know what you mean about your “style” coming from the last book you read. I’ve been re-reading all of Jane Austen!

    I tossed out a typewritten manuscript once, and have regretted it every since. All my attempts to recapture the story have failed. And it was a good story, just not well written. I won’t make that mistake again, and I that’s why I encourage others keep everything. I’d rather be reproached by what I wrote instead of grieving because I threw it away.

    And rampant undisciplined imagination is a good thing!

  • gabrielle T

    On re-reading the blather believe now it actually has some merit, so out comes the poison pen – with your words in mind about regrets for what is no longer extant. Composing a piece of fiction in an abyss brings forth grave doubts, so I’ll persevere, invigilated, thanks to your advice.
    gabrielle T.

  • JennyOH

    Thanks for this explanation! I have been agonizing over which genre stickers to put on new books in the library I manage. Sometimes books come catalogued as “Suspense” and the flap copy starts out “A gripping thriller…” which throws me off if I can’t explain the fine line between the two!

  • E. Yinn

    Hi writing folk, just reading yr comments here…

    @ Maeve: thanks for some worthy tips.

    @ Others: An idea… Got a text yr bogged down in? No prob! Seek out another writer with the same problem, and just swap!
    He or she re-writes your work, and you revamp their rambling morass! Hey presto, two new worthy novels or spring forth…

    … ( but then again, you might end up with two piles of piffle worse than they were originally? If so, then maybe that decides it: neither had much merit to begin with! ) ¬_¬

    Btw: You’ll have heard of the guitar maestro Frank Zappa? He kept and carefully stored *everything* he ever played. Then, over the years, he would go through his old stuff and mix’n’match, often turning out a brilliant new piece from the old scraps…
    — Just a thought!

    ~E., from the UK

  • Ann Writes

    Great tips and now I know that my novel is definitely a Mystery! 🙂

  • Pepper

    @GabrielleT.
    Read the Red Sneaker Writing series by William Bernhardt, and watch the films he does on them. They remove all of the mysterious malarky that has been perpetuated about writing and get down to the basics of the craft. Real eye openers that i would recommend to any aspiring or already published writer.

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