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