Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Is it a Thriller, Suspense or Mystery?

When I think of the various genres, some of them sort of run together. Romance, Women’s Fiction and Historical Fiction tend to run together. Science Fiction and Fantasy tend to run together, so much so that they are often referred to as Speculative Fiction. Then there are Thrillers, Suspense and Mystery. What is it that distinguishes a thriller from a suspense novel from a mystery?

Keep in mind that each of these can have elements of the other. A thriller may have mystery and a mystery may have suspense. For that matter, they may contain romance. So to the answer the question, we should look at the book as a whole. We should consider the most dominant elements of the book.

The most dominant element of a thriller is action. An example of a thriller might be that we begin with a car chase on page one. Our protagonist cop is chasing a cop killer through the streets with many other cars. The chase comes to a deadly end for the cop killer, but before he dies he tells them about a bomb. Now our protagonist is off looking for the bomb, which they don’t find, but they do find evidence that might identify the cop killer’s boss. In a thriller, one event leads to another and the time clock is extremely important. There is too much work for one man to accomplish and yet he must in order to save the day.

In suspense the reader tends to know more about what is happening than the characters. We introduce a bomb, but instead of creating a mad rush to defuse the bomb, we don’t bother to tell the protagonist about it. Then we send him or his family into the room where the bomb is about to explode.

A mystery predominantly asks the question why? The bomb exploded yesterday, killing someone. Now the reader must figure out why it exploded before our protagonist reveals the answer at the end of the book. The protagonist may face danger, but there’s no particular reason why he must. Neither is action a requirement. We can have our protagonist wheelchair bound or confined in some other way as he solves the mystery. In Twelve Angry Men, for example, they are locked away in the jury room.