Monday, July 18, 2011

Thrillers vs. Mysteries

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

Thanks to the legacy of Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes mysteries), the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, Murder She WroteColombo, and many other old favorites on-screen and in print, most of us are familiar with the mystery genre.

But what’s a thriller?

How are suspense-thrillers different from mysteries?

Both are fiction stories involving criminal activity, catching the bad guy(s), and at least one murder.

The main difference
seems to be in the delivery—how they are told. Mysteries are usually more cerebral, like solving a puzzle, whereas thrillers appeal more to the emotions and a quest for excitement and dangerous situations. A mystery, especially a “cozy” one, can unfold in a leisurely fashion, but thrillers need to be much more fast-paced and suspenseful.

James N. Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Thriller and How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, among other “damn good” books on writing, says, “In the United States, mysteries are not considered to be thrillers, though they share some common elements.” Frey describes the differences like this:

“In a mystery, the hero has a mission to find a killer.

In a thriller, the hero has a mission to foil evil.”

Frey goes on to elaborate, “a thriller is a story of a hero who has a mission to foil evil. Not just a hero—a clever hero. Not just a mission—an ‘impossible’ mission. An ‘impossible’ mission that will put our hero into terrible trouble.”

According to International Thriller Writers (, a thriller is characterized by “the sudden rush of emotions, the excitement, sense of suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace. Thriller is a genre in which tough, resourceful, but essentially ordinary heroes are pitted against villains determined to destroy them, their country, or the stability of the free world. Part of the allure of thrillers comes from not only what their stories are about, but also how they are told. High stakes, nonstop action plot twists that both surprise and excite, settings that are both vibrant and exotic, and an intense pace that never lets up until the adrenaline-packed climax.” (Source: James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller)

David Morrell, best known for his debut 1972 novel First Blood, which was the basis for the successful Rambo films, and author of 28 thrillers, most recently, Shimmer and The Naked Edge, posed the question several years ago, “What is a Thriller?” He decided to explain the difference between thrillers and mysteries because “some readers evidently have a porous view of who-done-its, crime stories, action stories, suspense stories, thrillers, etc, and group them all together as mysteries."

Morrell and the International Thriller Writers organization don’t consider thrillers mysteries. “What is a thriller?” asks Morrell. “It is an encompassing term into which many crime, action, and suspense stories can be grouped. It applies to a variety of types: the legal thriller, the spy thriller, the action-adventure thriller, the medical thriller, the police thriller, the romantic thriller, the historical thriller, the political thriller, the religious thriller, the high-tech thriller, etc. New types are constantly being invented. What gives them their common ground is the intensity of the emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration of excitement and breathlessness. By definition, if thrillers do not thrill, they aren’t doing their job. Sometimes, they build rhythmically to a rousing climax. Other times, they start at top speed and never ease off.”

So, asks Morrell, “…what’s the difference between mysteries and thrillers? According to him, “One crucial distinction is that traditional mysteries appeal primarily to the mind and emphasize the logical solution to a puzzle. In contrast, thrillers strive for heightened emotions and emphasize the sensations of what might be called an obstacle race and a scavenger hunt. It’s not that thrillers don’t have ideas. […] But in broad terms, the contrast is between emotion and logic, between an urgent pace and a calm one. True, the two genres can merge if the scavenger hunt of a thriller involves solving a puzzle. But in a thriller, the goal of solving the puzzle is to excite the reader as much as to satisfy curiosity.” (David Morrell,

Which do you prefer, mysteries or thrillers?

It probably depends on your mood, but personally, I much prefer the pure escapism and “pulse-pounding suspense” of thrillers.

Who are some of your favorite contemporary mystery writers?

How about your most-read thriller and romantic suspense writers?

Mine include Lee Child, Sandra Brown, Harlan Coben, Lisa Scottoline, Michael Connelly, Nora Roberts, James Patterson, Allison Brennan, Robert Crais, Lisa Jackson, Janet Evanovich, David Morrell, and Lisa Gardner. Who am I missing? Any recommendations?
Then there are the fast-paced mysteries that seem to straddle both genres.

For suspense-mysteries, I love LJ Sellers' page-turning Detective Jackson series. And maybe I should put Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar stories and Robert Crais’ Joe Pike and Elvis Cole stories into the hybrid category of suspense-mysteries, too. What do you think?  Any others you like that have elements of both?

What about your favorite thriller characters?

I love Robert Crais’ Joe Pike and Elvis Cole, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar, Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch, and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and the two men in her life — both hunks!

Do you have any other favorite crime fiction characters to recommend?

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback.
For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. You've named most of my favorites, Jodie. Thanks for an interesting post. I wanted to add that I read recently that in a thriller the villain drives the story, versus mystery, in which the protagonist drives the story.

    Another interesting note is that International Thriller Writers accepts members who write all kinds of stories, many of which do not fit into the thriller definition. I write features for ITW for their monthly new releases, and most of the novels I'm assigned are not thrillers. But it's still fun.

  2. "In a thriller the villain drives the story, versus mystery, in which the protagonist drives the story." - Good one! I can definitely see that. Thanks, LJ!

    So do you write little blurbs or reviews about ITW members new books? And where do these features appear? In their newsletter?

  3. You've got the bases covered, Jodi, in your list of authors and their MCs.

    As an aside, my most 'hit' post on my blog happens to be my very first one— on the difference between Mystery and Susupense.

  4. I'm very much a mystery person. The best definitions I ever had said in a mystery, you're one step behind the detective, since you don't know anything until he does. In suspense, you're one step ahead, because you know things that the detective can't know (these books use things like a villain's POV, or hops to the omniscient). And a thriller is a suspense where the stakes are of global proportions.

    However, I've seen too many books billed as thrillers that aren't anything more than suspense. It's a marketing ploy now, not a true pigeonhole. Heck, I've had people say my books are thrillers, and I certainly didn't write them that way. A page-turner, or fast-paced read doesn't make something a thriller. IMHO, of course.

    Terry's Place

  5. Like Terry, I'm a mystery person, though I do occasionally read thrillers.l
    One mystery author you didn't mention, and whose work I love, is Peter Robinson.

  6. Great post, Jodi. My book is a thriller in the sense that the protagonist has a mission to foil the evil that's after her, and the villan drives it to an extent, but it's also a suspense-mystery.

    As for author, Tami Hoag writes great suspense-mysteries.

  7. Peg - I'll have to check out your post on the difference between mystery and suspense. What's the URL, for all of us?

    Terry - thanks for those additional definitions! I've pretty much thought of "suspense" and "thrillers" as basically synonymous. We often hear the term "suspense-thriller" as synonymous with "thriller" -- or at least that's the way it seems to me. It would be interesting to hear what ITW thinks of the difference between these two...

    Marlyn and Stacy - thanks for the recommendations of authors I haven't read! I'm sure the other readers appreciate any hearing about any other good authors or titles the rest of us may not be familiar with.

  8. Jodie, for ITW I interview the authors and write a feature (or sometimes Q&A) about their new release. The features are posted on The Big Thrill site at the beginning of the month, with links to them in the newsletter. I've done about ten and have links to them on my website.

  9. Thanks for that info, LJ. That's a great service for those authors, and I'm sure it pumps up their sales! Good for you!

  10. Here's a less conservative, completely off-color definition, coming from a less conservative, completely off-color mind: A thriller is like mystery on Viagra. Everything's more amped up, fast paced, and frenetic. A good thriller should keep your heart racing, your fingers swiping at the pages, and your rear on the edge of its seat. Of course, those lines can be blurred. Many authors straddle the fence between the two. Nothing is in black and white, and gray is a beautiful color.

  11. Good points, Drew, and expressed like a thriller writer! "like mystery on Viagra" - love it! (or, for us females, like caffeine - or amphetamines!) LOL

    And it's true that the lines between the two genres are often blurred.

  12. A lot of great comments here.

    This is the URL for that old post of mine:

  13. Thanks for that link, Peg! Will check it out.

  14. Enjoyed the post. Thanks

  15. You've probably seen the Nook commercial, where the narrator says something like, "Until the last villain is defeated, until the last plot twist is revealed, I will read."*

    Well, until the last mystery/thriller readers draw their last breaths, this subject will be debated. The cool thing is that I can have my opinion and you can have yours, and neither one of us is necessarily wrong. Or right, for that matter.

    But the definition I like best is this: In a mystery, the crime has already been committed, but the hero and the reader must figure out by whom. In a thriller, the crime (at least the biggie) hasn't been committed yet, but the reader knows who the bad guy is, the question is whether he can be stopped.

    I don't necessarily agree the stakes must be global in a thriller - a geopolitical thriller, sure, but as the categories listed by David Morrell demonstrate, there are plenty of thrillers where the stakes are less than all-encompassing.

    *The commercial is something like that; I was too lazy to go look up the exact dialogue...

  16. Great post. My favorites are cozies, but I love Harlan Coben

  17. Al, I really like your definition: "In a mystery, the crime has already been committed, but the hero and the reader must figure out by whom. In a thriller, the crime (at least the biggie) hasn't been committed yet, but the reader knows who the bad guy is, the question is whether he can be stopped."

    I love the interactive quality of blogs, and especially Crime Fiction Collective! I learn something every time I post an article, and our readers learn from each other! Great stuff!


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