Do you read suspense? Mystery? Or do you prefer thrillers?
First, let’s understand the difference between the three genres.
The key difference between mystery and suspense is perspective. Both genres deal with a crisis event to hook the reader and keep the story going. But the storytelling approach is completely different.
Let’s say the crisis is the assassination of the president of the United States.
In a mystery, the president would die in the first chapter, and the rest of the book would focus on the government agents finding the killer and bringing him to justice. Mystery is all about the puzzle.
Louise Penny - How the Light Gets In (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series)
Alan Bradley - The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Agatha Christie – And Then There Were None
Going back to the president’s assassination example, in a suspense story, instead of the actual assassination in the first chapter, an intercepted communique or a bungled weapons drop would take place, alerting the White House of an imminent threat. This time, the government agents would be charged with protecting the president while tracking down the would-be assassin. The story would climax at the point where the assassination attempt is thwarted.
Suspense creates drama before the crisis event and builds slowly. Tension builds gradually, we’re waiting for the next bad thing to happen, expecting the shoe to drop.
Suspense also allows the writer some freedoms not afforded the mystery writer. Writers can employ multiple point-of-view characters.
This allows the writer to actively pit his antagonist and protagonist against each other while the reader watches.
From torturing animals to killing people in gruesome ways and eating them, we come to know his character intimately. This is a villain who sends shivers down your spine.
In a mystery, the author will never write from the bad guy’s point of view. The writer must purposely keep the bad guy’s identity hidden to maintain the mystery. The puzzle is the important thing for the mystery reader.
Read The Stand for a classic example of these techniques.
Try You by Caroline Kepnes.
You'll never look at dating the same again.
The Da Vinci Code also crosses into our third genre with its non-stop action: Thriller.
Where mysteries represent the most cerebral of the three major suspense genres, and suspense builds slowly, thrillers are out-of-control wildfires. There is usually the threat of some catastrophe affecting whole communities, cities, countries, even the planet. The threat need not be total devastation—but the effect of the action must be profound. And the hero is under constant attack as he or she tries to prove the perpetrator’s guilt and/or stop the next atrocity.
Think of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. At the beginning of each story, the reader knows who 007 is up against and what deadly plan he has to stop. Playing with their suspense cards on the table, thrillers create tension by inserting a strong good guy AND a strong antagonist.
Note: Did you notice that these thriller covers are have a similar look? That is not a coincidence. Publishers print a lot of thriller covers with big splashes of red (danger!) and bold print.
The Hunt for Red October is where it all started and remains one of his best.
And, of course, in thrillers, something is always going to go wrong--with cataclysmic results.
I personally enjoy mystery, suspense and thrillers. These genres continually find a way to create stories that are fresh, interesting and original. From cozy mysteries to edge-of-your-seat suspense, to high-octane thrillers, there is bound to be something for you.
Until then, find yourself a new favorite suspense author, and dig in!