Mystery, suspense, thriller: what are the differences, and do they matter?
When I wrote The Widow Catcher, I'll admit that I had to define what 'genre' to tag this book under for the marketing. Is it mystery? Is it thriller? Is it suspense? Is it a bit of all of them? Are these even all the same thing? I decided to take a look at some of my favourite TV shows and books.
Q: What is a 'mystery'? I'll use Midsomer Murders and Poirot as my examples, because they are both TV shows that I watch.
A crime or crimes are being committed, any number of people in the village have motive and opportunity, and the police/sleuth/P.I AND the reader have to put the pieces of the puzzle together to identify the killer.
A: A 'mystery' is about solving the puzzle. What was the motive? Who did it? Many readers also want beat the detective and guess who the killer is before the big reveal.
Q: What is a 'thriller'? I'll use Dean Koontz as an example here, because I've read a lot of his books, and although his books are typically supernatural thrillers they have a lot of the same 'thriller' elements.
To me, a 'thriller' typically includes a story about a character who is suddenly the target of a ruthless killer and must avoid being killed, and ultimately fight back. The character and the reader know early on who that killer is, and it is then a race against the clock to find out if the protagonist can escape. A 'thriller' can also be about a cop/sleuth/P.I who has to catch the killer and is often one step behind, but the protagonist and the reader know who the bad guy is. In a 'thriller', the protagonist is usually an expert in a certain field.
A: A 'thriller' is about the cat-and-mouse chase or a race against the clock. Readers want to know how the hero will escape. Will the killer be caught in time? And can the reader learn some fascinating pieces of information along the way.
Q: What is a 'suspense'? I'll use Jaws and Aliens as examples. The suspense for these movies is the buildup to what the threat looks like. We know its lurking around the corner, but it doesn't need to show itself to frighten us.
Suspense is present is all good fiction. It depends on stretching time and delaying answers as long as possible. It creates an uncertain situation. It is about tension, not necessarily what is happening, but what may happen. It delves more into the emotional side of life and blends fiction with non-fiction to create a true sense that this could actually happen. It's more dramatic.
A: A 'suspense' is about doubt and uncertainty. Readers care about what is happening to this person. They might think it could happen to them. We hope the protagonist makes it out alive.
I've tried to come up with some definitions for the differences, but in the end, I'm not sure that labels matter. To me, Gone Girl was a mixture of all three elements: mystery, thriller, and suspense. It combined the doubt of a suspense novel, the cat-and-mouse of a thriller novel, and the puzzle-solving ingredients of a mystery.
So what is The Widow Catcher? Some readers have said they didn't know who the killer was until the end. Some readers have said they knew who the killer was from early on. One thing is for certain, whether any book is mystery, suspense, or thriller, all that matters is whether the reader cares about the characters to want to read to the end and find out all the 'how' 'who' 'what ' where' and 'why'.