A few years ago, mysteries were the hot genre. It seemed as if everyone was reading a mystery novel. The thrill of guessing, “Who done it!” was the excitement that kept me, and many others, reading book after book.
More recently, however, thrillers make up a greater portion of the bestseller lists. The passion for solving the puzzle of a mystery, even a murder mystery, is taking second place to the thrill of the chase between the protagonist and the antagonist.
This evolution is subtle but the psychology behind the shift is not. In order to fully explain this, allow me to take a step back and explain the basic differences in these genres.
A Mystery Novel: These stories involve a puzzle, a specific unknown that the reader isn’t expected to know about until the end. Mysteries are often more cerebral and are considered works of revelation. There’s more mental action than physical in a mystery. The primary action (or crime) has already occurred, so the element of suspense is not necessarily the main focus of the novel. It’s in solving the puzzle.
A Thriller Novel: These stories involve intrigue and action. A catastrophic event may have happened, as in a mystery, but a thriller differs in that the event triggers the possibility of an even greater catastrophe. In a thriller, the protagonist’s job is to prevent further calamity.
If the above explanation is about as clear as mud, then let me explain further. Various charts have been developed that characterize these types of novels as follows:
Mysteries ═► Suspense Novels ═► Thrillers
The main difference is in the delivery of suspense. Mysteries let the reader know up front that something bad has happened, but the reader doesn’t know who the villain is. The reader must plow through to the end of the book, or be very clever at identifying the clues along the way, to find out who the antagonist is. The mystery of “Who done it!” is not revealed until the end.
In a thriller, however, the writer is appealing to the emotions of the reader who yearns for excitement. Thriller plots create a desire to confront extreme danger and defeat nasty villains. This differs from a mystery in that the reader is informed at some point early on who the villains are.
The thrill does not revolve around solving the mystery because we already know who the bad guys are. The excitement is the heightened emotions brought on by the chase—the literary dance that happens between the hero and the villain when you’re not really certain who will win.
It’s been said that the threat from an unknown source is never as great as a known, villainous danger. There’s much more suspense when we know what our hero is up against but can’t quite figure out how the hero will either survive, eliminate a specific threat or save the world. The key word here is SUSPENSE. It’s both the link and the difference between mysteries and thrillers.
A mystery may have a degree of suspense, but the story progresses logically toward a resolution of the puzzle and this stimulates the mind. A thriller, on the other hand, stimulates the senses as well. The emotional rush of apprehension and exhilaration imbedded within the plot of a thriller drive the narrative at a constant, and at times a breakneck, pace. The SUSPENSE is heightened by the known threat of the villain and his/her unexpected actions.
Author L.J. Sellers states the difference between mysteries and thrillers a bit uniquely. She explains that in a thriller, the villain drives the story, whereas in a mystery, the protagonist drives the story. It’s an interesting explanation that brings me back to the idea that it’s the degree of SUSPENSE that distinguishes these genres.
SUSPENSE happens when the protagonist is in danger. In a pure suspense genre novel, the protagonist becomes aware of the danger only gradually and the suspense builds slowly as the story unfolds. Thus, the relationship among the mystery, suspense and thriller genres become somewhat blurred.
But the basic premise of protagonist danger and degree of suspense defines what genre a book falls into. In mysteries, the main character is occupied with tracking down the truth about an event, often a murder, but the protagonist is in relatively little danger. In thrillers, however, the protagonist is often in danger from the onset or is placed in jeopardy by his actions and/or that of the antagonist.
So, which are my favorites? See my website and you’ll know. And I hope they’re your favorites also.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!