What distinguishes a thriller novel from mystery and suspense?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

By popular demand (okay, three requests) on my blog last week, in which, I differentiated between a mystery and a suspense novel, today I’ll toss thriller into the ring. You can read about how mysteries and suspense differ here.

A thriller is a kissing cousin to both a mystery and a suspense, although the suspense elements usually are stronger than the mystery. The three primary aspects of a  thriller are:

  • the perpetuated sense of excitement the reader feels. A thriller has an edge-of-your-seat quality to it. That sense of anxiety is produced by suspense (impending doom or danger) and mystery (a dilemma or problem to be solved). The Bourne films are good  examples of thrillers. The action is nonstop, with frequent clashes with the enemy(ies) while Bourne is trying to figure out who he is and how he got in this mess–and how to get out.
  • the protagonist is on a quest to stop the antagonist, who is clever and wily–more clever and wily than the protagonist at the outset.
  • the impending destruction of innocence in the face of evil, and the readers desire for justice and morality to win. This loss of innocence or justice not winning, cause the reader to experience fear and hope throughout the novel.

By their nature, thrillers need to feel realistic, as if the horrendous situation really could happen should the stars align in some horrific perfection. It’s not unusual for the protagonist to die or for innocence to be lost or justice to lose.

Generally the story is told from the protagonist’s point of view, but it’s not unusual for the reader to have superior knowledge, which heightens the excitement when the protagonist stumbles into increasingly dangerous scenarios.

Thrillers have a dark tone. The antagonist isn’t just a killer but a serial killer who does horrific things to his or her victims (a la “The Silence of the Lambs”).

Novelists who write thrillers include John Le Carre (legal thrillers), Dan Brown, and John Grisham.

Television shows that are examples of thrillers are Dexter and Breaking Bad.

What films, TV shows or novels can you think of that are thrillers? And for bonus points, what mysteries and suspense would you name?


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  • Kate says:

    This is extremely helpful. Thank you for using a variety of books, television series and movies as examples. What is the best way to create that edge of your seat feeling as a writer? Word choice? Character development? Pacing of the plot? Thank you again for your help.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      The best way is pacing of the plot. Nonstop action. Think like an adrenaline junky, and you’ve got it. Dan Brown is oddly good and bad at this. When he has action, it’s cliffhanger material. But then he saunters through a diatribe on his opinions…time for a nap. Then you’re off and running again. That’s why his books make great movies–all the sauntering is cut out.

  • Good morning, Janet.

    I’ll say it because I can’t NOT say it. Because I kinda think maybe it’s it a few people’s heads…
    A Thriller needs Michael Jackson and some dancing zombies.

    Falls down flat. Fans self. “Whew, that BRILLIANCE was pent up for a while! Like, for an hour at least!!”

    And in other news…

    I don’t watch scary movies. I can’t. I can’t even watch Amazing Race because I get so strung out, I mute the suspenseful music.
    I do remember watching The X-Files every week and wondering why the heck I watched the X-Files every week.
    While visiting the In-Laws once, my sweet MIL and I were watching X-Files and I was trying to iron/not burn a shirt. My MIL was watching intently while crocheting,and was highly amused at my reaction. She and my FIL are deaf, and the captions were kind of making her nervous, but she didn’t have the benefit of the background music to put her over the edge from which I hung.
    She signed “tell me what the music makes you feel.”
    I signed “Like you’re all alone in the dark and fingers are crawling up your back!” She turfed the crocheting and paid more attention to the show. Which we never watched again. ;)

    • Jeanne T says:

      What a funny story about watching X-files with your MIL, Jennifer. :)

      It seems like what makes for good suspense is the setting and word choice. In a tv show or a movie, the creators have the benefit of using music and visual effects. In a book, we have to write it in such a way that the reader feels what the character feels incorporating setting, fast pacing and word choice into the overall feel of the scene/book.

      As I read your description of a thriller, Mission Impossible 3 immediately came to mind. The villain (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is so creepy, so evil! The action and the edge of your seat sensation begins at the opening scene and doesn’t stop until the credits roll. There’s always a sense of impending doom or defeat.

      I appreciate the way you’ve described each of these types of stories, Janet. Thank you!

      • Good example, Jeanne. Mission Impossible 3 does seem to have a different tone than the first two. Would the others be considered suspense, then? Or are they just not as thrilling?

    • Norma Horton says:

      I’m pulling on my sparkly glove now, Jennifer…

  • They seem like such fine lines, Janet, between the genres. I would say that Randy Singer writes legal suspense (as opposed to thrillers). Quite well, too!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Meghan, I think when you read a book that’s dead-center within a genre, you have no doubt where it fits. Some books are amorphous, crossing lines between genres, which makes the manuscript easier to write but if it doesn’t satisfy the avid reader of any of the genres, it’s a disappointment to everyone.

  • Lori says:

    Thanks you Janet! I agree with Meghan that there seems like such fine lines.

    I listened earlier this year to John Updike’s Terrorist. I see online that some refer to it as a suspense, others refer to it as a thriller, and then again others refer to it as psychological. I think of it as a combination of all three. While psychological throughout the book it begins as a suspense but becomes a thriller I believe in the last third of the book.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I haven’t read Terrorist so I can’t comment on your thoughts about how it oozes from genre to genre. There is a subgenre called psychological thriller, and it’s possible that’s the best category to put it in. Thrillers have a very high suspense level. It’s the additional elements that tip them over into thrillers.
      But deciding on a book’s category is more art than science.

  • Jillian Kent says:

    Although I haven’t seen it yet, Prisoners, the new Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal sounds like a thriller to me. Don’t know if I can mangage sitting through that one. TV suspense might be Flashpoint and for Mystery I would say Midsomer Murders if you’ve watched that. The lines do seen to blur now and then.

    I think of Harlan Coben’s books as thrillers. Enjoyed this post, Janet. Thanks!

  • As one of the three, I say thank you for posting this. Time to think about what I write.

  • Thanks for the clarification Janet.

    Although, it seems on sites like Goodreads and Amazon, there is a great deal of cross-over and hyphenating of the genres…Suspense-Thrillers and Suspense-Mysteries.

    I’d list most of Alfred Hitchcock’s works as…ummm…Suspense-Thriller or Suspense Mystery?

    Thrillers based on novels I can think of are Man on Fire, The Whistle Blower and Jack Reacher (novel =One Shot).

    The Hunger Games seems like it would be in the Suspense category, but it does have some darker qualities and “the impending destruction of innocence in the face of evil” is a huge factor, so, maybe it’s a Thriller?

    The new Sherlock Holmes movies are more like a suspense than a classic mystery.

    I think I’m still a bit confused, except for my
    favorite mysteries.

    I love anything by Agatha Christie, and I adore The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. These, I am quite sure, fit nicely in the Classic Mystery genre!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I don’t think we can judge a book by a Goodreads categorization. The idea there is to give as broad a definition as possible to cut a wide swath in hopes of garnering more readers. The Hunger Games I would put in the dystopian fantasy category. It has a lot of suspense and thriller qualities, but I think fantasy is the more accurate descriptor, which is what we’re looking for when we categorize a book.
      Yup, Agatha Christie is a classic mystery. You gotta love a book that cooperates by neatly fitting in a genre.

  • Shoot, I missed last week! Did you also explain about how a cozy differs from a regular mystery? I love that you’re going into these specifics, Janet! I’m more a mystery gal than a thriller gal for sure. Though I enjoy WATCHING thriller movies like THE ISLAND or JACK REACHER, that kind of thing.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Heather, you can check out last week’s blog by clicking on the link at the beginning of this post.
      I didn’t cover cozies, but here goes: all the aspects of a mystery remain true for cozies with the added elements of the murder most often occurring “offstage,” the protagonist generally not a professional murder-solver but someone who is astute at details (a la Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple), often take place in quaint villages, at a dinner party, on a train, etc. Cozy mysteries aren’t about the actual death of a character (whom we as readers generally have no emotional connection with) but about how the protagonist solves the puzzle. Tea, knitting, comfort food, warm fires often are used to create ambiance in a cozy. They’re fell-good mysteries.

      • Thank you, Janet–and is it also correct that cozies are generally shorter? It is really tricky when you have cozy elements AND elements in your novel. I chose mystery b/c mine was full length (80K). And do cozies tend to have more romantic elements w/the main character, as well?

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Heather, cozies are not necessarily shorter. And romance doesn’t have to be any sort of element in the manuscript to fit the cozy category. (Once again, think Miss Marple.)

      • And nice. I meant cozy elements and MYSTERY elements…although I have lots of just plain ol’ elements…grin.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Thanks for another enlightening discussion.

    I’ve never read a thriller and don’t think I could stand to. I’d get so excited that I’d start scanning to get to the end. Before long I’d have no clue what was going on.

    (I do like the Bourne movies – the first three, as least — but on subsequent viewings, I fast forward through some of the over-the-top action scenes.)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Peter, apparently some of us are better are at reading thrillers than others. I generally don’t care for the violent nature that seems to be common thrillers nowadays. So I read standbys like Le Carre.

  • It’s close to midnight and something evil’s lurking in the dark.
    Under the moonlight you see a sight that almost stops your heart.
    You try to scream but terror takes the sound before you make it.
    You start to freeze as horror looks you right between the eyes,
    You’re paralyzed

    . . . now that’s a killer of a thriller even though it does rhyme.

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