Mystery or thriller? What’s the difference?

James Hayman: These days, like most of the other writers who contribute to this blog, I’m frequently invited by bookstores, book discussion groups and public libraries to discuss the art and the craft of writing crime fiction. In fact, I’ll be joining my fellow Maine Crime Writers, Vicki Doudera and John Clark, for just such a session tomorrow night, June 19th at 6:30 at the South Portland Public Library. The discussion has been been titled “It’s Elementary,” as in “My Dear Watson.”

The CuttingDuring these sessions, more often than not, someone’s hand will pop up and he or she will say: “When I read The Cutting it was pretty easy to figure out who the bad guy was fairly early on in the book. Shouldn’t you have made the reveal of the villain less obvious?”

My answer is no. Why? Because The Cutting isn’t a whodunit or a mystery. It’s a suspense thriller.

So what’s the difference between the two?”

I think a mystery is most accurately defined as “a novel of revelation.” It usually starts with a murder and it’s the sleuth’s job to figure out who the killer is. The identity of the killer and often the details of the crime remain hidden while the sleuth, through clever detective work, untangles the web of clues. At the end there is pretty much always an “Ahah!” moment when all is revealed.

The structure of a thriller is different. Broadly defined a thriller maintains interest by creating suspense aka a sense of impending doom. It forces the audience to sit breathlessly on tenterhooks waiting to find out if something terrible, which they have been clued in on, is going to happen to one or more of the characters before the hero can stop it.

Alfred Hitchcock once famously discussed how one creates suspense in films during an interview with French director Francois Truffaut. Imagine a scene, he said, in which two men are sitting, sipping coffee and talking quietly at a table in an outdoor café. Suddenly, a bomb goes off under the table and both men are killed. While there is surprise in the scene when the bomb explodes, there is no suspense.

Now imagine the same café. This time it is early morning and the tables are empty. A shady looking man rides up on a bicycle. He gets off. Looks around to make sure no one is watching. He then places the bomb under the table and sets it to go off at exactly 1PM. Time passes and we see the two men from the first scene arrive at the café. They sit down at the table with the bomb. They order their coffee. A clock in the background tells us it is ten minutes to one. As the men sip coffee and talk we see the minute hand on the clock inching toward 1PM.

This is as good an example of creating suspense as any I know. And suspense is the single most important element in writing a thriller.

Suspense thrillers are nothing new. Back in the corny old days of silent movies, a heroine…let’s call her Gwendolyn… might be tied to the railroad tracks by a villain. We’ll call him Black Bart. The audience didn’t have to figure out who the bad guy was. They were right there watching Black Bart tie poor Gwendolyn to the tracks, after which he warns her that if she doesn’t forsake her one true love, Harry Handsome, and marry him instead, he will leave her there, waiting to be squashed like a bug by the oncoming locomotive.

At this point the camera usually shifts away to the oncoming locomotive that, presumably, is heading her way.

We then cut to the hero, Harry Handsome, as he learns of the danger Gwendolyn is in. He immediately leaps on his white horse and races off to see if he can get to the tracks in time to rescue Gwendolyn before the train squashes her.

To maintain the suspense, we’d next have four shots, rotating in fast sequence:

First, we see Gwendolyn lying on the tracks and crying out in fear. “Save me! Save me! Hurry, Harry and save me!”

Second, we’d see Black Bart. Bart is most likely hiding behind a big rock and indulging in an occasional evil chuckle (“Heh, heh, heh”). He generally twirls his mustache while chuckling.

Third, we’d see the locomotive speeding ever closer. How fast is it going? Don’t ask.

Fourth, we see Harry Handsome aboard his noble white steed riding hell bent for leather to rescue Gwendolyn.

Can Harry possibly get there in time to save his true love and dispatch the evil Black Bart? Probably not.

That’s because (and this twist is important to the structure of almost any thriller) the viewer knows something Harry doesn’t. They know that the bridge over which Harry must ride to rescue Gwendolyn has been secretly dynamited by one of Bart’s nasty henchmen.

The audience wrings its hands. With the bridge out, is there any way Harry can possibly get across the ravine in time to save the day? Or more importantly to save Gwendolyn?

Of course there is. But the audience can’t imagine what it is until they see Harry figure out how to do it. When he does, he somehow crosses the ravine and gets to the tracks in the nick of time. Gwendolyn is saved by the narrowest of margins. The locomotive passes by harmlessly, though in order to show what a close call it was, perhaps it crushes one of the dainty slippers that happened to fall from her foot when Harry untied her.

Enraged by his failure, Black Bart jumps up and down saying “Curses! Foiled again!” The audience erupts in stunned and delighted applause. Gwendolyn and Harry Handsome kiss, then climb aboard his gallant steed and ride happily off into the sunset.

While in no way as corny, that really is the basic structure I followed in writing The Cutting. Lucinda Cassidy isn’t tied to railroad tracks waiting to be squashed. Instead she’s abducted and locked in a dark room waiting to be killed in a horrible way she can’t even imagine. A horrible way that the reader is well aware of. The heroes, Mike McCabe and his partner Maggie Savage, do manage to find Lucinda in the nick of time, just before the bad guy completes his evil plot by slowly and painfully killing her.

For those who haven’t read the book, I won’t reveal more of how Mike and Maggie do it. That, after all would be a spoiler.










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4 Responses to Mystery or thriller? What’s the difference?

  1. Pamela A. Oberg says:

    Fabulous post! I’ve struggled to explain the difference succinctly to people who ask, and I found this so helpful. Thank you!

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Thanks Pamela. Glad you found it helpful.

  3. Lois Bartholomew says:

    Mary Higgins Clark often shows the villain but doesn’t reveal his identity until he is closing in during the last chapter and the main character is saved at the last minute. She does a good job of building suspense. The crimes are often in the past and
    the main character is targeted because she digs into them. So she has elements of both crime/mystery and suspense.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Many, if not most crime novels, have some elements of both mystery and suspense. My own Darkness First is a case in point. The bad guy is shown but not revealed until well into the story.

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