Showing posts with label thriller. Show all posts
Showing posts with label thriller. Show all posts

Saturday, May 15

The Structure of Genre: Analyzing story structure by genre

The Structure of Genre: Analyzing story structure by genre

I’ve been on a journey of sorts over the past decade. I wanted to understand--intellectually, but also on a blood and bone level--the elements of a good story. Why am I unable to put one book down while another is a cure for insomnia? 

I've talked quite a lot about the structure of Story write large, but in this article I muse about the structure of genre stories.

To read more about this, here is a link to my article over on my substack: The Structure of Genre.

Tuesday, February 7

8 Ways A Thriller differs from a Mystery

8 Ways A Thriller differs from a Mystery

I’ve discussed the structure of a CYOA story, the structure of a mystery, the structure of a short story, even the structure of a great story, but never the structure of a thriller. I think it’s high time to remedy that!

But how to write a thriller is a rather large subject, so in what follows I only look at 8 ways a thriller differs from other kinds of stories.

Thriller: Mystery, Crime, Suspense and Horror

Thrillers have a bit of everything: mystery, suspense, crime and horror. Perhaps that’s the secret of their popularity, there’s something for everyone.

“Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety. Successful examples of thrillers are the films of Alfred Hitchcock.” (Wikipedia)

In a word, thrillers are supposed to be thrilling!

8 Ways in which a thriller differs from other books:

1. Pacing: A thriller is relentless.

I’ve found that certain genres—cozy’s for instance—don’t require a huge amount of dramatic tension or, as I like to call it, narrative drive. Speaking for myself, I read cozy mysteries for the sense of community, to see the characters’ quirks and how they complicate things. To see a) WHO did it, b) HOW they did it and c) WHY they did it. Thrillers, though, I read primarily because I want to lose myself in a fast paced story that fires up the imagination.

2. There is no obvious set of suspects.

One of the things that distinguishes a thriller from a cozy is that a thriller doesn’t have a clear list of suspects.

Recall that in a cozy mystery the suspects are drawn from what W.H. Auden calls a “closed society” so we have our pool of suspects right from the beginning. The reader’s task is to work out which of them committed the dastardly deed. For example, a freak snow storm traps 9 people in a remote hunting lodge. Logically, the killer has to be one of the surviving 8 people.

In a thriller, though, the killer can be someone completely unconnected to the detective and her allies. For example in Thomas Harris’ novel Silence of the Lambs Jame Gumb, the serial killer and Big Bad, was never directly connected to the investigation. (Dr. Hannibal Lecter WAS, but Lector wasn’t the antagonist.)

That said, many times the murderer has some sort of connection to the detective. For example, it might turn out that the killer is someone inside the detective’s inner circle, or perhaps one of the apparently minor characters involved in the case—the detective’s mail carrier, the barista that serves the detective coffee each day, his sister’s new boyfriend, and so on. For example, in James Patterson’s thriller, Along Came a Spider, one of the killers was part of the hero’s own team.

3. High stakes.

In a cozy the stakes are usually modest. If the detective doesn’t solve the case then the murderer will go unpunished and the imbalance the murder created in society will not be addressed. As a result, people will be more suspicious of each other, each thinking that the other could be a murderer. Also, the sleuth’s reputation would take a considerable hit.

In a thriller, on the other hand, if the murderer isn’t caught it could mean the end of the world.

4. Protagonist is a hero.

Not all protagonists are heroes. A hero is someone—male or female—who has noble qualities. For instance, they are courageous and think of the well-being of others before their own. They will do what many would consider irrational things to defeat the Big Bad and save the day.

Generally, whatever organization the hero is with he is cut off from. He is the rebel police officer, the journalist who skates too close to the edge, the soldier who would do anything, sacrifice anything, to save the day.

5. Antagonist is a proper villain.

Another difference between a thriller and a cozy is that in a thriller the murderer is more likely to be a vicious, brilliant, psychotic, serial killer than he is a weaselly nephew who murders his cousin for their money.

Or, if we’re talking about a political thriller, the villain is much more likely to be a terrorist out to destroy the free world than someone who kills in a moment of passion or because he wants to stop his most intimate secret from being revealed.

6. A lot of scenes, not many sequels. What sequels exit are short.

I mentioned that thrillers were part action story and here is one reason why: sequences of scenes are strung together with only very short sequels between them. I know I use this example quite a bit—perhaps too much!—but Raiders of the Lost Ark is a terrific example of scene vs sequel length.

There are sequels in Raiders, but they are very short. One sequel was about 5 seconds long, just long enough for Indiana Jones to say something like, “We’ve got to get the ark,” and then he and Marion are off to fight another battle.

Let’s face it, folks don’t read thrillers because they want something to help them fall asleep! They read them for, as the name suggests, a thrill.

For more on scenes and sequels see the article Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts.

7. The setting of a thriller is often exotic. 

Exotic locations are unfamiliar, extreme, locations.

Unfamiliar. For someone from the Pacific Northwest, a tropical beach would be an exotic location, but if you lived in Hawaii then not so much!

Extreme. The world's largest particle collider would be an exotic location. As could a spacecraft orbiting Earth ... or Mars!

A Carnival is often used as an exotic location, especially if the thriller has supernatural overtones.

This is another point of departure from the cozy mystery which is often—and quite intentionally—placed within a familiar, comfortable, cozy setting.

8. An exciting, surprising, climax.

Every reader of a cozy knows what the climax is going to be: the detective is going to go over every clue and separate the true clues from the distractors and red herrings. (Distractors are those clues that have to do with wrongdoing, but wrongdoing that has nothing to do with the murder.)

While the climax of a thriller needs to reveal the identity of the murderer (the who, the why and the how) there also needs to be a twist. For instance, a classic twist comes at the end of the movie Seven when the penultimate victim is revealed to be the detective’s wife. This leads to the further twist of the Big Bad himself being the ultimate victim, killed by the detective himself.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m going to recommend something a bit different: Dragon NaturallySpeaking Home 13.0. I’ve tried it out and I have to say I’m VERY impressed. The program seems to understand 98% of what I say perfectly. Unfortunately, the 2% that Dragon misunderstands can be frustrating! bottom line: If you’re a slow typist or you hate typing, and you don’t mind fixing the odd mistake, this program is for you. (Here’s a review of the program: PC World.)

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again on Wednesday. Until then, good writing! :-)

Wednesday, October 15

What’s The Difference Between Mysteries And Thrillers?

What’s The Difference Between Mysteries And Thrillers?

In previous posts I’ve talked about the difference between mysteries and thrillers. In a mystery an event happens toward the beginning of the story—often in the first few pages—that violates one’s sense of justice, that shatters the status quo of the community. Things must be set right, justice must be meted out, the wrongdoer(s) must pay. But, first, they must be discovered. (How to write a murderously good mystery.)


In a mystery the crime, often a murder, grows out of a pre-existing rottenness in the social fabric of the community, a rottenness few (if any) suspected was there. For example, in Agatha Christie’s story “Toward Zero” the murder of Lady Tressilian grew from Nevile Strange’s insane desire to possess the woman he loves (Audrey). Years ago he had committed one murder to secure her love and, now, he decides to commit another. The difference is that Nevil’s goal is not to rekindle their devotion but to frame Audrey for murder, in his mind this is just punishment for rejecting him.

On her way to figuring out whodunit the intrepid Miss Marple must bring to light the concealed injustices of the past, for the murder is generally (at least in books!) not a crime of passion or the fruit of psychotic craving, it has a pedigree, it has roots. These roots are generally long and snarled. The primary work of the sleuth is to discover these roots and, in so doing, unmask the perpetrator of the current crime.

In this sense, much of the work of a mystery is spent delving into and uncovering those past events which gave birth to the catastrophic event (/Inciting Incident) which set the current story into motion.


What’s the difference between a murder mystery and a thriller?

Paul Levine, in his article Mystery Novels vs. Thrillers, puts it like this:

“... the thriller hero must stop the villain’s plan, rather than uncover a crime that has already happened.”

I think that’s it in a nutshell. Though, that said, often the hero of a thriller is tasked with doing both. 

In a mystery-thriller the hero must not only discover the perpetrator of a crime, she must also prevent the antagonist from accomplishing his goal. Further, often the crimes the hero is trying to prevent are on a grand scale: “serial or mass murder, terrorism, assassination, or the overthrow of governments” (Thriller, Wikipedia).

It’s a difference in focus. In a mystery, we look back into the past, back to the murder that became the Inciting Incident.

In a thriller while we do look backward (that’s how the hero uncovers the clues that will allow the protagonist to ultimately outwit the killer), the emphasis, especially at the end of the story, is on the future. Often the hero solves the puzzle and reveals the identity of the antagonist before the climax (though perhaps not long before). The most tense part of a thriller generates that tension through the lives of the characters, characters we have come to care about, being put in danger.

While in a mystery lives are on the line as well they aren’t effected in the same way. In a mystery the characters will not be able to go back to their normal lives (back to the Ordinary World) until the murderer is discovered by the sleuth and revealed to the community. Often one or more characters will be social pariahs, indefinitely under suspicion, if the murderer is not brought to justice.[1] 

Similarities between mysteries and thrillers:

1. Mystery. Thrillers often include a mystery or puzzle. Often this mystery involves some perversion of justice.

2. Suspense. Both mysteries and thrillers are suspenseful, though in a typical murder mystery the life of the sleuth is not put in danger. That said, their reputation and (often) way of life will be on the line.

Differences between mysteries and thrillers:

1. In general, a mystery looks backward while a thriller looks forward. In a mystery, the most horrible perversion of justice lies in the past where, with a thriller, it will occur in the future if the hero does not bring the antagonist to justice.

2. Hero versus Sleuth. The protagonist of a murder mystery is usually some sort of sleuth. They will be either a professional detective (police officer or private detective) or will be recognized as possessing that role by the other characters (for example, Miss Marple). In a thriller, on the other hand, the protagonist’s main goal generally isn’t to solve the mystery, it is to (for example) prevent something from happening in the future or to make sure it does. Yes, solving a mystery is usually crucial to the outcome of the story, but the mystery is not the central event. For example, in the movie “Along Came A Spider” the protagonist’s goal was to return the kidnapped child. In keeping with this, often the protagonist’s of thrillers are neither full-time nor part-time detectives.


It seems to me that the difference between a mystery and a thriller is one of emphasis. In a thriller there is generally a race to the finish line while in a mystery there is a reveal. The sleuth already has all the answers, all that is left is for him to reveal them.[2]


1. Though, that said, Agatha Christie wrote many stories that were clever variations on this theme. For example, in “The King of Clubs” no one was murdered, though there was an unexplained death. Further, if the killer had been exposed this would have brought about an injustice. In another of her stories, “Murder on the Orient Express,” the murder that the sleuth starts off investigating is (on one interpretation) an act of justice.

2. I’m currently reading, “Falling Angel,” by William Hjortsberg, it’s the book on which the 1987 movie “Angel Heart” was based. That book (as well as the movie) is an excellent example of a mystery (the private detective is investigatin g events long past to determine whether Johnny Favorite is alive or dead) but it morphs into something more when many of the people the sleuth talks to end up murdered. It’s one of the best and most daring mysteries I’ve read and provides us with an example of a story that straddles the divide between mystery and thriller.

Photo credit: "the proper order of things is often a mystery to me" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, February 17

Best Fonts For Genre Book Covers

One of the most difficult things about creating a book cover is selecting a font. I'll try Impact and maybe Engravers MT and then reach for Lucida and then ... you get the idea. It's a hodge-podge of guesswork. Eventually I'll trip over something that works but there's got to be a better way.

Derek Murphy has come to the rescue. 

DM takes some of the guesswork out of selecting a font by arranging them by genre. His article, entitled 300+ Fool-Proof Fonts to use for your Book Cover Design (an epic list of best fonts per genre), is a keeper.

He includes fonts for the following categories:

- Romance
- Science Fiction
- Thriller
- Fantasy
- Horror
- Paranormal Romance

More good news: many of the fonts are free!

In the image, above, I've included Derek Murphy's font recommendations for fantasy. Head over to DM's site to see the others. A valuable article.

If you liked this article you might also like: How To Design A Great Looking Book Cover.

Photo credit: Fantasy Fonts by Derek Murphy over at

Friday, April 29

Flee, by Joe Konrath and Ann Voss Peterson

Flee is a fast paced, well-written thrill ride. Easy to read and impossible to put down it takes the reader into a world of spies and espionage. This book kept me on the edge of my seat the whole way through. If you like reading thrillers or detective fiction, this book is for you.

If you like Flee, or books like Flee, you might also like Joe Konrath's Jack Daniels stories. Jack is a woman -- I hadn't known that! -- and a very cool character; she reminded me of Sam Spade. I'm looking forward to reading these.

Monday, January 17

Paranormal stories are still selling

Paranormal stories are still selling. According to, Simon & Schuster bought the rights to three paranormal thrillers by debut author Sarah Alderson. Yay Sarah! Congratulations.

Editorial director Venetia Gosling had this to say:

Hunting Lila is a slick romantic thriller, with great sexual tension and a gorgeous hero, as well as a fantastically page-turning plot. It’s a really commercial read, from a talented and highly promotable debut author, and we’ve already had a huge amount of international interest. We’re delighted to welcome Sarah to our list and urge you to keep an eye out for this great new talent!”