Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thrillers and Mysteries: Compelling and Enticing

Reading thuRsday

What's the difference between a thriller and a mystery?

A thriller is compelling; it pushes you along. A mystery is enticing; it pulls you along.

It's an important structural distinction.

We clearly need to know what's at stake in a thriller because it is fundamentally a story about an effort to avert the peril. Worry about how to prevent the worst outcome drives this kind of story forward.

In contrast, a mystery is a story of discovery in which the scope of the peril is revealed over time. Worry about what might be hiding around the corner drives this kind of story forward.

With that background, we can make the general observation that fantasies tend to be structured as a mystery and thrillers are usual set in the world of our common experience. In fact, most fantasies are not just mysteries in an abstract form but explicitly involve some form of discovery, often a quest or voyage.

When a story is set in the real world, the author has the luxury of relying on common knowledge and convention when declaring the stakes. In a political thriller, for example, it is sufficient to say that the conspirators are working to topple the government and proceed on the assumption that the reader agrees such an outcome would be a bad thing.

But with fantasy, an author has the additional problem of introducing a reader to a world that contradicts or extends their common experience. That makes the prospect of a thriller set in a fantasy context more challenging--unless one relies on the conventions with which readers in the genre should be familiar (which is why urban fantasies and paranormals do well).

As a reader, you should be clear on the distinction between thriller and mystery because you're sure to be disappointed if you expect one kind of story when you're reading the other.

As a writer, you need to be clear about the kind of story you're telling because if you mix them up you'll deliver a thrill-less thriller or a spoiled mystery.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /


  1. I like your descriptions of thrillers and mysteries. I hadn't thought of them in quite that way before.

  2. Thank you. I'm often amazed at what I find when I look for the underlying structure.


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