Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Thrillers vs. Mysteries

05 Nov


Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13


by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

Until the last decade or so, most readers were more familiar with mysteries than thrillers. In fact, my small neighborhood library has a section called “Mysteries” but no section called “Thrillers,” which seems weird to me! Mysteries of all sorts (cozy, hardboiled, suspenseful, etc.) are still going strong, but thrillers make up more and more of the bestsellers these days.

How exactly do thrillers differ from mysteries, anyway? Both are fiction stories involving criminal activity, catching the bad guy(s), and at least one murder.

Two main differences stand out. First, in a mystery, neither the reader nor the protagonist knows who the killer is. The whole idea is to figure out “whodunit,” then apprehend the bad guy. In a thriller, the reader often knows who the villain is early on, and sometimes the hero does too. The object is for the hero to outwit and stop the killer before he kills others, including the hero, or endangers the world. Also, in mysteries, the protagonist is not usually in danger, whereas in thrillers, the protagonist is almost always directly threatened, fighting for his life as he matches wits with a clever, determined, amoral villain.

The other main difference between mysteries and thrillers is in the delivery—how they are told. Mysteries are usually more cerebral, for readers who enjoy solving puzzles, whereas thrillers are more heart-pounding, adrenaline-raising, appealing to the emotions and a yearning for excitement, a desire to vicariously confront danger and defeat nasty villains. A mystery, especially a “cozy” one, can unfold in a leisurely fashion, but thrillers need to be much more fast-paced and suspenseful.

David Morrell, , author of about 28 thrillers, explored the difference between mysteries and thrillers several years ago. His detailed description included this: “Traditional mysteries appeal primarily to the mind and emphasize the logical solution to a puzzle. In contrast, thrillers strive for heightened emotions and emphasize the sensations of what might be called an obstacle race and a scavenger hunt.” (David Morrell,

James N. Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Thriller and How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, among other “damn good” books on writing, describes the differences like this:

“In a mystery, the hero has a mission to find a killer.

“In a thriller, the hero has a mission to foil evil.”

Frey goes on to elaborate, “a thriller is a story of a hero who has a mission to foil evil. Not just a hero—a clever hero. Not just a mission—an ‘impossible’ mission. An ‘impossible’ mission that will put our hero into terrible trouble.”

According to International Thriller Writers, a thriller is characterized by “the sudden rush of emotions, the excitement, sense of suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace.”

ITW defines thrillers as a genre in which “tough, resourceful, but essentially ordinary heroes are pitted against villains determined to destroy them, their country, or the stability of the free world.”

Part of the allure of thrillers, they say, comes from not only what their stories are about, but also how they are told. “High stakes, nonstop action, plot twists that both surprise and excite, settings that are both vibrant and exotic, and an intense pace that never lets up until the adrenaline-packed climax.”

Here are some distinctions James Scott Bell makes between the two, in his book, Conflict & Suspense:

Mystery = Who did it?  Suspense = Will it happen again?

Mystery is about “figuring it out.”  Suspense is about “keeping safe.”

Mystery is a puzzle.  Suspense is a nightmare.

Mysteries ask, “What will the lead character find next?”

Suspense asks, “What will happen next to the lead character?”

I asked some friends, clients and colleagues what they thought the main differences were between these two genres. According to thriller and horror writer Allan Leverone, “In a mystery, the crime has already been committed, but the hero and the reader must figure out by whom. In a thriller, the crime (at least the biggie) hasn’t been committed yet, but the reader knows who the bad guy is; the question is whether he can be stopped.”

My friend, bestselling suspense-mystery and thriller writer LJ Sellers, tells me she recently read that in a thriller, the villain drives the story, versus mystery, in which the protagonist drives the story.

And finally, another friend and colleague, bestselling thriller and horror writer Andrew E. Kaufman says, “Here’s a less conservative, completely off-color definition, coming from a less conservative, completely off-color mind: A thriller is like mystery on Viagra. Everything’s more amped up, fast-paced, and frenetic. A good thriller should keep your heart racing, your fingers swiping at the pages, and your rear on the edge of its seat. Of course, those lines can be blurred. Many authors straddle the fence between the two. Nothing is in black and white, and gray is a beautiful color.”

True – there are those fast-paced mysteries that seem to straddle both genres. For suspense-mysteries, I love Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar stories and Robert Crais’s Joe Pike and Elvis Cole stories, among others.

Which do you prefer, mysteries or thrillers?

It probably depends on your mood, but personally, I usually prefer the adrenaline rush and pulse-pounding suspense of thrillers!

Who are some of your favorite contemporary thriller or mystery writers?

What about your favorite thriller characters?

For series, I love Robert Crais’ Joe Pike and Elvis Cole, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar, Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch, and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and the two men in her life — both hunks!

For more on this topic, check out Tom Sawyer’s recent post over at The Thrill Begins blog: “Mysteries & Thrillers – The Differences”:

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.


 Jodie blogs


Posted by on November 5, 2013 in Guest Blogger, Writing


23 responses to “Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Thrillers vs. Mysteries

  1. Jodie Renner

    November 5, 2013 at 8:24 am

    Thanks for having me back again as a guest on your excellent blog, Doug! That makes about 24 guest blog posts of mine here in the past two years!

    By the way, my book, Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, is on for $0.99 for the eBook, today and tomorrow on Amazon – or at least it’s supposed to be! For some reason, it hasn’t shown up yet…? Hopefully it will go down to 99 cents very soon.


  2. David DeLee

    November 5, 2013 at 11:20 am

    Great post, Jodie.
    I always liked Caroyln Wheat, who, in her how-to book HOW TO WRITE KILLER FICTION defined the difference this way — “In the ideal mystery novel, the read is two steps behind the detective.” meaning they don’t really know what’s going on until the detective puts it together and reveals the solution, and “The ideal suspense reader, on the other hand, is two steps ahead of the hero.” Meaning the reader is aware of things the hero is not, creating the heightened tension by anticipating the trouble the hero is about to confront.

    I like your list of favorite thriller characters–I’d add Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli & Isles and Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox.

    Thanks for a great analysis.


    • Jodie Renner

      November 5, 2013 at 3:57 pm

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting, David. I haven’t read that book by Carolyn Wheat – I must check it out! And also thanks for your addition of 3 more great thriller characters – I definitely agree with you on all of them! 🙂


  3. thelma straw

    November 5, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    Jodie, I always enjoy your posts. This was right on target! Thelma Straw in Manhattan


  4. Jodie Renner

    November 5, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    The planets must be in weird positions today – it’s like it’s Friday the 13th for me. My writing guide, Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, was supposed to go on sale for $0.99 early this morning for the e-book on Amazon, and it’s still at the regular price! I’ve emailed them twice and can’t reach them by phone, so hopefully it will go on sale soon. And my internet kept going down, so I went out and bought a new modem. Let’s hope that solved THAT problem, at least! Hope everyone else is having a great day!


  5. tom combs

    November 5, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    Jodie –
    A very interesting discussion. I agree that the line between mysteries and thrillers is often blurred.

    For me intelligent and well-crafted elements of mystery enhance throat-tightening thrillers and
    the tension and suspense of a protagonist at risk spices up even the most cerebral mystery.

    I would add James Lee Burke as a master of the thriller (with well-crafted elements of mystery woven in).
    I find some/many authors I enjoy hard to genre assign.
    Perhaps there exists in writing something akin to the biological concept of “hybrid vigor”


    • Jodie Renner

      November 6, 2013 at 9:03 am

      Thanks, Tom. And so well said! “…intelligent and well-crafted elements of mystery enhance throat-tightening thrillers and the tension and suspense of a protagonist at risk spices up even the most cerebral mystery.” Love it. You must be a writer! 😉

      And I love your notion of “hybrid vigor” – something you should explore in a blog post – perhaps as a guest blogger on CFC?

      And thanks to Doug, I’ve recently discovered James Lee Burke and bought a few of his books, which I can’t wait to start reading!


      • tom combs

        November 7, 2013 at 9:09 pm

        Would be my pleasure!

        I second the recommendation of William Kent Krueger. Brilliant and beautifully written.
        I consider his series to be mystery/thriller hybrids. Keen, credible mystery with hold your breath thrills – he’s one of my favorites.


      • Jodie Renner

        November 8, 2013 at 9:07 am

        Thanks for the additional recommendation, Tom. I wish I had more time to read all these great novels!


  6. Lynn Sholes

    November 6, 2013 at 7:18 am

    Great job, Jodie. As always.


  7. chitrader

    November 6, 2013 at 7:29 am

    I enjoy a good mystery, but I love a good thriller. I cut my teeth on Ludlum, Follett and their contemporaries. The one book that got me hooked on thrillers was “The Bourne Identity.” Wow, what a wild ride that was. The best part–my wife and I read it as we were traveling in Europe. We’d been to Zurich, Geneva, Paris, Berlin, so we were immersed in some of the locales where the story took place.



    • Jodie Renner

      November 6, 2013 at 9:06 am

      I’m with you about thrillers, Chris. And I absolutely love the Bourne series and movies! And how great that you and your wife read it while visiting those fascinating European cities where the book was set!


  8. chitrader

    November 6, 2013 at 7:33 am

    Addendum to previous post:

    Favorite contemporary writers are Baldacci, Lehane, Nelson DeMille, And who doesn’t love the character Oliver Stone in Baldacci’s “Camel Club” series?

    Favorite contemporary mystery writer is William Kent Krueger. His Cork O’Connor novels are spot on mystery writing.



    • Jodie Renner

      November 6, 2013 at 9:07 am

      Thanks for these recommendations, Chris. So many great novels to read, so little time! I must start thinking about audio books to listen to while I’m driving or walking!


      • chitrader

        November 6, 2013 at 10:13 am

        I do audio books all the time. Easy to check out from your library once you have an I-pod device and set up an account with Overdrive or other audio book software.

        A great way to ‘read” while doing mindless tasks like treadmills, driving, simple chores, or even walking in busy areas. I like to walk with no audio book playing when I’m in a natural setting.



  9. Jodie Renner

    November 6, 2013 at 9:08 am

    And as a follow-up to my comments yesterday, my Style That Sizzles is indeed on sale for $0.99! Whew! So glad it’s working!


  10. Jodie Renner

    November 6, 2013 at 10:35 am

    Thanks for that additional info about audio books, Chris! I assumed I’d have to buy them – it hadn’t occurred to me that I could check them out of my local library. Great! First things first – get an iPod. Thanks for the tips! 🙂


  11. carolannnewsome

    November 7, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Thanks for the post. I love mysteries and thrillers, but mostly prefer a mash-up of the two (which is what I write – cozies with some romance and tense, dangerous climaxes). I like not knowing ‘whodunit” and I also like some thrills, tension and suspense. I like to let the reader inside the killer’s head if the danger is ongoing. My favorite crime/mystery/thriller writers are David Baldacci (Camel Club), James Lee Burke, John Sandford and Tami Hoag.

    I used to read a lot of James Patterson, but the last book of his I picked up “Mistress,” everyone the protagonist talked to died an ugly death in the first several chapters and it got annoying. Frenetic activity without any buy-in just doesn’t work for me. So I took him off my hot authors list at the library.

    I’m also annoyed by the advice to improve the pace of your book by killing someone. In my head, a smart villain knows better than to leave a trail of bloody corpses like so many scattered breadcrumbs.

    I picked up your book and look forward to seeing what you say.


  12. carolannnewsome

    November 7, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    I picked up “Killer Thriller”, too.


    • Jodie Renner

      November 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments and recommendations, Carol Ann! And I agree with the two plot ideas that annoyed you – I’d find both of them annoying, too!

      I hope you enjoy both of my books! Keep on writing! 🙂



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