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Thriller vs. Mystery vs. Suspense

Posted by CreateSpaceBlogger on Oct 8, 2013 5:01:29 AM

At a recent industry event, I found myself chatting with the prolific New York Times bestselling author CJ Lyons, who has had great success independently publishing her thriller books. It's easy to confuse thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels, so I asked CJ for her thoughts on what makes the genres different. Here's what she had to say:



Here's my take on the whole mystery/suspense/thriller spectrum:



  • Mysteries: These deal with "who," as in "who did it," "who will solve the case," etc. They are mainly focused on a past event that begins the action (usually a dead body).
  • Suspense fiction: These are about the "why." Why did the criminal act that way, why did the victim become the victim, why does the crime-solver care and become involved? They are mainly focused on the present - the impact of the crime on the psychology of those involved. This gives suspense novels that claustrophobic feeling, because you're living moment to moment, focused on the here and now.
  • Romantic suspense: These again focus on "why," but with an additional "why should these two people be together" added. The romance is so intertwined that you cannot remove it from the rest of the plot.
  • Thrillers: This genre is about the "how," as in "how will we save the world?" (Here, "world" can be anything from the entire universe or planet to a country, town or other larger entity.) How will we stop this terrible thing from happening? How will the hero find the courage, strength, tools, allies, etc. necessary to overcome overwhelming odds? How will it all end? The emphasis is on the future, which, in my opinion, is what gives thrillers that wonderful free-fall feeling, that head rush of adrenaline as the stakes keep building and building. You can have lots of action in mysteries and suspense, but the larger stakes and that constant forward momentum are what make thrillers, well, thrilling.
  • Thrillers with Heart: This is a term I coined for my own work, books that have at their core an emotional relationship that adds another dimension to the action plot. Again, like romantic suspense, this essential relationship cannot be dissected out.


So where do your own books fall in this mystery-suspense-thriller spectrum? You can learn more about CJ and her books at


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Maria Murnane is a paid CreateSpace contributor. She is the award-winning author of the romantic comedies Perfect on Paper, It's a Waverly Life and Honey on Your Mind. She also provides consulting services on book publishing and marketing. Learn more at


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Oct 8, 2013 2:30 PM Adan    says:

I've read recently where some work is considered a blend of two or more of these genres, and I wonder, is that really possible, or does a work tend to be more one thing than another?


I'm guessing, since like in the article above, suspense and thrillers can be a blend with romance, that probably most anything is possible.  How well so, hmmm, maybe another question?


I would have liked, in the piece above, some examples for the types, esp the two categories that included romance and heart.


Maybe a follow-up?


Thanks so much!