Friday, December 2, 2011

Is it Mystery, Suspense or a Thriller? by Beth Anderson

Welcome to my snowy mountaintop, Beth, on this ninth day of the "Mystery We Write" virtual holiday tour. Have a cuppa chai tea to warm up and tell us about the differences between mysteries, suspense and thriller novels while I toss another log on the fire. Then I'll show you my porcelain doll collection.

Okay, first a few notes to new writers trying to decide whether your book will be a mystery or a suspense. At the outset, there are two big differences. A traditionally published mystery is shorter, the norm is around 70 to 75,000 words. With digital publishing, the word count doesn’t matter so much anymore until you get into the hundred thousand word range. At that point the publisher, no matter who it is, has to make a decision because now you’re going into a bigger print version, which will cost more to print.
A traditionally published suspense, on the other hand, has a much higher word count, anywhere from 85,000 words up to over a hundred thousand, depending on how long you’ve been writing and for whom. Also, in a suspense, you often (but not always) know who the criminal is, or at least see him in action from almost the beginning, and the book is involved with following both criminal and detective/heroine/hero through the process of catching the criminal.
Suspense is also split out into more sub-sub-genres. Female in Jeopardy, femjep, was big a few years ago, but there's not so much emphasis on that anymore because by and large, people don’t really like to see women in serious physical danger. Nowadays, they expect women to be stronger and smarter than any villain, so make sure your suspense protagonist is sharp and strong, or at least working toward that. (Actually, that’s good advice no matter what you’re writing.)
Then there’s Romantic Suspense, which often contains a scenario where the heroine is never sure, until the last moment, whether the man she’s attracted to is the hero or the villain. Those books can and generally do contain sex, and they will almost always be promoted as Romantic Suspense so that the reader will know what she’s getting. The market in women’s fiction is always pretty good for romantic suspense because no matter what, people love romance, and the more the better, to that audience.
A lot of what you do here depends on who—thinking ahead to your long term career goals—you want your eventual market to be. If you want mainly women, by all means hang a lot of romance and hot sex in there, but if you’re aiming for the mainstream market, be aware that most men won’t voluntarily read books promoted as romantic suspense. I didn’t say all men, but I do say most.
Also be aware that in a traditionally published category romantic suspense, as in a Harlequin Superromance, romance takes precedence, with a very strong suspense subplot.
In mainstream/single title romantic suspense, suspense takes precedence. Your own sense of pacing, with your publisher’s guidelines, will determine how much of each element you should have. But generally speaking, just so you know, you don’t want sex between the protagonists to be your ultra-main focus in any mainstream mystery or suspense novel because it distracts from the mystery and becomes primarily a romance, also limiting your male audience.
Pure suspense is a longer book in which the reader often knows almost from the beginning who the killer is, and the suspense comes from trying to keep the hero or heroine (maybe both) from getting killed while they figure it out. The stakes are very high, uncertainty is constant and enormous, and has to be kept that way throughout the whole story. These sell well and almost certainly will for a long, long time.
In pure suspense novels, romance is allowed, but don’t try writing any of those eight-page detailed love scenes in this type of book if you’re aiming at the mainstream audience because for one thing, if you do and it’s bought, particularly by any traditional publisher, it’s going to be promoted as a romantic suspense, and your market will automatically become mainly women. Just so you know.
That’s not all bad, because women buy the majority of books. But if you want the word “romantic” left out of your promotion, leave the romance out of the book, or only have a hint of it. In other words, if you want to hit the mainstream market, your suspense novel shouldn’t be full of one hot and heavy love scene after another because to many traditional suspense readers, as I already mentioned, the sex distracts from the plot. I’ve heard them say this time and again, although there may be exceptions and truly, sex in mysteries is more and more accepted now than it was ten years ago. So it’s up to you to decide who you want your reading audience to be.
But also be aware, pacing has a lot to do with how your book is perceived. If you have a large chunk of nothing but mystery, your reader is going to be expecting it to be mostly mystery. If you switch to long, protracted sex scenes right in the middle of this book, which started out all mystery, you’ve got a huge pacing problem that throws the whole story out of whack. So decide at the beginning which it’s going to be, and pace your love scenes accordingly, weaving them in and out of the main plot, which is the mystery.
Of course there are exceptions. Brand name romance authors who have branched out into mainstream suspense, Nora Roberts for one. There are quite a few big name former strictly romance authors who are doing this now, with long, long sex scenes, but keep in mind, they’ve made their bones. Their names are already built and their names will sell the book both to publisher and public.
So let your protags have sex if you want, but don’t let them have overly graphic sex or it can easily turn into erotica and that's a whole ‘nother discussion (by someone other than me).
Next we have thrillers, which can be considered either general fiction or crime fiction, depending on the plot. Steve King is a master at this category, as is Dean Koontz, but there’s plenty of room for more because the American public loves thrillers and the good ones out there are making big money.
To further complicate this issue, consider Jurassic Park, a thriller for sure, although the villains are prehistoric animals. This would fall under general fiction, not mystery, if you’re looking for it in the library.
The main thread to watch for in a thriller is that an extremely high level of mind-blowing excitement is maintained all the way throughout the novel—with small dips from time to time to allow the reader time to catch his breath. If you can do that and keep doing it for five hundred pages or so, you’ve got the potential of having yourself a major bidding-war blockbuster.
Thrillers also make great movies because they’re so visual, and publishers love books that have a high chance of becoming a movie because it increases their book sales. So in writing one of these, keep in mind the level of sophistication of your potential readers, and realize that these books will appeal to the mainstream reader even though they’re basically part of the mystery genre.
Beth Anderson is the author of seven crime novels. Two of her books have been nominated for the International Frankfurt Award and two were EPPIE finalists in their e-book editions. Her bestselling release, Second Generation, won the AllAboutMurder Bloody Dagger Award, the Rendezvous Review Magazine Rosebud Award, and the FMAM (Futures Magazine) Fire to Fly Award.



  1. It's great to have you join us here today, Beth, on this 9th day of the "Mystery We Write" Virtual Holiday Tour. Great article and advice!

  2. This is a great post, Beth, really well thought out and very, very informative and clearly stated.

    One way in which the market still treats women writers differently from male writers is that the inclusion of some sex -- even substantial amounts of sex -- by a male writer won't usually result in anyone considering it a romantic mystery. A mystery with sex, yes, but it'll remain a mystery or a suspense novel, which leads me to suspect that the "romantic suspense" tag is essentially another marketing issue, aimed at telling women that a book contains sex scenes written from a female perspective. Something I never thought about before.

  3. Fine essay, Beth. You've got it nailed.

  4. Enjoyed your post, Beth, and (as I've said before) I highly recomment, RAVEN TALKS BACK.