Elements of the Psychological Thriller, Mystery, Suspense and/or Crime Fiction Genres
Last week I attempted to define some elements expected of the typical reader in a psychological thriller. Although the attempt was a good one, it left me with some problems localising the differences between what a mystery, crime fiction and thriller is.
Those thoughts were put into a large post on Mystery, Thriller and Crime fiction. In that post I realised that like a lot of writers, and a lot of experts in writing, the cross-flow between these genres provides a difficulty in localising one genre we might like our books to be catergorised into, if forced to do this on bookshelves or websites.
What came out of this, however, was a rewrite of the initial post on elements that the reader may expect. I’ve now provided a more catergorised list of elements below. This post will be kept updated with any new ideas in the future.
Genres and Sub-Genres
Below you will find a list of elements expected of the typical fiction reader for several genres and sub-genres, the genres (loosely) being -
- Psychological Thriller
- Crime Thriller
- Police Procedural
- Mystery Thriller
- Action Thriller
- Crime Fiction
- Police Procedural
- Detective, Noir, Hardboiled, Cosy Mystery
- Crime Mystery
- Mystery Suspense
- Psychological Suspense
But first, I’m going to start with First Chapter expectations.
First chapter –
- Based on readings, crime or police procedurals and many psychological thrillers tend to start with either a chapter one or prologue showing a scene of high action or a crime – often a murder of a victim through the victim’s or killer’s point of view.
- The opening image is one of action, and often showing the threat found through the story. It can be atmospheric or provide a sense of foreboding, drawing the reader in to further reading.
- Thriller and crime fiction readers expect to meet the antagonist or see a hint of crime or the threat right upfront.
- The first sentence and paragraph needs to have a good hook, and the whole chapter needs to provide a sense of tension and threat. (Seat of pants reading).
- Chapter two leads into the normal everyday life of the hero before she is pulled into the action or suspense.
Reader expectations of the genre(s) –
I’ve broken these down as much as possible into typical elements which are commonly related to specific genres.
However, mystery and thrillers all deal with suspense, the difference normally being in the pace and action components, and the reader’s privaledge of knowing or not knowing the antagonist before the hero does. Note also that psychological thrillers can be slightly different from other sub-genres such as action, spy or other thrillers.
Where common elements can be found across the genre domain, they are listed first.
Note: these are general tropes and expectations. As with all fiction, these rules are often broken, and new expectations form with breakthrough novels. I’ll try to keep my own list up to date as I go along.
Common Elements to the Suspense, Mystery and/or Thriller Genres.
- Suspense, tension, raising of stakes for the protagonist. Typically the pace of this tension is faster in a thriller against a mystery.
- The protagonist must be proactive rather than reactive. He must make things happen, go into action, not sit around with events happening around him.
- As with most good fiction, the hero needs to have grown and learnt and ultimately changed by the end of the novel. This character growth is what leads to the main character’s ability to get through his darkest hour, and win during the climatic ending.
- Typical structural elements to the plot – an inciting incident or turning point that makes the main character move from their everyday and go on their journey to solve the issue, conflict, pace, complications, a darkest hour where everything seems lost, a climatic battle and denouement.
- The ending should resolve all loose ends, but provide a satisfactory twist if possible. Good should prevail over bad. And the hero should have learnt something about himself or the human condition.
- No Coincidences – although they happen in real life all the time – should be avoided in fiction, even though they can provide character conflict. Readers aren’t satisfied by coincidental events or conflict.
- Main characters need side-kicks or a supporting cast (complementary characters at various levels. Mentors, confidants, small rivals. Or even another hero in partnership. Even James Bond, who can be thought of as a solitary adventure hero, still needed Q and others to occasionally talk to.
- Supporting cast members all come with baggage, so need to be chosen carefully (Hallie Ephron). A good cast member will also provide some more conflict for the hero.
- Villains don’t necessary need accompanying characters, they can often operate completely alone. If they do have henchmen or minions, one of these may appear to everyone including the reader as being the villain, hiding the real one behind (although this trope has been overused a little recently).
- The villain must be equally matched with the hero, somebody as smart, resourceful, determined and as multi-dimensional as the hero. The antagonist must challenge the protagonist to the max, over and over again, winning all the way up to the ultimate showdown. She must be worthy of the reader’s hatred, but with multi-dimensions, the reader should also be invited to have ‘sympathy for the devil‘ (Jessica Page Morrell) or at least an understanding of why they are so villainous (even for creatures or paranormal monsters).
- The anti-hero. It is possible to have a hero who acts as a baddy, or an anti-hero. Movies nowadays setup viewers expectations that there should be a good winning over bad ending, however television series allow for the anti-hero, who oversteps the law, seeks revenge, is a rebellious little-man, and holds traits that don’t generally make him an overall good guy. Anti-heroes should still invoke the reader’s sympathies and understanding, however; have easily identified imperfections, and should emphasise human frailty and society’s more hidden or darker values. (Via Jessica Path Morrell).
- The emphasis in a thriller is typically on plot – action, pace, movement. Not character.
- Tension and conflict should start from the very first line and paragraph. If not the actual inciting incident, the first paragraph should create a hook for the reader and set the genre in their mind. Donald Maas calls this initial opening tension a ‘bridging tension‘.
- The villain drives the story – point of view is often shared between the villain and the hero, alternating between scenes.
- Contrary to mysteries, in thrillers the reader, and sometimes the hero, know who the killer or antagonist is, often right from the start. The object is for the main character to outwit and stop the villain before it’s too late.
- The major crime is yet to be committed. Thrillers typically deal with life and death situations, often on a global or national basis. The hero must ‘save the day’ or ‘save the world’, although initially he may not know of the scale of the problem. ‘The hero has an IMPOSSIBLE mission to foil evil’. (James N. Fey)
- Contrary to whodunnit mysteries, thriller readers often are one step ahead of the main character – they can be given scenes involving the villain which the hero can’t know about. This increases the suspense.
- The hero must continually race to resolve problems, with the stakes being raised each time on them also. Plant obstacles in their way.
- High suspense and pace. Thrillers provide obstacles and heightened emotions as the reader runs the gammit of those obstacles and complications, racing to the end, alongside the hero.
- Pace can be at breakneck speed, but is better with occasional lulls (let the hero have a minor success, or a non-action scene – with some inner conflict). The lulls allow the overall tension to build slowly to the climax, and act as a point of reader relaxation before the next onslaught.
- The fast pace and action of thrillers means the structure of the story is often different than other genres. eg the romance genre utilises the alternating scene & sequel format – there is a scene of action or conflict, then a sequel where the heroine goes away to think over the events, and plan their next action. In a thriller this would slow down the pace if there were thinking sequels like this; instead the decision making and plans are made quickly and on-the-fly in the middle of the action.
- Tense and constant conflict scenes – conflict through every scene, whether in dialogue, action, events… the conflict moves the action forward. The conflict must escalate – or undergo change throughout the story. Layer conflict on top of each other, complicate it with twists and turns (Via Donald Maas).
- The emphasis on conflict, action and pace means that descriptive passages introducing settings and characters should be kept to a minimum. The same for any exposition or technical details (some genres can break this ie. several thriller authors break action to insert details about artefacts, religion aspects or other details which are looked for by their readers).
- Tropes expected and used to heighten the tension is the proverbial “ticking clock” aspect where the problem has to be resolved before something dire happens. The climax has this ticking time bomb resolved “just in the nick of time” .
- Humour as a sub-genre doesn’t fit well within thrillers – the aspects of humour and fear are dynamically opposed. Humour, if used, should be subtle, and provided via character dynamics and dialogue at times of less tension.
- Thrillers are typically known for big save the world plots. If the entire world is threatened by disease, plague, alien invasion, a giant meteor, or similar, readers are a little more likely to suspend their disbelief, and allow for some unrealistic explanations, provided some of the science seems grounded in the world written about.
- The main character should be likable, charasmatic, resourceful strong but flawed – vulnerable in some way. If they are not immediately likeable to the reader use a ‘save the cat’ scene where they can become a hero in a small way out of their ordinary day. The reader wants to root for them.
- The main character should really be a “hero” – proactive rather than reactive towards the events (typical of most fiction) but in this case it also means holding skills or motives that puts the protagonist into action, or even possibly willing to make ultimate sacrifices for a cause. The hero can be an everyday woman but she must be clever.
- The hero’s goals should be known early on in the story.
- The villain must be equally matched with the hero, somebody as smart, resourceful, determined and as multi-dimensional as the hero. The antagonist must challenge the protagonist to the max, over and over again, winning all the way up to the ultimate showdown. She must be worthy of the reader’s hatred.
- The villain’s goals oppose those of the hero’s, obviously.
- Action and psychological aspects both are used to add to the suspense.
- With a psychological thriller the conflict (battle!) is through the mind, skills, and wit of main characters, reversing the more normal thriller “plot over character” expectations ie. a psychological thriller reader needs to understand the character, character can (sometimes) be slightly more important than plot (although I prefer both in equal measures).
- Characters shouldn’t win using physical talents or efforts, but rather using their mind, wits or smarts.
- Elements of drama, mystery and horror can often find themselves in the psychological thriller due to the emphasis on motivation and the mind.
- There are Life and death situations and certainly at the end (climax) but this could well involve death or danger to the mind or intrinsic identity or values of the hero rather than a physical threat.
- Psychological thrillers often deal with common themes such as death, reality, perception, identity, existence or purpose, and one or two of these themes should be wound through the novel.
- Motives and intentions are more important than technical aspects of how a crime is done.
- Readers expect the story to focus around both the hero and the villain, via changes in point of view and scenes involving each separately.
- The hero drives the story. The villain remains unknown (hopefully) until right at the end.
- Neither the reader or the hero in a mystery must know where the artefact is, or who the killer is. Both reader and hero must find out ‘whodunnit’.
- The crime has already been committed (although there may well be others coming up).
- The reader should remain one step behind the main character ie. the reader finds out the clues just as the hero does.
- The protagonist must solve a mystery. Often this is a crime / and/or a murder, but there are other mysteries such as a search for an artefact that solves a family or human problem which can provide the mystery also.
- Suspense in mysteries, can often be invoked using atmosphere and setting (which in higher-paced thrillers are kept to the minimum) – descriptions of basements, haunted houses, solitary islands, forests, mists, exotic tombs or locations, hushed libraries or museums, or even a bomb package, doomed train, a uniform jacket, a weapon, an object or artefact or similar can all be detailed, and brought back into the reader’s mind.
- The reader should be able to, using their mind, solve the mystery alongside the main character. Traditional mysteries appeal to the mind.
- There must be a logical solution to the puzzle – although red herrings and deep clues may mean the ending could take the reader by surprise.
- The hero has a mission to find the killer / artefact / family secret / lost cat.
Crime Fiction & Police Procedurals
Crime Fiction sits across both mystery and thriller, but I’m putting it here under Mystery as a matter of convenience.
- Obviously, there must be one or more crimes. A crime sits at the centre of crime fiction. With a crime comes victims. Crime thrillers normally centre around a violent criminal act or serial acts, and the hero must stop further killings or crimes from happening.
- Victims – dependent on the crime and storyline, the reader may need to be shown a little bit more about the victim, especially if the victim knows their attacker.
- In the case where the victim is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (say, a security guard in a bank, or a random passerby selected as a psycho serial killer’s next murder victim), the emphasis should be taken quickly off the victim’s storyline. They are the red-sweatered people of Star Trek fame, you always know something bad is going to happen to them.
- Victims – and witnesses – hold the key to solving the crime. They hold secrets – several sometimes. Some of these secrets will be red-herrings to lead the reader and investigator down the wrong path.
- Suspects – readers need more than one, obviously. But stay away from the defined patterns we often see in crime dramas on our television sets (where you know that it will always be the second suspect the police interview, even though they initially appear innocent, or an innocent suspect makes themselves look guilty by fleeing from the police, jumping across rooftops and plummeting to their death in an alley below).
- Procedural-wise, it’s important to get the police or crime scene procedures technically correct so that they don’t jar any analytical readers out of the story. There are reference guides aplenty if you’re writing with a story set in contempory America, and one police procedural guide for U.K. writers, but getting the technical details right for your setting may take some research.
- There are certain stereotypes to be avoided in police characterisation to be aware of, also. eg the old embittered police detective who is divorced, stressed and has turned to alcohol.
- Avoid other stereotypes in criminals also. Most criminals aren’t sociopaths. Most murderers are not psychotics or sociopaths either. In fact, don’t base your super-smart antagonist/villain master-criminal or even his henchmen thugs on people you may find in prison – obviously those people generally weren’t smart enough to not be convicted of their crimes in the first place.
- We’ve long gone past the Snide Dastardly type villain who wears capes and twirls his moustache while making his evil plans (and I wish we’d get past the James Bond type master-criminals who tell the captured hero just exactly how he’s going to be killed, instead of just whipping out a gun and being done with it) but it may pay to avoid bringing on a Dastardly type character who acts evilly, just to provide the reader with a ‘oh, he’s going to turn out to be innocent’ moment – we’re all used to that cliché also.
- How a crime is perpetuated is typically important in crime fiction – the details of planning for and doing the crime. This varies according to sub-genre – psychological thriller readers are more interested in the criminal’s motives and intentions, rather than technical details; police procedural readers are more interested in the police or detective procedurals in investigating the crime.
- In Crime Fiction, readers expect the story to focus around both the hero and the villain, often with changes in point of view in scenes. Readers are interested in the crime details – the plotting and planning of the crime, the scene of the crime, the perpetuation of the crime, the outcome. To get those details, we need to see it – often through the eyes of the criminals.
- Red herrings and shadowed clues are expected to be inserted as both false or overlooked leads through the story, but surprise endings must be logical.
- Twists and turns, surprises (although they must be logical in hindsight) must provide the reader with a mystery that is not a no-brainer.
Is it important to understand the genre? Yeah, probably, because editors often have some pretty stern definitions of what they’re looking for, or not. And bookshelves only have so many shelves and categories to stick your book under.
I’ve been trying to classify my own novels into adequate genres, hence this whole series. And recently, after reading all this, and a Miss Snark post where she dismisses all the other sub-genres for one writer, I have begun to realise just how succinct I need to be. Structurally, there is a vast difference between the thriller and the mystery, and if I’m leaning into the mystery genre, I’ve got to really nut out what’s the difference between a cosy and a hard-boiled, or general mystery, for instance.
One way of thinking of it is that the genres interlink like a series of Venn Diagrams, with many elements sitting in the intersections between.
Here’s an attempt to quickly define the various genres discussed above. Unfortunately, with so many similar elements it becomes a matter of listing one against the other or versus the other, but all of this should be taken with a grain of salt or a mountain of it.
But, as Nathan Bransford suggested in his own attempt – “These labels slosh around a whole lot, so again, don’t sweat them too much.”
And Dana Kaye says this: “When in doubt, don’t call your book anything or say it’s a novel of suspense. Because whether it’s a mystery or thriller, cozy or hard-boiled, there better be some suspense”.
Suspense Vs Thriller
One director defines these
There’s a monster in the closet. In a suspense novel or movie, the reader/viewer knows the monster is there. The character in the scene approaches the closet, starts to open it, but the doorbell rings. She answers the door, takes a package from the mail-man, sits it on the table next to the door, and again approaches the closet. As her hand reaches for the doorknob, the phone rings. Suspense builds. Is she going to open the closet and get eaten, or is she not?
In a thriller, the viewer doesn’t know the monster is in the closet. The scene is peaceful, the character seems happy. She opens the closet, the monster grabs her, and the readers/viewers jump about a foot because they were not expecting that. She may fight the monster off, if she’s the protagonist, but it’s the thrill of the unexpected that makes the scene what it is.
Hitchcock defines these
Alfred Hitchcock explained that - “Contrary to popular belief, suspense bears no relationship to fear. Instead, it is the state of waiting for something to happen”. He went on to suggest that the crucial recipe sits behind the differences between suspense and surprise. Suspense is where two characters are sitting in a cafe for fifteen minutes, not aware that a bomb is planted under the table. A thriller is the surprise and 15 seconds of action after a bomb has suddenly exploded.
Hitchcock’s rule for thrillers, therefore, was to keep the audience informed. (Via Janet L. Smith)
Suspense = when the reader knows something the character doesn’t, and the tension builds from wondering how or if the character will survive. Will he or won’t he fall into the trap, get shot by the sniper, or be eaten by the monster we know is waiting in the closet. Our hearts beat faster as the tension builds.
Thriller = the reader doesn’t see the threat coming. It’s slam-bang action, and the reader rides along with the protagonist, experiencing things as they happen to him, and is just as surprised when the monster jumps out from the closet. Thrillers place the crime or event to come.
Suspense Thriller = has been loosely defined as a story in which the audience is waiting for something significant to happen. The protagonist’s job is to prevent the speeding bus from exploding, or the aliens from eating the crew. The reader experiences a vicarious thrill by identifying with the hero and the danger he faces, becoming a participant in the chase.
Note that suspense fiction can encompass all of the above different genres / sub-genres or mixtures of several. Some differentiations, however -
- Mystery Suspense fiction always deals with a crime of some sort, thriller suspense may not.
- Suspense contains more emotional elements (ie. a romance suspense or mystery with equal elements from the suspense and romance plotlines); mysteries contain more intellectual elements – the readers want to solve the crime alongside the main character.
- Suspense fiction is less detailed / gory than thrillers. The violence is played off-screen mostly.
- Paranormal or humourous elements fit more nicely into suspense. Technical and sci-fi elements sit more easily within the thriller or mystery domain.
Mystery Vs Thriller
- Whereas thrillers have the crime or event coming, and the main character must stop it beforehand, the mystery has the crime (often a murder) at the start, and the main character must discover who committed the crime, and why. (This can lead to a lack of suspense when dealing with a crime that has already happened, which is why you will often find further threats to the hero or other character’s lives in a mystery also, as a tool to add more suspense).
- Mystery provides the who-dunnit elements – the reader is one step behind the hero in solving the puzzles. Thrillers provide the reader with knowledge outside of the hero’s domain – the readers are one step ahead of the hero, and are aware of the threat to him.
- In a mystery, the antagonist is unknown until right at the end or a final showdown with the protagonist. In a thriller, the antagonist is often known by both the reader and the hero, and can even have scenes with their point of view.
- Tension in a mystery is often created with the conflict and dynamics between characters. In thrillers, tension is more often supplied by events or the reader’s ability to see what is happening or about to happen in advance of the protagonist.
- Mysteries do not always involve criminal acts, although the general sub-genres defined below tend to concentrate on the murder mystery definitions. Mysteries can also involve a puzzle to find an ancient artefact, for instance. The overall definition for a mystery is the solving of a crime or riddle or puzzle.
Firstly, read my own Mysteries Vs Thrillers Vs Crime Fiction post, which via Jodie Renner, provides several definitions for mysteries vs thrillers.
- Thrillers have action
- Suspense has danger, but not necessarily action
- Mysteries have mysteries, i.e., something you don’t know until the end
- Mysteries are reflective, the story takes place after the crime and the plot centers around figuring out what happened.
- Crime Fiction is in the present, readers are with the characters as the action is taking place.
- In Thrillers, the crime hasn’t happened yet. The plot is centered around stopping a crime or dramatic event from taking place.
Jim Doherty, cutting to the chase:
“Hardboiled” is about attitude. Noir is about atmosphere. They’re not the same thing, but neither are they mutually exclusive. That which is both tough and colloquial is hardboiled. That’s really all there is to it. That which is both dark and sinister is noir. That, too, is really all there is to it.”
Mysteries and Sub-Genres
- Cosy Mysteries or Cosies / Cozies – a pleasurable escape with murder. Normally set in a small country village, involves an amateur sleuth, who often has a sidekick or good friends to talk to. Low violence, the murder(s) are off-screen, and no profanity or sex (flirting and some colourful language allowed). Generally slower pacing, with less threats to the protagonist, so less suspense than other sub-genres or thrillers.
- General Mysteries – slightly darker than a cozy – more violence in the crime, sex and profanity allowed, and can be set anywhere. General mysteries can also involve non-criminal puzzles ie. the quest to find an ancient artefact. Protagonists in general mysteries are not amateur – they possess some qualified and expert skills which will help them solve the mystery ie. they are a detective, police person, a medical doctor or scientist, or a professor / other expert of some kind.
- Who-Dunnits – the typical crime mystery (can be cozy, general or detective etc) where a murder is laid out at the start, and the hero must solve who did it.
- Detective – The detective can be an amateur or a professional, hardboiled or not. Private Eyes, Private Investigators. Police detectives usually fall under police procedurals.
- Police Procedurals – Involves a police detective solving the crime, provides some details of the police investigation. Recently this genre has opened up to include protaganists who are experts in criminalistics ie. the crime scene scientist, or the forensic psychologist / profiler or FBI agents, of course.
- Noir / Hardboiled – a darker, grittier, more sinister and atmospheric crime mystery, often involving a hardened tough old detective, tough settings and characters, and can also have an unhappy ending.
- James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller – A Step-by-Step Guide for Novelists and Screenwriters
- Jodie Renner, Writing a Killer Thriller (An Editor’s Guide to Writing Powerful Fiction). Kindle Edition.
- Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel
- Hallie Ephron, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel
- Jessica Page Morrell, Bullies, Bastards & Bitches - How to write the bad guys of fiction.
- Janet L Smith, Mystery vs. Suspense Thriller Book Genres (Mysterynet)
- Nathan Bransford, The Differences Between Mysteries, Suspense and Thrillers
- Bookends, Does Your Hook Match your genre?
- Miss Snark, Category 5 word hurricane-impending disaster
- Mysterious Matters : Writing the Cozy, Keep it Delightful
- The Thrilling Detective – hardboiled and other definitions.
- Dana Kaye – Your one true brand
- Mysteries vs Thrillers vs Crime Fiction
- This post originates and replaces an older post.
- 15 October 2012 – added Definitions section, and some more elements to the suspense overall genre. Many more resource links added.