When you launch a book blog with a focus on thrillers, there is one inevitable question you must answer, if only for yourself:
What is a thriller?
If you search “mystery vs thriller,” you’ll find a lot of opinions on what makes a story one over the other. Mainly the discussion is geared towards writers querying agents and publishers, but I think it’s also important to look at it from the perspective of a reader.
The most straightforward explanation I’ve come across is that in a mystery, the protagonist is trying to figure out the truth about something that’s already happened, while in a thriller, the protagonist is trying to stop something from happening. And this is great as a quick and simple guide, but in a lot of books, both might be true — finding and stopping a serial killer before he strikes again, for example. Following this guide, would such a story be a mystery or a thriller?
Here’s another comparison: in a mystery, the reader follows the protagonist as he pieces together the clues; in a thriller, the reader gets to learn things that the protagonist doesn’t know. These are mutually exclusive, so perhaps serve as a better distinction between the two genres. But then does a single chapter from the point of view of the unnamed villain disqualify a book from being a mystery?
I’ve heard many other guidelines, attempting to categorize books as one or the other, but I find it most helpful to think of all of these factors as being on a spectrum. Even if some books do fall squarely on one side or the other, most books (dare I say, the most interesting books) are going to incorporate elements of both.
I think what’s most important — and again, this is from a reader’s perspective — is the overall feel of a book. It’s nebulous, sure, and maybe isn’t as helpful for categorizing. But it’s a better indicator of whether I’ll enjoy and connect to the story, and in the end that’s what I care about. I’m looking for something that’s suspenseful, that has a sense of urgency, that makes me want to keep reading. As long as a book has all that, it really doesn’t matter to me whether the powers that be consider it a mystery or a thriller, or even horror — a peripheral but still related genre.
(In fact, I’d say — in my extremely unprofessional opinion, of course — that the line between thriller and horror is even more blurry than that between thriller and mystery. Maybe, rather than a genre in its own right, horror is really just a subgenre of thriller? A topic for another day, perhaps…)
I don’t know what all the answers are. All I know is that, for my own purposes, anything that thrills (or tries, I guess… I won’t discriminate against books that don’t work for me) is a thriller.
What’s your take? How would you characterize a thriller vs a mystery? And how do you feel about those books that blur the lines?