Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bones of Mysteries and Thrillers

One of the most popular presentations I give is "How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that SELLS." I initially wrote it as a webinar for Writer's Digest, then I adapted it for in-person presentations and workshops, and then I included some of the material in You've Got a Book in You. I'll be giving the presentation in two places this summer, the Golden Crown Literary Society conference in Portland in July and the Florida Heritage Book Festival Writers Conference in St. Augustine in September.

Today's blog is to give you one of the nuggets of that presentation.

When I started out writing fiction seriously, I made a point to read stuff on how to write great fiction or at least fiction that doesn't suck, like writing magazines and interviews of famous authors. And I remember having anxiety about whether my stories were mysteries or thrillers. Why? Because so many writing authorities, including editors and agents, were shouting that you have to write one or the other, and the forms are very different, and you must follow the correct form, or your manuscript will be shoved into the feed box of the monsters that live in the tunnels below Manhattan, because editors and agents require precise categorization of the novels they traffic in, and they have like zero patience.

[Risking my own neck, I captured this image of one of the Manhattan tunnel monsters on a trip to New York recently, so I could prove to you they exist. As you can see, one hand is a catcher's mitt and the other is a Garden Weasel. Terrifying.]

The thing was, every authority's definition of mystery and thriller was different! The formulas seemed complicated, dogmatic, and hopelessly impossible to follow exactly. Anyway, what kind of writer would want to?

It took me a long time to figure out the single basic difference between the two forms:

A mystery is a puzzle.
A thriller is a pursuit.

You just went, "Yeah!", right? Because somehow you knew that already, and it totally fits.

To be sure, most mysteries and thrillers contain some puzzling stuff, plus some getting-chased-by-the-bad-guys stuff. But it's usually more of one than the other, and so there's your category.

Currently, it seems agents and editors (not to mention readers) aren't as hung up on dueling definitions, but they still like to categorize books for the sake of promo and marketing, which is important.

But most important of all is a good story.

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  1. I think that's a great explanation of the basic difference between those two genres. (That was in YGABIY, wasn't it?)

    I don't think the tunnel monster is wearing a mitt. I think it's a spear of broccoli. Or cauliflower. :)

    1. Yes, that distinction is in YGABIY, though explained at more length. You could be right about the tunnel monster, because I had just a very short glimpse, and the image is ambiguous.

  2. ok, i get it now. thrillers are more about a race against time, a race against the baddies, etc like dan brown's angels and demons and the davinci code, and national treasure starring nicolas cage.

    while mysteries are about solving something based on who, what, why, where, when and how, right? like girl with the dragon tattoo and of course sherlock holmes.

    am i anywhere close?


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