Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Thrilling Experience


Recently I returned from four days in New York City at the ThrillerFest conference, sponsored by the International Thriller Writers. While I don't think my books are thrillers in the true sense of the word, I've had them reviewed as such, and a lot of authors who don't write what I consider to be thrillers are members of the group and attend the conference, so I figured I'd give it a try. It's a very costly conference, and holding it in New York City adds even more to the price tag, but since I'd had some unexpected sales last year, I decided I ought to try it once. And, being able to take workshops from authors like John Sandford and Michael Connelly made it worth the price for me.

So, what is a thriller? Years ago, when I looked up the definitions of mystery, suspense and thrillers, a mystery was defined as a story where the reader follows the detective as he solves the crime. The reader is one step behind the discovery, and can't know anything until the detective does. The Sherlock Holmes tales are good examples of classic mystery.

A suspense, on the other hand, puts the reader one step ahead of the protagonist. Whereas in a mystery, a detective would have to solve the crime after it happens, in a suspense, it's more likely there's a crime to prevent. One thing that automatically shifts a mystery into suspense territory is using multiple points of view, including the killer's. In a suspense, the reader is privy to information before the protagonist. Think Hitchcock.

The definition of a thriller that I discovered all those years ago was that a thriller is a suspense with consequences of global proportion. So, the story wouldn't be about someone to stop a "mere" serial killer, it would be along the lines of stopping someone from assassinating a world leader, throwing the planet into chaos. Or preventing a bioterrorist attack, or anything else that would result in a widespread disaster.

Frankly, that definition of thriller kept me from reading them. I'm not into politics, or global disasters, and at heart, I'm a mystery lover. But when I saw more and more books labeled thrillers, and when I was going to conferences where these "thriller" authors were speaking, I did pick up a few books and discovered I didn't consider them thrillers at all. Suspense, yes, but more often than not, the books I read were centered around a protagonist and very "localized" rather than global.

I mentioned this to Lee Child, asking him if he thought the publishers were tacking "thriller" onto what I'd consider good suspense books, and he smiled and said, "Do you want to know the difference between a suspense and a thriller? It's an extra zero on your advance."

So, there it is. Thrillers now are defined as "fast-paced suspense novels" and it doesn't really matter if the world is going to be destroyed or if a small-town mayor gets poisoned. As long as the reader is kept turning pages, you can call the book a thriller. Of course, since any author's goal is to keep readers turning pages, one could argue that any book could be a thriller. Of course, that's an overstatement, and I think one still expects the suspense element to be there.

What about you? Any books that didn't "match" your own definition of the genre? Do you think the publishers are labeling things to sell books rather than to define what the reader gets when he reads them?


Terry Odell
is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

12 comments :

  1. Along with mixing genres, the lines between the genres seem to be drawing closer lately. I guess it should be no surprise that suspense and thriller can at times be synonymous when describing a book.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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    1. Now if I could just get someone to add "Romantic Mystery" instead of lumping everything into Romantic Suspense....

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  2. Thank you for defining these genres. It seems the boundaries between them are becoming muddier, murkier, and more meandering by the day.

    -- Sherlock Holmes fan

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    1. As another Sherlock Holmes fan, I'm glad you found the definitions helpful. Lines aren't straight anymore by a long shot. And with the expansion of digital publishing, books can be placed on more than one "shelf", unlike the physical bookstores.

      Terry
      Terry's Place


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  3. I'd like to call my Drift Lords series fast-paced romantic thrillers. They only follow two viewpoints, however, but the end of the world is at stake.

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    1. Nancy, there's that blurred line again, since you're writing a romance (and I think 'fast-paced' is assumed for a thriller, but that's another marketing thing) that your two POV characters fit that genre, but it then becomes less 'suspense' and more 'mystery.' Aren't labels a pain!

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  4. Nice post, Terry. And I'm just laughing about the Child quote! Ain't it the truth. That's one of the things I school my writers about, especially Mainstream (let's find a genre, preferably category Romance!). And worse, Literary--the kiss of death :)

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    1. Susan - ah, literary fiction. On the one hand, you don't have to worry about any of the rules. On the other hand, you probably won't have many sales.

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  5. You say tomahto ... I say tomaato ... yep, it's an issue, that's for sure. My books are often labeled as thrillers ... but I don't think of them that way ... they're just stories about folks that have stuff happen to them.

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    1. I agree. I write books and label them later. It stifles my process as I'm writing if I worry about genres. Right now, my new mystery is probably starting out too "slow" but it's character driven, and my character is having personal issues. It wouldn't seem right to dump a body on page 3 just to fit genre/label conventions.
      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  6. When writing, I find genre requirements cumbersome and restrictive; however, having some sort of designation helps in choosing a book to read. So I limp along on these two opinions, favoring general categories with a few basic rules that give direction but don't insist that, for example, the love interest be introduced to the reader by a certain page. Perhaps updating traditional genre definitions would effectively address this issue if it could provide guidelines without tying the writer's hands.

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  7. Linda - "give direction" -- an excellent point. While there are some firm "conventions" -- detective must solve the mystery; hero and heroine fall in love; protagonist probably shouldn't die; the rest should be up to the author. It's not the destination, which we know. It's the journey.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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