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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mystery, Thriller, or Suspense?

I am working on my WIP with the title The Italian Sister. It started out as a family drama, but on the way, it developed into a .... and that's my dilemma, what do I call it? Here is the temporary blurb:

"Standing at her father's grave in California, Sofia Laverne mourns his untimely demise. Barely recovered from her recent divorce, she has to come to term with the loss of another family member. Imagine Sofia's shock and surprise when she finds out that her father had had an affair in Italy many years before, that Sofia has a ten year younger sister and inherited part of a vineyard in Tuscany. Eager to meet fourteen-year old Julietta, Sofia packs her bags and takes off for Italy. When she arrives in the small hill town of Vignaverde, she is greeted by olive groves, neat rows of grape vines, green and rust-colored hills, and picturesque houses. Some of the inhabitants of this beautiful estate are, however, less welcoming and resent her intrusion into their family business. Soon, strange occurrences begin to frighten Sofia. When a suspicious accidents lands her in the hospital, Sofia fears for her life.

A suspenseful family drama, The Italian Sister takes us on a wild journey from California to Tuscany and provides glimpses into the exiting world of winemaking."

First, I was going to call it "part family drama/part mystery," but one of my beta readers pointed out that it wasn't a mystery in the strict sense, and she is right. It was more of a thriller. Hmm. "thriller"? The word thriller always evokes some murderous, blood-curdling events and that isn't the case in my WIP. There is suspense, to be sure, but "thriller?" 

I needed to do some more research in this area. So I found a few definitions on the Internet and I was relieved to find out that I'm not the only one who is confused about the terms. 

Mystery:  The protagonist (a detective, private investigator or an amateur sleuth) is trying to solve the truth about an event, usually a murder. He/she is searching for clues and eventually solves the puzzle. The reader doesn't know any more than the protagonist and the truth is slowly or suddenly revealed to both the protagonist and the reader. The protagonist is only in moderate danger. Great examples are the mysteries of Agatha Christie.

Thriller: The protagonist is in danger from the beginning. The reader usually knows who the killer is and the fascination of the story is watching the cat-and-mouse game between the killer and the protagonist. The plot is characterized by car chases, violence, anything that gives the reader a "thrill."

Suspense novel: The protagonist becomes aware of the danger only gradually. The reader, however, knows more than the protagonist. The reader knows who the killer is.

Here are the links to the different definitions:

Of course, many novels incorporate elements of mystery, thrillers, and suspense. So what is The Italian Sister?

The mystery aspect: The reader does not know more than Sofia, the protagonist. However, it is not a mystery because there is no murder/crime in the beginning and Sofia does not go hunting for clues.

Thriller? Well, the story may thrill (I hope it does). 

Suspense? Sofia does become aware of the danger only gradually. That's true. However, the reader does not know more than the protagonist. 

So what is the poor writer to do? Fortunately *** wiping the sweat from my forehead *** I came across another definition of a genre: ROMANTIC SUSPENSE.

"The romantic suspense novel is a modern emergence of early Gothic writing. This genre evolved in the 1950s with writers such as Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt. … The genre is recognizable when contrasted with other writing. It is not a detective mystery story because the law (police) rarely gets involved in the action. It also differs from traditional … suspense novels because it moves more slowly and has more character interplay and psychological conflict than the fast-paced violence of [most] suspense thrillers."

That's sounds more like my WIP, which also has a love story. Now, I just have to finish this darn thing.

What is your experience with genre labels? I hate them and one of the reasons is the fact that my novels cross genres. That makes classification difficult. But labels are here to stay, so I might as well get used to them. 

Happy writing and reading, my fellow bookies and "novellers."


  1. I think romantic suspense is perfect for The Italian Sister.

    I'm with you on hating genre labels. My books are usually hard to categorize. The only one I'm sure about is the romantic comedy I'm working on now.

    1. Thanks Linda! Could we just name all the creative writing "Fiction"? Of course, that would create other problems. I look forward to reading your romantic comedy!

  2. Yes, I feel the frustration. Labels can be so restrictive and very superficial--how can a couple words describe the complexity of a novel? At the same time, labels are helpful to someone trying to find a book out there in the wilderness of titles. It's a dilemma for sure! I think romantic suspense is good for your book although I thought The Italian Sister felt like a mystery too . . . in this dictionary description of the word: "a person or thing whose identity or nature is puzzling or unknown: “He's a bit of a mystery,” said Nina" For myself, I like 'mysteries' but not so much because there is a 'puzzling crime' to solve but because the way the personalities, motivations and histories of the characters gradually reveal themselves as the story progresses. I really enjoyed The Italian Sister because the characters are a mystery and the way they gradually reveal themselves throughout the book as Sofia gets to know them and spend time with them.

    1. Hi Susan. Yes, the distinction between mystery, thriller, and suspense is really not very clear. I read that even literary agents and publishers don't quite know how to distinguish them. And "mystery" above all is a very open-ended term, I think. By the way, The Italian Sisters is still going through rewrites and I added (I think) more tension. All my beta readers, including you, have given me excellent advice. I feel very grateful for the support I'm getting!

  3. Christa, I hear you about the blurry lines of the genres. I've taken to calling my recent book a psychological mystery/thriller/suspense ... it's kind of laughable but I suppose it straddles all of those genres. Now I might add romantic suspense to it too!

    Look forward to learning more about your upcoming romantic suspense novel. ;)

    1. Thanks, Eden, for dropping by. I have been struggling with genre labels ever since I started writing/publishing novels. It's always reassuring though to find other authors who have the same problem. I look forward to finding out more about your psychological mystery/thriller/suspense/romantic suspense! :)