The Mystery of Genres: What’s the Difference?

A recent survey reported nearly 90 percent of New Yorkers are concerned another terrorist attack will occur in their state. Test question: Why might these New Yorkers be more likely to read the latest thriller than the latest mystery?

The answer has to do with core structural differences between different types of genre fiction. Writers ought to understand how those differences help define their ideal audience, but readers can also benefit. Knowing the difference between genre types can help readers find books that fit their interests.

Genre fiction divides along the lines of solving problems for individuals versus solving them for communities. A romance, for example, rarely gets into social issues since its stories are about individuals resolving their need for love and companionship. On the other hand, mysteries, thrillers, suspense and the like, solve problems for communities. Even though most crimes have victims, crimes are by definition offenses against the community, which is why police agencies become involved. Laws are a community’s way of maintaining a geographic area where residents can count on sanctioning certain kinds of behavior. Therefore, while it’s okay to dump someone (romance), it’s not okay to dump them in the river (mystery).

Mysteries are almost always about an internal community problem. You don’t see mysteries where the villain is someone who comes to a place and causes trouble. Why? Take this plot line: Things were great in Averageville until Jane Kruger moved there and people started dying. That does not make for a good story because it’s too obvious. Mysteries are about finding the bad apple. Typically all the characters in a mystery are apples in the sense that they all belong in that location. None are oranges. At the end of a mystery, the villain is identified and either dead or caught and thus people can go back to feeling safe once again.

Thrillers are usually about an external community threat. The community is fine until a group from the outside plots a disruption. The threat can be internal as well if the group that is upsetting the apple cart is part of the larger community. The protagonist in a thriller must find and cut off the plotters so that the community is no longer threatened.

What about mysteries and suspense stories? The difference between a mystery and a suspense is that the crime has already taken place in the former while the latter is about stopping a crime from taking place in the future. In my two mysteries––Making the Grade and In the Game, I show the murders up front and then introduce the protagonists whose job it is to solve the murders so that the killers can’t kill again. In Last Stop on Desolation Ridge, my suspense, the villains try to dispose of a man who knows too much, but he survives. The suspense comes from watching to see whether the villains will succeed in finishing the job or whether the protagonist can stop them.

Both of my thrillers, The Expendable Man and House Divided, are about threats to the community––in one the threat is internal, in the other it’s external. In The Expendable Man, a high-ranking government official’s ambition has made a fellow American’s life “expendable.” To overcome the threat to the community that would ensue if such a person succeeded, the victim first must survive and then expose the person who plotted against him. In House Divided, terrorists have come up with a new way to carry out their war against America. It’s the protagonist’s job, therefore, to find and stop them before they can carry out their plot.

Going back to my initial question––why would people who are concerned about terrorism be more likely to read thrillers––the answer is thrillers are about external threats. Reading mysteries won’t make readers feel any better about such threats and may even increase their anxiety level.

So, what can we learn from these genre distinctions? For one, non-romance genre fiction appeals to readers who are concerned about threats to their community: either internal––bad apples––or external––societal enemies. When people are concerned about external threats, such as immigrants or refugees whose goal in coming to the U.S. is to inflict damage, thrillers and espionage fiction will find ready readers. That’s why spy novels and movies were so popular during the Cold War years. On the other hand, people who are more concerned with crime­­––either street crime or white collar crime, which can be scarier since the criminal could be your next door neighbor, will find mysteries a more satisfying way to feel better about their communities.

Beginning writers should be clear about what kind of story they want to tell and what kind of audience they want to appeal to. Blending genres might be theoretically possible, but it shouldn’t be undertaken without recognition that readers may not be tolerant of stories that don’t fit in their reading sweet-spot.

As you read your next mystery, thriller, or suspense, pay attention to where the threat to the community comes from––is it internal or external. Also, consider the structure of the story: is the protagonist trying to solve a crime that has already been committed or stop one from taking place. Paying attention to those criteria will help you learn how the author views the world and hopefully will add to your reading enjoyment.

2 Responses to The Mystery of Genres: What’s the Difference?

  1. Karl Braungart February 4, 2016 at 5:59 pm #

    Peter,
    Your explanation about why people concerned about terrorism are more likely to read thrillers. I never thought about a thriller novel being associated with only external threats. Interesting. On the other hand, you said mysteries won’t make readers feel any better about such threats and may even increase their anxiety level. For some reason, I thought mystery readers had enough guts to be interested in who killed who, or who absconded with the loot, and even who conficated the top secret report, etc.
    I want to say that making the comparison between mystery and suspense was helpful. I didn’t think about never totally compared the difference like you explained about mysteries and suspense stories: “The difference between a mystery and a suspense is that the crime has already taken place in the former while the latter is about stopping a crime from taking place in the future.”
    Thanks for sharing the ideas of the four novels, two of mystery, and two of suspense. It must have been fun doing it, especially since you have such a refined understanding of the two genres.
    I have paid attention to the novels I read, and I find the above real. I just thought about it a little differently. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience in writing. Hope to see you at the next CCC.
    Best regards.

    • Peter Pollak February 4, 2016 at 6:08 pm #

      Karl: Thanks for reading my column and taking the time to comment. I may have been trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, but the concept led me to some interesting conclusions.

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