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  • Writer's pictureRaelyn Teague

Noveljutsu Episode 05 - Genre Part II (Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense)

If you caught the last Noveljutsu post, you’ll know that giving your novel the right labels can be essential if you want your readers to find you. You want your book to find its way into the hands of people who will love it, and that means you need to know what area of the bookstore your readers are going to spend the most time.

Sometimes finding the right category for your book can be a challenge. Some novels might not sit tidily into a single category, and I think it’s fair to say that most novels will feature elements drawing from multiple genres. But you still have to figure out what category is the best fit to find your audience. So that’s what this post is all about.

Last time we covered the romance and historical genres, as well as a few common subgenres of each, and today we’re continuing the overview starting with:


When it comes to mystery, thriller, and suspense, these genres are sometimes kept separate and sometimes lumped together because they are so often interconnected. I’m lumping them together as well, but there are nuances between them.

While there are differences between the three, not everyone agrees on exactly what those differences are, and sometimes definitions others use confuse or contradict each other. I’ll define the three terms in the way I’ve best come to understand them, but know that others will disagree.

For mystery novels, the plot will focus on a question or mystery that must be solved. This mystery is often a murder—though it can be a kidnapping, theft, or other crime as well—and your protagonist will often be a detective or consultant who takes on the job of discovering the criminal. As the point of these novels is to make your reader problem solve, the face of the antagonist is usually unknown until the final reveal of the story. Readers of mystery novels will want to be given a cast of suspects as well as clues they, alongside your protagonist, can fit together to figure out the mystery and unmask the villain.

In thrillers, your protagonist is placed in peril, usually by being targeted by your antagonist, whose identity, unlike in a typical mystery, may already be unveiled to the reader early in the novel. Thrillers often have a note of horror in them, and your readers will want to feel the same fears and doubts your protagonist feels as they flee or battle this seemingly overwhelming danger.

When it come to suspense novels, your protagonist is once again in peril, but this time they are unlikely to realize there is any threat or at least may not understand the nature of the threat until deep into the novel. Your readers, however, should have a sense that something is off—that there is encroaching danger the protagonist doesn’t see. You want your readers to have a sense of unease.

Whether your novel is a mystery, thriller, or suspense novel, hidden motivations, surprizing reveals, and making sure you get your plot twists right will be important tasks for you as a writer.

There are a plethora of mystery, thriller, and suspense subgenres, but some common ones include:

1. Detective

This is the subgenre for your Sherlocks or your Patrick Janes. Your protagonist will often be a detective, but, like Sherlock or Jane, doesn’t necessarily have to be. Even if they aren’t a detective themselves, they will often have an ally or contact who is in the police force, capable of giving them access to crime-solving resources they might not otherwise have. Your protagonist may have a quirk or narrow field of interest that gives them an eye for detail or a unique perspective that proves an advantage in their sleuthing.

2. Cozy Mystery

The cozy mystery is structured very much like a detective novel and will contain similar sleuthing and intrigue, however it will not contain the profanity or the gruesome violence allowable in many other mystery novels. Rather than a detective, your protagonist is even more likely to be someone who is not a member of the police force but works with them to solve the crime.

3. Police Procedural/Legal Thriller/Medical Thriller/Forensics

These are technically separate subgenres, but they are all effectively detective stories but with different settings and with a main character whose specialty falls into one of these common categories.

In a police procedural, your main character will be on the force, and the story will revolve around the police investigation of a crime.

Even though it uses the term “thriller,” if we follow my preferred definition, a legal thriller is usually more a mystery than an actual thriller. In any case, much of the drama of your story will involve the courtroom. Your protagonist is likely an attorney solving cases the police have already handled but may not have closed satisfactorily—either due to corruption, incompetence, or a lack of evidence or resources. Whatever the reason for the unsatisfying policework, your attorney will now be trying to protect a wrongfully accused client or else trying to keep the guilty from walking free.

For medical thrillers, your setting is probably a hospital or a medical lab, and your protagonist is someone in the medical field. They may be attempting to diagnose an unusual illness, develop a vaccine or otherwise stop a pandemic, or use their medical expertise to find evidence necessary to catch a criminal.

For forensic mysteries or thrillers, your protagonist is probably going to be in a lab. They will solve crimes using forensic science and tests to provide the police with the evidence they need to close the case.

4. Disaster

In disaster stories, your protagonist must either escape or stop a disaster from occurring. Often this is a natural disaster such as a tornado or volcanic eruption, but it can also be a man-made disaster such as a terrorist attack or biological warfare. Or maybe it’s somewhere in the middle and is a disaster instigated due to man-made global warming.

If your novel features a natural disaster, your first instinct may be to conclude that the disaster itself is the antagonist of your story, but these stories usually include a human antagonist.

One reason for this is it’s usually more interesting to see the hero pitted against another being that is capable of existential thought and making decisions based on morality or a lack thereof. It’s exciting to see an antagonist capable of reacting to or even anticipating your hero’s actions—of actively trying to get in your hero’s way.

This is why, even if the danger comes from a non-sentient, natural phenomena, it may be a good idea to include another human character who stands in the way of your protagonist. If your hero is a scientist warning everyone of an imminent threat, your antagonist may be a politician, military or police officer, or even another scientist who is trying to discredit your hero or downplay the threat.

5. Espionage

This is the category for your spies and double agents. It’s common for these stories to be set during a war or during the rising tension immediately preceding a war, whether that war is between nations or involves a government dealing with civil unrest, terrorist groups, criminal organizations, and so on. As a spy, your protagonist probably goes undercover. Sometimes they risk their life working their way into the inner circle of evil. Other times they may discover their own government or organization is the true evil, and still other times they’ll learn the truth is somewhere in the middle, and they’ll be forced to make a choice. Who do they follow, and who do they betray?

6. Psychological

In a psychological thriller, your protagonist is going to be thrust into a mystery or dangerous situation that messes with their mental state. They may have delusions, paranoia, or undergo extreme stress that impacts their ability to interpret the world around them in a rational way. Viewing the story through your protagonist’s eyes is going to leave your readers wondering how much they can trust of what that character sees or thinks. Alternatively, if your main character’s unstable psychology isn’t evident until later, once it’s been revealed, it will cast everything your readers previously trusted about your protagonist’s views into question.

Mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels are popular. There are a lot more subgenres than the ones I’ve listed, so if you think your novel sounds like it could belong in one of these categories, definitely take a deeper look at other subgenres out there.

That’s it for this post. We’re working our way through the different genres, but there are still a few more to cover, so be sure to tune in next time if you found this post helpful.

Do you like mystery and suspense? Go ahead and comment below with your favourite novels. Have questions or want to suggest a topic for discussion? Feel free to leave a comment with those too.

See you next time!

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