What Do You Write? Mystery, Suspense or Thriller?

Coming to Climax by Bobbye Terry

Many have attempted to explain the difference between a mystery, a suspense and a thriller, often to no avail, as in this day and age, the definitions have become blurred.

The suspense/thriller genius, Alfred Hitchcock, did distinguish between suspense and surprise by pointing out that if a bomb went off under a table where two characters were conversing, that would be a surprise.

But, if the viewer saw or reader read how the bomb was placed there and knew the bomb was going off at 1:00, there would be suspense as to whether or not the two people at the table would escape unscathed or be blown to bits.

A mystery, on the other hand, is a novel of discovery, with action more mental than physical. A significant event has occurred, such as a crime, especially a murder. The protagonist must determine who committed the crime, and why.

In most cases, the person(s) responsible for the crime is/are unknown until the end of the story. Who committed the crime is, however, only part of the reader’s journey. The real excitement comes from working through the tension developed by the conflict between the characters. It’s an adventure of examining the mental make-up of the good and bad guys.

A thriller is a combination of the mystery and the suspense. Tension occurs from both knowing something terrible is about to happen, but also from the often impactful force of the clash between characters. Thrillers usually contain a significant amount of action and are intricately developed, often with a primary and multiple secondary plots occurring simultaneously.

To go one step further, a thriller can border on a horror story. This can often happen when either there is a tremendous amount of bloodshed or other brutal occurrences and/or sudden surprises abound—think Final Destination.

Nick of Time by Bobbye Terry

I write all three. My Briny Bay Mystery series is comprised of cozy mysteries. Everything is based on mind games and dialogue. There are action and twists in the plot, but the meat of the story is based on character. My Climax, Virginia series, on the other hand, has elements of suspense and thriller.

These books, beginning with Coming to Climax, Book 1, appear to be cozy mysteries, but you soon discover that what they tout as “danger lurking beneath the surface,” is actually a mixture of evil occurrences and a field trip inside psychologically disturbed minds. This is especially true in Book 2 in the series, Nick of Time.

I hope you’ll check out my writing, and I’d love to hear about examples of each type of book that I have described from your reading pile.


Bobbye Terry writes mystery/suspense, romance, fantasies and dystopian fiction. Coming to Climax, Book 1 in the Climax, Virginia Mysteries series, was just released. The sequel, Nick of Time, will be released in November.  For more about Bobbye, visit her at www.BobbyeTerry-MysteryHappens.com.

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  • Ezra Barany says:

    What a great summary on the difference between the three. Now I feel more grounded with calling my novel a thriller. Thank you Bobbye!

  • Bobbye Terry says:

    Ezra, So glad you liked it!

  • Maggie says:

    I don’t write any you listed, but I do love reading a good cosy mystery. I’m a fan of Maureen Jennings’ Murdoch Mysteries. Have you heard of her? There’s also a TV show based on the characters from her novels. It’s filming the fifth season right now.

    I’ll be sure to check out one of your cosy mysteries. Some of my faves on TV are Murder, She Wrote, Poirot, and Miss Marple.

  • Janie Emaus says:

    Although I don’t write in these genres, I do like reading them. And your explanations were great.

  • Tess Grant says:

    I continually went around and around with myself about what I write. I’ve changed my query multiple times…I write suspense, I have a thriller, this is a mystery! Yikes! I made myself dizzy. Finally, this weekend I attended a writing conference put on by the Grand Rapids Region Writers Group and went to a session by Maris Soule. She helped me sort it out! I’m proud to say that I write SUSPENSE!

    As for being dizzy, that’s another story…

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