Sunday, June 24, 2007

Definitions to Thrill You

Today, out of curiosity, I searched on the differences between the thriller and suspense genre and came up with some interesting results. First of all, Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, offered miles upon miles of explanation of thriller, but makes it look like the suspense genre is a sub-genre of thriller, something I won’t agree with unless someone squeezes certain appendages in a vise or drills certain teeth with a hand-drill (yes, I read too much suspense—or are they thrillers? Or maybe horror?). Any other attempt to find a reasonable definition took me to books on Amazon or other places where suspense novels are listed. So what is a writer, or even at times an agent, supposed to do when asked to explain the differences?

This point was driven home sharply when I thought I’d struck pay dirt because Google took me to Bookends Literary and a post by Jessica Faust defining not only suspense and thrillers, but woman’s fiction and chick-lit too.

I thought there must be a literary god somewhere smiling on me and would have continued to think so if I hadn’t gone to the post’s comments section, where writers were immediately disagreeing with Ms. Faust’s definitions. On one hand I felt vindicated, but on the other still frustrated.

So here lies the problem: How does one give a definition of suspense and thriller in which everyone is in agreement? My answer is that probably literary agents should not; as I found out last year when I made the terrible mistake in saying that horror is now thriller and got trounced by a number of well-meaning (albeit WRONG) posters. See the post that started it all by clicking here.

From my perspective, the definition is squarely in realm of publishing, and I say this because I have in many instances felt that I had a manuscript that fit squarely in a certain genre, only find myself told I was off-base in my assumption. Then days later, I have had another editor say that what I had found was exactly what he or she was looking for because it fit that genre so tightly. So, in my final conclusion, if you think something fits a certain genre, if you search long enough and hard enough, you’ll find someone who agrees with you. So keep plugging.


I shouldn’t even get in on this whole “defining the genres” debate, because I am pretty much not ever going to change my definition of genre romance, despite the threats against Bitty, but I think a point needs to be made here. Fiction is dynamic and publishing is subjective. That means that it is difficult to pinpoint one general, ever-lasting definition for a genre. Heck, the word genre itself avoids true definition. In the academic world, genre means category and is thrown around all over the place, but in publishing, using the term ”genre” can mean category, but it can also bring to mind a grouping of literature that exists in opposition to mainstream. I suppose I could simplify things by lobbying the industry to rename that grouping Sharene, because I am also in opposition to mainstream, but that’s another story, and one that will net more threats against Bitty. By the way, if you ever wondered what causes more heated debates in a marriage than finances, children, in-laws, or all three combined, it’s the value of genre literature versus the value of mainstream literature. Just thought you would like to know.

Anyway, fiction has evolved over the years, and everyone in publishing seems to be at different stages in the evolutionary process. Hemingway’s books are not the same kinds of fiction as many of the books published today. Neither are Poe’s stories, or Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Or Steinbeck’s work. Your mother and father’s books are not the same books of today. If you look at what you read in middle school and high school, you can see the changes in middle-grade and YA fiction, for instance. That doesn’t mean one is better than the other; it just means humans and their cultural appreciations change. It happens in music (21st century rock is not the same as that of the 1960s), dance (check out the ballroom dance outfits—especially Latin costumes—and how they changed over the years), and fashion, just to name a few. This is also true of nonfiction.

So, the next time you find other people you know in publishing—agents, editors, critique group members, published authors—offering advice on what your book is or isn’t that doesn’t correspond with what you think it is, don’t get frustrated or upset. It is difficult, but it is just the way humans are and it is just another part of being a writer.



Red Pen Pal said...

Here's the link to the "sub-genre encyclopedia," if anyone's interested:

(might have to cut and paste)

Red Pen Pal

Anonymous said...

So what you are saying is that definitions are fluid and far less defined than we are made to believe? Why then is it such a faux pas to say I wrote a “suspense/thriller?” It’s a sure sign I don’t have a clue what’s going on and shouldn’t be querying agents, or so I’ve been told. If agents indicate they accept both genres, shouldn’t I let them decide where on their personal spectrum my book falls?

Scott Jensen said...

What I find annoying is a lot suspence and thrillers classified as mysteries and vice versa. I have gone around and around with people on this. What I find interesting is that more people want to classify suspence and thriller stories as mysteries than the other way around. It is as if mystery has higher status. More meaningful. As one person told me, "Thrillers is just people running around scared and trying not to be killed. Mysteries makes the main character more pro-active." I can see that. Main characters in suspence and thrillers are reactive and the sleuth in mysteries is pro-active. This definition seems to work nicely with the vast majority of people when I bring it up. Ok, now let's hear how badly I am wrong on this point from others here. *laugh*

Audrey said...


I'd have to agree with you. I'd take it a step further and say the exact same theory applies to the reader, not just the main character. I would think of a mystery being a story where I (the reader) am actively engaged in the plot (whodunit) and will try to figure out the crux of the story before I turn the final page. A thriller, to me, is a book that I am along for the ride, reading to be stunned by turn of events that I would never see coming. The same can be said of mystery writing but perhaps it's more the intent of the author and the speed of the action in the book?

If I want to have you guessing until the last moment as to whom the villain is versus I want to scare the crap out of you throughout the book, then I can see large distinctions.

Of course, then we get into the intonation of saying we wrote in genre x or genre y. Both have connotations that will mean various things to various people. Some will think mysteries will have stature, some will not. Same applying for thrillers.


Scott Jensen said...



And there can be elements of suspence and even thriller in mystery novels and vice versa. Most thrillers and suspence stories need some form of a mystery at their core. Who is the one-armed man in "The Fugitive"? However, mysteries do not need suspence or thriller aspects to them to be a mystery. But some do have it, such "Hound of the Baskervilles".

Hallona said...

I think one of the problems is that thriller never really had a definition in the first place. From what it looks like--speculation on my part--books that didn't really fit in with mystery gradually moved over into thriller, as did spy novels, adventure novels, etc. Books like Tami Hoag's crime thrillers are in the same genre as Tom Clancy's techno thrillers or Vince Flynn's political thrillers or Holly Lisle's romantic thrillers--all very, very diverse and with different readers.

One of my own frustrations was trying to figure out what I was writing. It was a thriller, but when I look at commentary on thriller, it generally starts out cmparing it to mysteries and doesn't mention anything else. In some respects, many people treat as a next step above mystery and ignore anything that doesn't conveniently fit. That may be why there's so many questions about the definition and why there's so much fuzziness.

One comment that I did see in PW that really fits thriller though is that it's one step away from movies.