Mystery, Suspense or Thriller—What’s the difference?

05 Sep

At a recent reading I was asked what is the difference between mystery, suspense and thriller. My reply: “Spelling?” All kidding aside, there is a difference—though many readers don’t differentiate, and of course many books overlap the genres, but I will briefly explain the differences.

Mystery is basically a puzzle waiting to be solved. The protagonist (detective, amateur sleuth, etc.) goes searching for clues, which are only revealed to the reader as the protagonist discovers them, and adds pieces to that puzzle until it is complete and solved.

Thrillers… Well, basically, they thrill. Action such as chases, eruptions of violence, any type of physical sequence of events that gets the readers’ flight or fight response going. A more distinct definition between thrillers and mysteries is that in thriller novels the reader knows who the killer is at the outset, but that the “thrill” is in the hunt or the cat and mouse game between killer and protagonist, and that the protagonist is often in danger. Whereas in mystery the protagonist is not usually in danger, just collects clues and solves the puzzle (ie., Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot).

Suspense: The master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, described suspense as “a state of waiting for something to happen”. He used the example that if two people were sitting in a cafe talking and fifteen seconds later a bomb went off, that for the audience it would be fifteen seconds of mundane conversation followed by surprise. But if the audience saw the saboteur come in, place the bomb and set the timer for one o’clock, that the audience would be in suspense during the couple’s conversation as one o’clock approaches, not knowing if they would be blown to bits or escape unscathed.

Some suspense can have action (ie., a bomb being placed), some can have danger but no action (the reader knowing a stranger is hiding in a closet when a woman enters her home), and some can have no danger and no action, but have intense tension and conflict between characters, which when expressed through setting, mannerisms and dialogue, result in suspense. For example, a simple conversation between two characters who are attracted to each other. In this case there is no danger and there could be no action whatsoever as they just stare at each other, but their mannerisms and dialogue can create great suspense. Will they finally kiss or will one of them turn and walk away?

For those who like to dissect the difference between mystery and suspense, it is usually split like this: in suspense novels the reader knows things the protagonist does not. In mystery novels the reader is only given information and clues as the protagonist learns them.

Do mystery, suspense and thriller ever overlap? All the time! My novel, The Slayer, is a prime example. The mystery portion is the main plot: the protagonist, a female RCMP Constable, sets out to solve a cold murder case. But along the way, her personal life collides with the investigation through a series of events and complex relationships, personal and professional. A tremendous amount of suspense is achieved through the relationships as well as characters that exhibit behaviours that may or may not have sinister origins. This suspense builds continuously, layer upon layer, building to the last quarter of the book which then turns into a thriller, while keeping the mystery component (readers don’t know who the murderer is until the protagonist figures it out herself) and the suspense (extreme conflict and tension among the characters and in their relationships).

Thus, some novels are categorized under “mystery-thriller”, some under “mystery-suspense” and some under “thriller-suspense”. Do you ever see a novel categorized under “mystery-thriller-suspense” though? Sometimes, but rarely. There seems to be some agreed upon rule against using more than two words to categorize a book. Mine is categorized under “thriller-romance” in some bookstores (because of the romantic sub-plot) and in other bookstores it could be shelved in a stand-alone category of mystery, suspense or thriller, or any combination of all three. Do I care which category it gets put in? Nope. It is a mystery, it is suspenseful, and it does thrill. And you can buy it here. (Couldn’t resist!)

Happy reading everyone!


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Posted in Writing novels


Explaining “The Slayer” (or Why I Don’t Write Gruesome and Never Will)

06 Aug

I knew when I chose the title “The Slayer” for my debut novel that some might think it was about a deranged serial killer, or some other equally ghastly, gore-filled killing, but I hoped that the back cover lines, “After all, not all slayings are of the body. Some are of the heart and soul.” would suffice to explain the metaphor.

“The Slayer” is not a reference to the killer at all, but to the murder victim: a woman who “slaughtered people’s hearts and souls, leaving them empty, gutted shells.”  She was an emotional con artist who used people, severely hurt them and never looked back, just moved on to her next victim—until one of them put a permanent stop to her.

The victim was found floating in a heart-shaped pond with a letter S carved into her face. Yes, to me that is kinda gruesome. You have no idea how much I struggled with that. I felt it was too violent—even though most murders depicted in books today are far, far more gruesome than that. But for me, I had a very difficult time with that part of it. I don’t like extreme violence, and I especially don’t like the brutality and violence against women that is prevalent in most crime novels today. But the letter S was crucial to the plot. The fact that a cutting wound would fall into the sharp trauma category, and the fact that the letter S was on her face, was crucial in terms of forensics, in providing specific information that created a particular trail to be followed. The carving on her face also served to show that the killing had to have been personal, and that the letter S had to have been a message. The mystery then is, not only who did kill her, but what was the message they were trying to send?

Other than that, there is nothing gruesome, bloody or violent in The Slayer. In my opinion, the story then takes on more of a psychological suspense aspect.

I really don’t do gruesome, and I never will. I have a strong aversion to extreme violence, and books about senseless murders/serial killers where the murderer simply has a lust for killing, turn my stomach.  Having said that, Silence of the Lambs was one of the best books I’ve ever read. But that was in the early 90’s when serial killers were rare—in real life and in books. Pardon the pun, but since then it’s been done to death. And on the other side of the coin, to me there is nothing interesting about a character who simply kills for no reason. Every serial killer novel seems to be so overly clichéd: the intelligent but abused child who grows up to become a serial killer because he has a hatred towards his mother and/or women. This was fresh and new when Silence of the Lambs came out, but that was twenty years ago, and that plot has long ago exhausted all interest in me.

I take murder very seriously, and believe it takes a lot of hard work (writing it, not committing it). When I write about a murderer, I have to go deep into the psyche of that character. If they are simply deranged or just have a hatred for women, that depth is about two millimetres deep. I prefer to plummet into the deep crevices of the every day person. I like to take your average, typical person and delve into what would drive such a regular person to murder.

No run of the mill person wakes up one morning and decides to kill another for no reason. So often in every day murder trials we hear witnesses say, “He was just a really nice guy… a great neighbour… a very good friend… the best son a mother could have…” But one day they commit the greatest sin of all and take a human life. Why? What circumstances or events could drive the average person to such extremes?

Most of my suspense comes from the characters. I write them as humanly as possible, make them as real as possible, so that the reader gets pulled in as if they were reading about their family, friends or neighbours. All of my characters are flawed, just as real people are. Not everyone is 100% good all the time, nor is someone 100% bad all the time. Depending on any number of factors, we all fluctuate along that black and white scale, most of us never veering too far from the upper mid-section. But what drives a person to veer to the darkest end of the scale?

The answer to that, if done properly, translates into suspense. That “on the edge of your seat, held in a grip and not let go till the very end” kind. And that’s what I try to do. So far my books are suspensful murder mysteries, but suspense can come in many forms, and I do not rule out a murder-less suspense in my future. But for now, murder it is.

I also choose unique ways of killing because I like my books to be distinctive. I enjoy the creativity in coming up with unique ways of committing murder. But not so unique that it would be far fetched and unbelievable. I like a clever murder, even if the person doesn’t realize they’re being clever.

So, to sum it all up, I don’t do gruesome. I love suspense, and enjoy the creativity and intellectual challenge of writing a clever and intelligent mystery, so those elements are in my books. I also love humour (a witty line is great for breaking tension), and I am a stickler for authenticity. I’ve been asked if The Slayer was based on a true crime. The answer is no. It is 100% fiction. But I take it as a huge compliment that it is so believable that readers think it may have actually happened in real life.

Speaking of real life… I have a murder to plot out.

Till next time,


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Posted in The Slayer, Writing


Writing Sex Scenes

02 Jul

I wrote a guest blog on Adriana Kraft’s site about writing sex scenes. You can also read it below:

When I was at university once upon a time, I wrote a paper on a neuropeptide called oxcytocin, explaining how great sex (for women) really is in the brain. O is unique in that it is a neurotransmitter (sending signals in the brain) as well as a hormone (usually sent through the body via circulatory system). Although O plays a major role in labor and reproduction, it is also responsible for the most powerful orgasms a woman will ever have. The more O that gets released in the body, the more intense the orgasm will be. And how does this hormone get released?

It’s all in the brain, baby. (Almost.)

Although small amounts of O get released with skin-to-skin contact, especially when the breasts and nipples are touched or suckled, it gets released big-time when particular neurons in the brain get the right signal. To put it simply, a woman’s physiology is such that in order to have an intense orgasm, her brain must be sexually stimulated.

That’s why I like to engage a reader’s brain before I introduce a sex scene into my book. I start off by drawing the reader into the heart and soul of the character(s), into the depths of who they are. I may then start with an almost subliminal tingle that keeps intensifying until it can be no longer be ignored and requires a powerful discharge in order to be released. By doing this, by the time the reader reaches an x-rated portion they are aching for it right along with the character. It’s very challenging, but if done well, a writer can indeed use words to bring a woman to orgasm. (It’s all in the brain, remember?)

I also use sex scenes to convey information to a reader about the psychology of a character without using a lot of narrative. You can tell a lot about a person by the type of sex they want, how they act and react during sex, etc. Simply by taking the reader along when a character has a sexual experience, you can sometimes have the reader absorb a lot of information about the characters, ranging from personality traits to ulterior motives.

For example, in my first book, The Slayer, (which is predominantly a mystery-thriller with a romantic subplot) I used a sex scene to carry a character through a journey that ends in the resolution of a long-standing barrier that kept holding her back in relationships. Now this scene is thirteen pages and two chapters long so I can’t provide the full excerpt, but here is the brief back-story pertaining to it (I’ve changed the character names so as to not give anything away).

Seventeen years ago, “Anna” and “Julie” were secret high school sweethearts—until just after graduation when Julie ran off and got married, breaking Anna’s heart. They haven’t seen each other since, and for all these years Anna has carried a very painful torch for Julie. When Julie shows up unexpectedly, Anna can’t suppress her desire for Julie, and although Julie is now married with two teenage sons she cannot deny her desires either. But are those desires coming from the same place?

Anna was never able to get over Julie, so she was never fulfilled in any of her (lesbian) relationships. Julie on the other hand, was fulfilled in many ways by her husband and children, but now that she’s in her thirties the thought of being with Anna sexually is a huge turn-on.

When they encounter each other again it begins with very hesitant, but extremely emotionally intense hand-holding and touching. As things intensify, the reader starts seeing the differences between passion and lust. And so does Anna. While their being together puts Julie in a sexual frenzy and she ends up having most intense multiple-orgasm of her life, Anna’s experience is nothing like she expected. What started off as what she thought was lovemaking ended this way:

Anna tried to gain pleasure from the thought that this was Julie, the woman she’d loved and longed for, for so many years, who was now sucking hard on her left nipple, but it felt nothing like she’d desired and fantasized about for so long. The reality she was experiencing right now was just very uncomfortable and downright painful.

Julie then shoved—quite literally—two fingers into Anna. Anna emitted a painful groan that Julie mistook for pleasure. Julie immediately started pumping forcefully, slamming the joints of her thumb and two fingers, which were boney and jutting out, into Anna’s external genitalia.

Anna started to pant, but it was purely out of frustration and agony. Julie started digging inside of Anna, at each interval in which she slammed her hand into her.

Anna audibly and physically winced, then squeezed her legs tightly, cutting off Julie’s movements. Keeping her legs gripped around Julie’s hand so it could not move and cause her further pain, Anna exhaled very pronounced breaths of relief.

“You came awfully fast,” Julie said to Anna.

Anna felt shock—and relief—that Julie thought it had been pleasurable for her. It was really Anna’s deceitful response that came quickly. “Yes, I did.”


For the first time in nearly twenty years, Anna saw Julie for who she really was—not for who Anna wanted her to be—and realized…not only was she no longer in love with Julie anymore…she didn’t even like her.

I was asked once if I felt pressured to add sex scenes in my books, and the answer is no. Because I never write a sex scene out of context. If there’s a sex scene in my book it serves a purpose, and it’s not just to get the reader turned on. Although, if in the process of my trying to get a reader to feel what a character is experiencing, if my words can release some O that results in the big O, then that’s a bOnus.


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Posted in Sex scenes


My favourite (FREE) Software for Writers.

26 Jun

The computer is an extremely useful tool for writers, and there’s lots of software out there to help writers hone their craft. I’d like to share my favourite FREE programs with you.


Ywriter is an exceptionally well organized piece of novel writing software. It categorizes everything from characters, setting, to scenes. Even if you don’t use the software to track everything going on in your novel, just the way it’s categorized will have you thinking about parts of your novel you wouldn’t have otherwise.

You can download Ywriter for free here:

Open Office

Microsoft Word is probably “the” program most writers use. I have used/tried various word processing programs, but MS Word is by far the best when it comes to professional writing. Although its built-in thesaurus and other tools aren’t spectacular, the advanced tools and options are extremely useful, especially when it comes to formatting your manuscript.

One feature of MS Word that I use a lot, is the Find & Replace feature. Why? I use this neat little trick to count how many times I’ve used a particular word.

Want to know how many times someone “lunged”? Click on the Replace function. Enter the word “lunged” into the Find what box, then enter it again in the Replace with box, then click on Replace All.

It will find and replace the word you inputted with itself, but it will report to you how many times it did it:   “Word has completed its search of the document and has made 14 replacements.” That’s when I know to pull out the thesaurus and find another word for “lunged”.

Now, I did say I was talking about FREE programs, right?

And free, MS Word is not. But Open Office, an open-source suite of software IS free, and its platform springs right off of MS Office (seems to).

I was out of town once, suitcase containing my netbook was MIA, and though I had backups of my manuscript on my stick and ipod and access to someone else’s computer, they didn’t have MS Office. So I downloaded Open Office and found it had almost  identical features as MS Word (and is 100% compatible with MS Word docs. I was able to open and work on my MS Word documents no problem). And this suite, I repeat, is totally FREE. It is definitely one of the best finds out there in cyberspace.

You can download Open Office at:


All writers know that a thesaurus is a must. You might not notice how many times your friend used the word lunge in a story that takes three minutes to tell, but when you’re reading a book for five or six or ten hours, if that word comes up more than a few times, it becomes annoying.

The great thing about this program, is that it works with all other programs. Once installed, it sits in your tray, and all you have to do is press the Ctrl key and right mouse click on ANY word in any application you are working in. Like magic, definitions, antonyms, synonyms, etc. pop up for that word. It will even pronounce it for you if you don’t know how it’s pronounced.

It’s a great utility, which once you start using, you’ll wonder how you ever wrote without it. You can get it for free at:

The Sage

This is another free dictionary and thesaurus (writers can’t have too many) that I regularly use. You can get it here:;1

If you try any of these programs, please let me know what you think. Or if you use any others yourself that you feel would be useful to other writers, would love to hear about them.

Happy Writing!