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February 21, 2007


Jersey Jack

In her book on crime writing, Killer Fiction, I think Carolyn Wheat explained the difference between mystery and thrillers very well. In thrillers, she talked of the need for multiple viewpoints so the reader always knows more than the story's protagonist. Wheat says you want the reader screaming, "Oh, no--do not go inside that house."

David J. Montgomery

Multiple viewpoints are often used in thrillers (and more commonly in mysteries these days as well), but they're far from a prerequisite. A skilled writer can generate suspense and thrills in many ways.

Manipulating the POV to gin up suspense is an easy way out, and can often be quite effective -- show the villain planting the bomb in the museum, cut to the group of schoolchildren entering the building, cut to the hero racing for the entrance -- but it's hardly the only way.

First-person thrillers are no doubt harder to write well, but plenty of people have done it.

David Thayer

I enjoy Patrick Anderson's work but it seems to me that he discounts the author's intent in choosing the format of their story. Isn't the thriller label often superimposed in the sales process often to the amazement or consternation of the author?
In many ways he concludes that the least interesting work ie Patterson lies where the convergence is the narrowest between the marketing label and the author's intent. I sound like a weatherman but big commercial thrillers arrive like cold fronts. After the thunder and lightning pass there isn't much left to think about.

Jersey Jack

First-person thrillers? Lay a couple on me, David, and maybe you can change my mind.


Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me" strikes me as a perfect example of a first-person thriller. Unless, of course, one discounts the notion that noirs can be thrillers.

David J. Montgomery

Just off the top of my head, Lee Child, David Morrell and Barry Eisler have all written first-person thrillers in recent years.

The elements that make a book a thriller are not dependent on multiple viewpoints. POV can be a tool to achieve some of those elements, but that's all. Just a tool.

David J. Montgomery

ITW picked THE KILLER INSIDE ME as one of the 100 must-read thrillers, so they thought it counted. (Full disclosure: I was on the committee that chose the books.)


On ITWs web-site Christopher Rice (http://www.thrillerwriters.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=25&Itemid=29) argues that a thriller creates chaos whereas a mystery eliminates it.

"To put it simply, every great thriller kicks up the makings of a great mystery, and every great mystery begins in the wreckage of a great thriller. But both rely on the well-conceived conspiracy or crime."

I found that this hypothesis works fine for me.

Jersey Jack

"The elements that make a book a thriller are not dependent on multiple viewpoints."

DJM--I concede on the basis of your credentials alone, and would like to ask you another subject-pertinent question: Do "high stakes" play any role in the difference between suspense and thriller? Apologies if I sounded flip earlier. I am curious on this subject.

David J. Montgomery

I wouldn't concede too much to my credentials if I were you. Nor did I think you were being flip.

I tend not to use the term "suspense novel," as it seems even less precise than "thriller" does.

That being said, I don't think that having "high stakes," as most people use the term, is a necessary requirement for a thriller.

A story can be both small and personal -- say the kidnapping of a family member -- and still be a very effective thriller.

I think the key is that the stakes must be high for the people involved, particularly the protagonist, whether or not they matter in a global sense.

What happens in the story has to matter to the characters. It must be important to them. But it need not necessarily be important in any larger sense than that.

I wrote about the differences between mysteries and thrillers a while back, in case you're interested:


It's a complicated question, and not a particularly important one, although I do find it interesting.

Jersey Jack

I enjoyed (and recommend to others) your blog explanation of mystery vs. thriller and think I am beginning to understand my earlier misconceptions. I heard a similar explanation to yours in describing mystery vs. suspense, but with the additional idea that a thriller took a suspense novel to extra heights. I have been using the term thriller in much too narrow a sense. Thanks for your help and patience.

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