Shifting genres: From mystery to thriller

A new journey begins today–I’m starting a brand new book. I’m even switching genres, from serial mystery to standalone suspense thriller.

This is going to be a huge style shift from my previous work in serial cozies. So to get prepared, I’ve taken myself back to “writing school.”

Right now I’m reading T. Macdonald Skillman’s Writing the Thriller. Her book provides a good nuts-and-bolts overview of the craft of writing thrillers. I like the way Macdonald breaks thrillers down into the various subgenres. Here’s a sampling from her list:

Romantic relationship

MacDonald purposefully doesn’t include paranormal as a subgenre in her list. I don’t mean vampires or werewolves–those bore me. I’m thinking about paranormals like Dean Koontz’s The Followers. Those are the types of stories in which you’re not sure whether some of the characters are crazy, or whether something paranormal really is at work.

So after the day’s reading, here’s my take-away lesson:

In a suspense thriller, my main character might die.

In a series mystery like the Fat City Mysteries, you never worry too much about the main character. After all, Kate Gallagher is telling you her story in the first person. You know she’s alive to tell the tale, and she’ll have to survive to tell you the next one.
But in a thriller, the main character might actually die. I think this has to be the case. Consider for example The Lovely Bones. The fourteen-year-old victim in that story is dead before the story even starts.

Can you think of other suspense thrillers where you were really worried about the main character? As a writer, are you willing to actually kill your protagonist before the story ends? Is that going too far in a thriller?

How scared–and scary–do you have to be to write suspense versus mystery?

23 thoughts on “Shifting genres: From mystery to thriller

  1. First time I read a book where the protag got snuffed (or did he…he was still laughing at the very end, though impossible to escape his circumstances) was THE WHEELMAN. That was a freakin’ great book, and yeah I’d say you have to be at least a little scary to write a good thriller. But not too much, then it’s just creepy…

  2. As I tend to stick with romantic suspense sorts of thrillers, there’s always that expected promise to the reader that the hero and heroine will survive for the hea. That being said, if the author did it well, my expectations get suspended during the story and I’m sufficiently worried about the protagonists that I stay up until 3 in the morning to make sure they make it out okay.

  3. Even in thrillers I expect the protagonist to survive. To go through all that torment with the character only to have them die would piss me off. I’d never read another book by that author.

    And as a writer, I couldn’t do that to a reader.

  4. In a thriller, if the protag does die at the end, it would have to be for a really good reason such as giving his or her life to save others or for redemption. And, obviously, that would also kill any chances of a series other than perhaps a prequel.

  5. These comments are really interesting because I just read a really bad thriller. I don’t want to say the author’s name, even though he’s famous, because it might hurt his feelings. But he kept playing by keeping us guessing about whether the main character was dead or not, and she’s trying to unzip her body bag, and the thing is, this character was so stupid, I really WANTED her to die. I thought she was so dumb she deserved it. Not good. But why then did it sell a gazillion copies? Sorry Joe, make that BAHzillion?

  6. Jake, I’ve just put The Wheelman on my TBR list, thanks! I’m really looking for what makes us really worry about the main characters, while knowing that they somehow (almost always) will survive in the end. I’m like wordpress in that I’ll stay up ’till 3 to make sure they make it out okay. That’s why I got so p.o’d with that author who was playing the body-bag zipping games. It was like he was just trying to yank the reader’s worry chain. Joyce, I’m with you, I’d think it was a breach of writer contract to actually kill the main character, unless I found a way to somehow bring him back. The Alien series, anyone? Cloning? Gets into scifi territory or paranormal.

  7. The first book I read by Jan Burke she killed the protag off in the middle of the book. FLIGHT was the name of the book. I had fallen in love with that man too. But courageously she had another man take up the fight and he was just as endearing. I’ve never forgotten that book and still talk about it.

    It takes guts for a writer to do this, but I think it makes the reader believe that the next time, it might happen again.

  8. I don’t know if I think of the sensation I feel–or want to create–as scared or scary. I’m looking for tension or suspense. I’m worried for the main character, I want to see what happens to him or her. If he dies, well, so long as it was necessary for the story resolution and was properly prepared (even if I only see that preparation in retrospect), then I’ll get over it.

    The novel I’m shopping now kills the protagonist at the end, and it comes after it appears he has gotten over with the scheme he was involved in. A couple of people in my writers group were PISSED. “Why did you kill Will?” My Beloved Spousal Equivalent tried to talk me out of it. “Does Will have to die?” They all got with the program after they thought about it for a bit, but it’s not something I would do lightly.

  9. Another one for my TBR list, thanks, Jordan! That really was brave and unusual, sounds like! And it will be interesting to see how Jan did it–was the second protag introduced at the beginning, then brought more to the fore after the demise of the first? All in close third person POV? Interesting puzzle. I’ll read it and be attaching sticky notes!

  10. Dana, you’re probably glad I’m not in your writers group.

    Maybe I’m too much of an optimist, but I like happy endings. Well, maybe not exactly happy, but at least everything put back in order.

    Kathryn, have you read “How To Write Killer Fiction” by Carolyn Wheat? Half of the book is devoted to writing mysteries and the other half to thrillers. She does a good job of showing the differences between the two. My copy is highlighted, written in, dog-eared, and the cover is falling off.

  11. I haven’t read Carolyn’s book, but I’ll order it today, Joyce–good suggestion! I have her 12-point comparison list, but I should read her whole book too. These suggestions are all so great. I’m feeling very motivated toward doing lots of groundwork research as I make this genre shift. Years ago I got started writing mysteries without even realizing there was a subgenre called “cozies”, and had to do some catch up after the fact. I don’t want to make that mistake again!

  12. I love this post, and am going to have to buy Macdonald’d book.
    I think it’s perfectly okay to kill off the MC. I’ve even read a novel in first person, where the MC died. Total shock to the system. But awesome! Other characters were told in 3rd person, and one of them took over the tale when the MC bit it.
    Loved it.
    And fear is always a good thing. If I have spiky shivers running down my spine as I read and the neighbor’s cat makes me jump, that’s a good thriller.
    Good luck on this journey!

  13. Thank you Sarah! I think we all love a good scare. I’ll never forget reading The Shining and The Exorcist for the first time. I was jumpier than the cat, both times!

  14. Kathryn,
    Nope. He had involved himself in a couple of things he probably shouldn’t have. The big, most obviously dangerous one he walked away from. What got him killed was a relatively minor indiscretion in the great scheme of things, but it was always his Achilles Heel. (The original working title was “Tragic Flaw.”) so he didn’t really get away with anything, his punishment just came from an unexpected direction.

  15. I agree that killing of the main character is brave but unless you do it really well it’s most likely to piss off the reader. If however you have a significant secondary character which you kill I think that raises the stakes so the reader starts to wonder, what wouldn’t this author do?! I think thrillers take us out of our comfort level. I look for sustained tension and a wee bit of doubt – will the main character actually survive? I also like being shocked along the way with plot points I didn’t see coming.

  16. You’re right, Clare–the author has to do it really well! As the writer, Dana, you have to be the judge of whether killing your character works and is playing fair with your readers.

  17. I don’t think I cheated them. I read the whole book to my group, a few chaoters at a time. They knew he was getting in over his head, and this wasn’t likely to end well for him. Still, they liked him, and had hope for a Hollywood happy ending. I’m sure that’s what most of them would have preferred, but they all admitted later the groundwork had been laid so after they got over the initial shock, it made sense.

  18. Very interesting thread here. Personally I have no objection to a protagonist getting killed as long as, like Joe said, its for a good reason.

    I’m not usually one who is into long drawn out series and I realize the reality of the Warrior/Spy life about which I write and read is that the good guys die in equal numbers to the bad guys.

    Frederick Forsythe did a wonderful job of telling such a story in his two part series about an SAS officer (Fist of God & The Afghan). It worked very well.

    I have yet to do it myself. All of my protagonists thus far survive, although one barely. Several of their close friends though, not so lucky.

  19. The more I read about Frederick Forsyth, the more of his books I add to my TBR pile, Basil. Anyone who refers to to MP Gordon Brown as a “numpty” has to be good company!

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