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:

Action-adventure
Legal
Medical
Political
Psychological
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?

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