Straight talk from the sisters about blood, sweat and ink
Masterplots Theater: T is for Thriller
Welcome back to Masterplots Theater! Is your story about a someone on a mission to stop a murderer? Great! But do you know whether it’s a thriller or a mystery? If you’re like me, you might have answered, “It’s both — a mystery thriller!” Thing is, I’ve discovered that mysteries and thrillers are not the same, and though each can have elements of the other, it’s helpful to understand the difference. So today’s episode won’t simply be a study of one masterplot, but rather a comparison of two.
Thriller vs Mystery Plot Notes:
The first main difference between thrillers and mysteries is something I’ve dubbed crimetiming: In a mystery, the main crime has already been committed (or happens right at the beginning of the story). In a thriller, the crime (at least the main one) hasn’t yet been committed and isn’t scheduled to take place until the climax of the story, and that creates the impending feeling of doom and intense suspense that comes with the Thriller masterplot.
The second crucial difference is the hero’s goal: in a mystery, the hero (and reader) aims to figure out who committed the crime; in a thriller, the hero strives to stop the villain from committing the crime. And if the hero doesn’t yet know who the villain is, he will at least have an idea of who it could be.
In a thriller, the pacing is fast. Stuff happens in an almost relentless seesaw of suspense and scares that yank the audience’s emotions back and forth and keeps them on the edge of their seats. However, mysteries are more of a controlled slow build as the clues pile up.
The level of danger also differs. In a mystery the hero is not in imminent danger, though the danger increases as the hero gets closer to discovering the identity of the criminal. But in a thriller, the hero is in danger from the beginning.
POV is also quite distinct between these two masterplots. In mysteries, the audience/reader is only privy to what the hero knows. This makes for a lot of close 3rd person POVs in mystery novels. In thrillers, the audience/reader often knows more than the hero. This makes omniscient 3rd person or multiple POVs (including the criminal’s) the perspective of choice for thrillers.
As you may have guessed, different POVs affect plotting significantly. In thrillers, the audience often knows more than the hero and is waiting on pins and needles for bad things to happen to the less-informed hero. Knowing something is going to happen but not when is the key to suspense, which is the thriller’s calling card. Whereas in a mystery, the audience will not know more than the detective and is uncovering the clues as the hero does. That’s not to say that mysteries can’t be suspenseful, but that suspense won’t ramp up until the hero and reader have amassed enough clues to get an idea of what dangers could befall them.
Example to Study:
I HUNT KILLERS by Barry Lyga is appropriately classified a mystery-thriller, because it’s a little bit of both genres. I used to think it was more thriller, because it’s fast-paced and a difficult book to put down. However, now I would argue it’s more mystery than thriller, and here is why…
· CRIME TIMING: Mystery. Before the first line of the book, a murder has been committed and the main character, Jazz, is watching the police inspect the scene. More murders will happen before the story is over, but there isn’t an imminent big crime that the killer is working towards, at least not to the hero’s knowledge.
· HERO’S GOAL: Mystery. Jazz aims to find out who this new serial killer is before the town starts suspecting him, the son of an incarcerated murderer.
· PACING: Ooo, this is a tough one. Though this book starts off with mystery pacing, it enters thriller pace in the last half. But if I read my own paragraph on pacing, I guess that still means this is a mystery that simply ramps up as the hero gets closer to unmasking the murderer.
· DANGER: Mystery for sure. Jazz is in no personal danger at the beginning of this story. He doesn’t even fit the victim profile! Not until his investigation brings him close to identifying the killer is his life on the line.
· POV: Mystery & Thriller. Like a mystery, Jazz’s POV is close 3rd person and we don’t know anything he doesn’t… until we encounter the killer’s POV. Though the killer doesn’t identify himself (leaving that tidbit for the end mystery solve), having insight into the killer’s mind brings this novel into the thriller realm because we learn what nefarious things the killer is up to and that creates suspense and concern around the fate of the other characters in the book.
When trying to think of examples, I realize I’m most familiar with Mystery-Thriller Hybrids. You can apply the Plot Notes yourself to the following films, because they all lie more on one side than the other, to see how the masterplots fuse together: SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE DEPARTED, and SEVEN.
For a more pure look at the Thriller masterplot, Alfred Hitchcock is your man. He’s famous for illuminating how suspense means that the audience knows more than the hero. Start with the film THE 39 STEPS.
Also helpful to note is that other masterplots, especially Pursuit and Horror, fit into the Thriller genre too.
Thank you for joining us today. We hope you enjoyed T is for Thriller and we invite you back tomorrow for our next installment of Masterplots Theater, U is for Unrequited Love.
Now for a show of hands: Have you ever struggled to decide whether you were writing a mystery or a thriller?
For more episodes of Masterplots Theater, check out the list below:
Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW
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