What Is The Difference Between Mystery, Suspense, and Thriller? I Have So Many Answers.

What Is The Difference Between Mystery, Suspense, and Thriller? I Have So Many Answers.

Yesterday, I was discussing with another author the differences between a mystery, a suspense, and a thriller. I need to mention that this debate is not new to anyone and has been going on for years and years. Everyone has an opinion about it. I believe it all depends on what you read or write or both.

Now you don’t have to take my word on this. Here are other perspectives I found on the internet. I figured I would get you in the mood by seeing others before you see mine.

Author Stacy Woodson

Author Maeve Maddox

Former Literary Agent Nathan Bransford

Several Answers on Quora

See what I mean? Lots of viewpoints and really no one is wrong. Like I said, it depends on where you sit on the fence. Right? Ha!

Moving on, here’s my fence…uh…opinion.


First, I want to mention all thrillers have suspense and many have a mystery entwined with the plot, but thrillers have one thing in common. The inciting event leads to a greater, dangerous event. Thrillers are normally involved with killing a lot of people or/and destroying a lot of property. Such as the Die Hard franchise. So if it starts out with one person dead and then gradually more are dead until the whole city or world is in danger, that’s a thriller.

While writing this post, I searched for “thriller movies” and none were the type I think of as the typical thriller. It appears the internet and media often referred to movies I look at as thrillers to be action movies. They are both.

People include a serial killer or serial killer-like character in a movie as thrillers. It can reveal the killer or not to the reader. The same for the hero in the story. He or she could know (or not) who is bringing up the body count. But you have to realize, this is a hybrid. A thriller with suspense. Of course, suspense is included along with mystery. Think of any movie where individuals are dying left and right, and you don’t know when the next murder will happen. I think of the movie Seven for this one. They discover who the killer is mid-way through the seven deaths, but can they stop him in time?

From a personal debate of mine, I’ve had people call my first book, Circle of Desire, a thriller. I’ve always disagreed. I do like action/adventure mixed in with my romantic suspense. So it’s like a Nikita or James Bond story. In Circle of Desire, the bad guy is trying to get rid of his competition and using a female assassin to do it. She’s captured in the first chapter by the other organization and does not kill another person until later the book. He’s not about to kill everyone in the world either. So no. Not a thriller. Romantic suspense, yes.

Here’s the blurb to Circle of Desire.

As the top assassin at The Circle, a shadowy group of mercenaries, Olivia St. Vincent can hunt down anyone. She’s been trained since she was a teenager to kill without feeling, to interact with men without love. But when she’s kidnapped by the enigmatic leader of a rival organization, she learns she’s been lied to for years. She never worked for the good guys.

Collin Ryker believes the sultry woman he’s abducted knows more than she’s telling about The Circle and its plans for complete domination. Over time, as they work together, Olivia’s tenacity and vulnerability captivate him. But if he isn’t careful, Collin will fall into the biggest trap of all: caring for a woman who can betray him to his greatest enemy.


This one is simple and most agree on the definition. Usually, there is one personthough others might help– investigate a murder or locate a missing valuable. I always think of stories about Sherlock Holmes or those written by Agatha ChristieMurder on the Orient Express, anyone?when someone talks of mysteries. But keep in mind National Treasure is a perfect example of a mystery involving an object. I do enjoy them all.


The dictionary says, “a quality in a work of fiction that arouses excited expectation or uncertainty about what may happen.” That sure sounds like the two above too. Right? If you search for “suspense” movies, thrillers will come up instead. See, even the media is confused. I guess thriller sounds more exciting.

But what makes a book (or movie, etc.) a suspense, is that the killing or/and danger is personal and slower to come about. Maybe someone is shooting at the hero and he does not know who it is. Even the reader may not know. Or someone is planning to kill a person by setting a trap. And the reader may (or not) know about the trap and is waiting for (or surprised by) what happens. To keep it simple, and yes, tooting my own horn, my books are suspense (with the exception of the hockey romance books – they are not).

I found this article on Reedsy that might help. How to Create Suspense?

Like I mentioned, thriller, mystery, and suspense can be mixed together into a book. You’re probably thinking about the book you’ve written and it has all three. How would you market your book? I would suggest looking at your plot. If the dark moment involves something big, like blowing up a building or having a sniper in a tower killing people for several chapters or the whole book, that’s mainly a thriller. If a death happened in the first three chapters or before chapter one started, and no one knows who killed the person, that is more mystery than anything else. Or if you have a killer after the main character and most of the other bodies showing up were from people getting in the way, you have a suspense. The other elements are icing on the cake. You don’t want to confuse your agent or editor. So it’s best to pick only one. That way they will know how best to market your book.