Genre Breakdown: Thriller


Every now and then, everyone needs a healthy dose of suspense. Add in some characters you just can’t seem to figure out, tension you almost can’t stand and a little bit of mystery looming in the margins, and you’ve found yourself a pretty decent thriller.

As always, reading them is, well, a thrill. Writing them, though challenging, can be a journey just as twisted and amusing. 

What makes a thriller novel a thriller novel? 

The main ingredients of a well-constructed thriller novel involve some tension, a little excitement and a few heaping spoonfuls of suspense. There will always be a question unanswered; a suspicious person wandering closer and closer into another character’s personal space. Thriller novels are thrilling because they are always in motion. With every answered question, three more questions leap off the page.

What makes a thriller different from mystery is the amount of action. In a mystery novel, there is a large focus on clues, solving something that has already occurred. In a thriller, that ‘something’ may not have even happened yet—but oh, it’s coming. And when the reader (and sometimes the writer) least expects it.

Recent books and their authors

Zeroes by Chuck Wendig

Power Surge by Ben Bova

Trust No One by Paul Cleave 

How to write successfully in this genre

A large cast of simple characters and black-and-white issues isn’t going to get you very far in a genre that requires stories to move at a constant, rapid-fire pace. Your characters not only have to be diverse; they need to be complicated. Not every person is all good or all bad. And everybody has baggage—use that to your advantage.

Also don’t forget to send a reasonable message through whatever thriller you’re thinking up. Even the best thriller novels wouldn’t be worth much if they didn’t have a good story, and an important message, to go along with them. You should always have a reason for writing a particular story, especially in this case.

You can find a more detailed list of thriller novel essentials here.

You know you’ve always wanted to try one of these. So what are you waiting for? Start your character sketches and outlines. Go where no novelist has ever gone before. Or, do—but dare to take that turn no one else ever saw.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

Genre Breakdown: Mystery


Writing mysteries can be a blast. But with fun comes a challenge: how can you, the writer, work backwards from a crime’s resolution to its occurrence? How can you break it down into clues your protagonist, and your reader, won’t be able to piece together within the first chapter?

Weaving together a mystery is a challenge worth taking on if you know how to do it right. But first you need to know what the mystery genre is all about, and what makes a mystery different from all the other genres.

What makes a novel a mystery novel?

Mystery novels have a specific crime at the center of their plots, surrounded by all secondary events that usually lead to solving it. This crime, more often than not a murder, is confronted and resolved by the story’s protagonist, an investigator or detective. The reader follows the book’s protagonist along as various clues move the story from point A to point B.

We’ll cover the thriller genre a bit later, but the biggest difference you need to know to differentiate between a mystery and a thriller is that mysteries never reveal the “bad guy” right away. The whole point of a mystery novel is to put together pieces of a puzzle that lead to discovering, and hopefully capturing, who the “bad guy” (or gal) is.

Recent books and their authors 

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen

The Stockholm Castle Mystery by Joyce Elson Moore

Shooting for the Stars by R.G. Belsky

How to write successfully in this genre

What makes writing a straight mystery very different from writing a straight YA novel is that writing a mystery will require a lot of planning. What keeps readers interested in a mystery is wanting to see if they can figure out “whodunit” before the protagonist. Ironically, like the killer in your murder mystery, you have to plan carefully or you’ll end up, er, unsuccessful.

To really give your reader something to praise, you have to tap into the deepest, darkest depths of your creativity. More so than you usually do. Your protagonist’s back story, her reason for taking on the case, the logistics of the murder itself … you have to go where no mystery novelist has gone before. As long as it’s believable, to a certain extent. If it could never happen in real life, the excitement gets crushed underneath the obvious façade. 

If you know who killed whom but are up for the challenge of figuring out how—and how not to make it too obvious—grab your laptop and start outlining! Reading a mystery book is one thing: what can be confusing about the mystery vs. thriller explanation is that reading a mystery is, well, a major thrill.

Writing one will be quite an adventure. We wish you luck, and hope you’ll keep us updated on your progress in the comments. Just don’t give away the ending!

 Want more genres? Check out Genre Breakdown: Fantasy.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

Genre Breakdown: Science Fiction


It doesn’t matter who you are or what genre you write in: everyone wonders what it would be like to write their own science fiction novel. It doesn’t seem all that difficult on the surface: it’s literally all made up, after all (but don’t, please, confuse sci-fi with fantasy; they are not the same thing—yes, fantasy comes next in our Genre Breakdown series, so hold on).

Writing in this genre does require a lot of thought and creativity though, because you have to not only be able to create a good story with intriguing conflict and dynamic characters: you have to set it up during a time and place that does not exist.

You have all the power to do what you want with your science-y story idea. But you need to know how to use it wisely.

What makes a novel a science fiction novel?

Science fiction is a genre portraying futuristic, fictional (duh) scientific and technological advances that bring major social and environmental changes upon featured societies and characters. Sometimes sci-fi involves time and space travel and interplanetary life, but not always. What makes a science fiction story a science fiction story is its ability to send its reader on a journey—not to answer questions they already had, but to discover questions they never even knew needed answering.

Most will tell you a book can’t be a science fiction story if it features a society or circumstance too similar to the ones your readers will recognize. It can feature similar themes—maybe one species of alien is discriminatory against another, starting a galactic civil war of some kind. But that’s the key: these are virtually unknown species. Which could technically exist out there somewhere, but to our definite knowledge, don’t.

Recent books and their authors

Armada by Ernest Cline

Alien invasions are terrifying enough. Try battling being a teenager at the same time (been there, conquered that. The teenage thing, not the aliens).

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

When it comes to the end of the world, there’s only one thing to do: leave. If you knew you were descended from one of those lucky ones who got off a planet before it was too late, would you be curious enough to go scope out where you came from?

Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Exploring new planets sounds fun. What happens when you get to this new world and you’re the only one who can see? If everyone else around you is blind, what are you to them? 

How to write successfully in this genre 

To succeed in this genre, you need to be willing to do what all of us are drastically afraid to do—dive into all the other ideas that have already been used. Read books (see above). Watch movies. Familiarize yourself with what’s already been done—and yes, you can technically classify watching Star Trek as research—so you can do one of two things: dig deep enough that you find a small stand of something that hasn’t been done, or the better of the two options, figure out which questions have been raised and pull from those an entirely new set of questions you want your readers to ask.

Sci-fi is not a new genre, so you won’t have trouble finding all kinds of weird and amazing stuff out there to explore. You’ll have to use your creativity to spin those old ideas into completely new stories because, sorry, unless you’re a sci-fi mastermind, you’re not going to write your way into the official Star Wars universe right at your start. Take today’s biggest social challenges, launch them thousands of years into the future, shift around the circumstances to fit your new universe, and you’re on your way.

Oh, and just so you’re warned: world building is hard. It is time-consuming, and you will get sucked in, addicted and drained. But it is so, so worth it. And if that’s where you want to start—go for it. As long as you can come up with a good plot to go along with it.

Yes, nonexistent technologies, aliens and epic space battles are, well, epic. But good writing still matters, so while you’re building up your action-packed, futuristic masterpiece, let the writing carry it along, not just the EXPLOSIONS.

Want more genres? Genre Breakdown: Young Adult Fiction is here.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.