Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Defining Genres, Part Deux

We did a post last year defining different sub-genres, and not surprisingly I got a lot of flack. Interestingly enough, the questions keep coming.

The first is what qualifies a book to be a thriller or suspense versus a traditional mystery, and what differentiates a thriller from suspense? I consulted Jacky and Kim on this and here’s what we came up with . . .

I think that in the most basic sense a suspense story is one in which a reader is waiting for something to happen. In my mind, the most obvious suspense is done as romantic suspense. In this case we’re always waiting for that threat to finally come to fruition. We know someone is after our heroine and we’re just frightened that she will in fact be next. Often we even have a sense of who the killer might be (we may see or hear his voice) and we have an idea of what exactly is happening.

A thriller is a mystery with fear. There’s usually no fear in mysteries. Mysteries are about the reveal of clues and the methodical solving of the crime. Thrillers include the clues and solving the crime, but also the fear that it’s starting to hit close to home. That someone else will be next. A thriller is usually more about the fear of not solving the crime fast enough. The threat that if you don’t find out who, worse things will happen. A mystery is simpler than that. It’s really about the hunt and deduction.

The other question I received was about the difference between erotic romance and hot romances. Unfortunately, this is even tougher to answer since it differs from publisher to publisher. What one might publish as an erotic romance another would merely consider a highly sensual romance. And of course rules will and have changed on this.

In general, though, it’s not about the amount of sex or when the sex happens, at least not in my mind. I think it’s more about the type of sex and/or its placement and importance to a story. Usually hot romance focuses primarily on the hero and heroine, whereas erotic romance might also include other characters or toys. Of course that’s not always the case either.

Maybe someone else can help me out here. Erotic romance tends to have more sex in it, more dreams, self-pleasure, that sort of thing. In hot romance the sex is usually not as much or as frequent, but it's just as steamy and sexy.

If you have a better definition of any of these I’d love to hear it. I’ve never been good at defining things. I usually say I just know. Which is of no help to you.



Aimlesswriter said...

I think trying to fit your own work into these catagories is tough. Does my suspense (thriller) novel have enough romance to be a romantic suspense novel? Wait! Maybe it doesn't have enough to put the word "romance" on it! Wait-they do get together in the end so, maybe it is a romance. But the main focus is the crime so, maybe not. Are serial killers thriller or suspense? Do psychics fall into the paranormal genre? And I think there's a trickle of fear that if I call it the wrong thing the agent will think I'm an idiot.

Mark Terry said...

There's definitely a lot of overlap between mysteries, thrillers and suspense. In fact, even though I've written and published mysteries and thrillers (and suspense, I suppose) I'm a little hard pressed to tell the difference between a thriller and a suspense novel.

I've defined a mystery as solving the crime after it occurs.

The thriller as trying to prevent a crime (or next crime, as is often the case).

Suspense, though? I guess: it's suspenseful.

My easy definition of a thriller is: a mystery solved on the run.

Anonymous said...

You guys just muddied the waters badly with respect to thrillers. Since when are they who-dunnits? I think of them as hero/heroine in jeopardy, time running out, bad guys closing in, survival of humanity at risk, will the hero/heroine be able to save the day against all odds, etc.

But a story focusing on who killed whom.


Anonymous said...

To me the difference between erotic romance and hot romance is language, pure and simple. The act could be the same, but the words you use to describe the act are more 'risque' in erotic romance. Calling body parts what they are as literally as euphemisms. Plus, NC-17 type language.

I guess that's a good way to put it...R-rated vs. NC-17 rated.

Anonymous said...

Decided to go to Amazon and look up reviews for some of the authors I've read who write ??? Here are some excerpts from those reviews:

gripping horror thriller with suspense describes "MIdnight" by Dean Koontz.

bio-tech thriller describes "The Cassandra Compact" by Robert Ludlum

meshes medical suspense with another nail-biting tale of genetic misadventure describes "Gravity" by Tess Gerritsen.

If these randomly selected quotes don't tell us that the sub-genres are free flowing categories, I don't know what does. So how's a writer to describe them in a query?

I say call it commercial fiction. If the accompanying description is good enough, I'm guessing any agent worth their salt will categorize according to what they know an editor wants. In other words, they too will make it up as they go along.


Anonymous said...

Here are my definitions for what they are worth.

Thriller - Something is about looming disaster. In my mind Jurassic Park was a thriller. There wasn't a crime, but there was a very large threat that could destroy everyone on the island. In a thriller, a crime doesn't have to be solved so much as disaster has to be averted through either stopping the disaster or escaping it. The reason thrillers are thrilling is the sense that if the protag doesn't avert disaster, the disaster will somehow affect the reader as well. I.E. the earth will be destroyed, or dinos will be on the loose.

A suspense is about the protag being the hunter and the hunted. A threat that is specific to the protagonist is creeping closer and closer as they are trying to identify the threat and stop it. If they don't stop it, they die, but the reader doesn't, hence not a thriller.

A mystery is about solving a crime with little threat to the protag.

A hot romance the arc of the story is still about two people falling in love, no matter how kinky that love is.

In erotica, the arc of the story is about the protagonist finding strength and freedom through sexual exploration and becoming a different character because of it. Love may not have anything to do with it.

The rest is all window dressing. Unfortunately, I don't think enough people supposedly writing "erotica" get that distinction. Hence some of the stories aren't as strong as they could be. That is a shame. There are some good erotica writers out there that do get that distinction and use it to create nice strong character arcs though.

Anonymous said...

Chessie - I like. A lot.

Anonymous said...

Okay, since this is about genres--how would you differentiate between "women's fiction" and (the new-ish?) "upmarket women's fiction"? And does it matter to a query letter? And then, at what point does it end up hitting (whup, there it is!) "literary"?

Anonymous said...

First ... could someone please tell me or give me an example of "up market women's fiction?"

Second ... how would one categorize The Stephanie Plum series?

Third ... can a "Cozy" also be a suspensethrillermystery? and maybe even laugh out loud funny? and maybe even"up market women's fiction" all at the same time?
Anonymous for Now

Anonymous said...

I'm with anonymous 7:58 when it comes to thrillers. It's about the action and uncertainty of final outcome (even when it seems likely that the hero/ine will survive, there has to be some doubt)

I'm glad you tackled the lines on this one and romance, since I wrote a first page for Bransford based on my idea for a Romantic thriller (ha!). Naturally, I don't do things that have already been done, so this is really two stories in one - I could only enter one of them. Oh well.

What matters is that I've been thinking a lot about "thriller" and "romance", and you answered a few of my questions. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

To me the difference between erotic romance and sexy romance is how integral the sex is to the relationship. If the sex scenes were cut, a sexy romance would typically stand on its own better than an erotic romance, in which the hero and heroine's relationship develops through their sexual encounters.

I expect a thriller to have a looming disaster -- assassination plot or a bomb or world takeover, as well as a hero/heroine on the run, in jeopardy. A suspense novel is similar but the stakes are more personal to their world.


Anonymous said...

12:59 Deborah's definition of suspense really works for me, finally.Thanks.

When I think thriller, suspense, a little romance, and funny, nd therefore sexy, if not erotic, I think Nelson DeMille.

Anonymous for now.

Anonymous said...

There can be overlap between thriller and mystery. For example, The Da Vinci code is a thriller, but it's also certainly a mystery. As someone in this threaded pointed out, it's a mystery solved "on the run." Also, I've noticed that some of CLive Cussler's legendary adventure/thriller Drik Pitt series are classified by the publisher as "Mysteries," even though I never thought "I'm going to read the new Cussler mystery..." but technically they are mysteries since Pitt and co. have to get to the bottom of who is behind some hair-raising crime, and if they don't--something even worse will happen. That element is what makes it a thriller.

Anonymous said...

I am finishing something now that is part mystery, part romantic suspense. I could probably get away with calling it either of those two categories. It's about the story and the characters at the end of the day. Hopefully, I've written a strong story with engaging, compelling characters and crisp dialogue and it won't matter if it doesn't fall neatly into any one category.

Anonymous said...

I'm revising a manuscript for an editor right now. She thinks it reads like a very hot contemporary, and she wants me to revise it firmly into the "erotic" arena, because, as Deborah said, the sexual relationship is integral to the plot. To the editor--and to me, in the case of this story--yes, positioning this book as an erotic does mean adding more sex scenes, more self-pleasuring and fantasizing scenes, heightening every aspect I can, actually.

However, the sex scenes that were already present in the story, the editor said don't require revision. They're just as hot as the new scenes with maybe an extra degree of explicitness in the language. Of course, I can't just add sex scenes without affecting elements of characterization, etc., so I'm revising the manuscript as a whole.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to second these questions asked above:

First ... could someone please tell me or give me an example of "up market women's fiction?"

Second ... how would one categorize The Stephanie Plum series?

Third ... can a "Cozy" also be a suspensethrillermystery? and maybe even laugh out loud funny? and maybe even"up market women's fiction" all at the same time?

Have to work now (medical transcription), can't generate any literary questions of my own at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'll try to be useful here and step in to answer a few questions....

To be honest, I think "upmarket" anything is kind of subjective. It's one of those things that can be hard to define (like any of these categories), but when one of us is reading a manuscript we can just identify it. In my opinion, commercial women's fiction can be anything from Luanne Rice to Jennifer Weiner to Candace Bushnell. I think of upmarket women's fiction as being more issue-driven, conquering tougher themes. A couple of examples would be Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve.

I would classify the Stephanie Plum books as mysteries (but not cozy mysteries).

Cozy is a subgenre of the mystery category. I definitely don't see a cozy as also being upmarket women's fiction. As I mentioned above, I see those books as being more about serious themes, the heart of any cozy is the whodunit. I certainly think, however, that a cozy can be funny.

As far as classifying something as "literary", that's totally subject. A lot of people may classify upmarket women's fiction as literary. To be honest, I get turned off if someone calls their book "literary" or "upmarket" in a query letter. That just tells me what you think of your own writing. It doesn't really tell me anything about the book. If the book isn't women's fiction, romance, mystery or thriller, etc. just call it fiction or a novel and give me an idea right away of the central conflict of the book. The rest will take care of itself.

P.S. Chessie-- I like the way you articulated the differences...

Anonymous said...

Re: "To be honest, I get turned off if someone calls their book "literary" or "upmarket" in a query letter. That just tells me what you think of your own writing."

Thanks for the laugh of the day. (well, gosh durn it, I am litterary!, a little bratty voice inside of me whines). I guess after digging through the hundreds of entries in Nathan Bransford's first-page contest...I can definitely see that I am NOT fantasy...although there are fantasy elements in my novel...I do address "tougher themes" - however, I will be humble and say, I ATTEMPT to conquer tougher themes, rather than I do actually conquer them...

Wanda B., back to the grindstone

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kim! That means a lot to me.

Aimlesswriter said...

So where do books like Marley & Me fit?
Books about animals but for adults. I see a lot of dog books our lately.
Bowserfic? Wooflit?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

One of the zillion books on writing that I read in the past few years defined a suspense novel as one in which the reader was a step or two ahead of the protagonist (knowing and dreading that something awful was going to happen) and a mystery was a book in which the reader was a step or two behind the protag piecing together the clues and chasing the bad guy(s).

I found that this helped me keep them clear in my own head, with all the usual caveats for smart, proactive characters, of course.

(It may have been in How To Write A Damn Good Mystery. Then again, it may not.)

Anonymous said...

This might be heresy, but it is necessary to differentiate between hot romance and erotic romance? Of course, if one must do so, then by analogy, perhaps this is like the difference between Playboy and Hustler. The basic content is the same, but the presentation emphasizes different things with the intention of provoking a different reaction from the reader.

Anonymous said...

I suspect one of the reasons thriller's so hard to define is that it might have started as a catchall for books that weren't quite mysteries but didn't fit in logically anywhere else. Most of the attempts at definition seem to be by comparing to mystery, which leaves me, as more of an action-adventure thriller writer, wondering what to do with this. It was frustrating searching for agents because I invariably wondered if they were just looking for crime thrillers or other kinds of thrillers.

JDuncan said...

My one or two cents on the whole suspense/thriller/mystery thing. Many stories combine elements from all of these categories which makes it very hard to pigeon-hole them, but in general you have:

1. Suspense involves anticipation of something, generally unpleasant, which is why you have a vast variety of plots that can be considered suspenseful.

2. Thrillers involve stopping something bad from happening. This can be something as personal as keeping someone from getting killed up to saving the world from destruction.

3. Mysteries are solving a crime of some sort.

Most books I've read blend a lot of these elements together, but in the end you have to look at what really drives the story? Thrillers and mysteries have very easily definable elements, which is why we have them as categories in the bookstores. Suspense is more subtle and far more diverse across genres, making it pretty much impossible to be given its own. You have romantic suspense, which to my way of thinking, usually end up being thrillers. Honestly, I imagine publishers figured 'romantic suspense' was a more marketable term given the readership it generally goes after. Things that are mystery/thrillers or suspense/thrillers are just thrillers when it comes down to what to call them for sellability. Much of a story may come down to figuring out who the bad guy is, but if the bad guy is going to blow up the Empire State Building, and any of the plot involves stopping the bad guy, then you have a thriller.

Anyway, I'm starting to ramble now, and in the end, writers can't worry about what to call it. Just write a damn fine story and let the pro's figure out what they want to call it.


Anonymous said...

I think my first novel can safely be described as a modern romance. My second novel, I'm having a harder time figuring out. I still think of it as a romance, but rather than revolving around one male and one female lead, this book revolves around four sisters and their significant others. It follows all four romances equally as they plan an anniversary party for their parents. So would this still be considered a romance? Or maybe chick lit?