Writing Excuses 9.43: Writing Mysteries

Live from Westercon 67 and Fantasy Con, Mette Ivie Harrison and J.R. Johannson join us to talk about writing for the mystery genre. We begin by talking about the key differences between thrillers and mysteries, and then move into how this understanding can drive our story structures. We discuss how characters with arcs and iconic characters drive different types of stories, and how each of us go about building these kinds of things.


Write a mystery in which you explain where Howard was during this recording session.

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville,  narrated by Gerard Doyle

9 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.43: Writing Mysteries”

  1. Well, obviously a Knight’s Templar locked Howard in the bathroom since he refused to wear pants for the podcast and the only place one should ever be pantless is the loo. Mystery solved!

  2. Regarding the topic of Mystery vs. Thriller: a Thriller is a story in which the “detective” becomes hunted by the suspect, becomes the ultimate victim for the suspect. This detective may or may not be a Detective by occupation. In a standard mystery, the detective is usually a Detective, and never becomes hunted by the suspect.

  3. A good listing of thriller (suspense) versus mystery subgenres: http://www.cuebon.com/ewriters/definitions.html.

    I think the following are the key factors that determine the difference in flavors between thrillers and mysteries.

    – Is the mystery or jeopardy primary?
    – Is there a lot of action & adventure?
    – Is it about preventing something from happening or solving a crime?
    – Is the pace super fast or more moderate?

    I think the biggest thing that distinguishes mysteries from thrillers is the element of jeopardy. Thrillers are usually stories about people in danger or trying to eliminate a threat.

    Mary Higgins Clark’s books are often about a woman in jeopardy. In Lee Child’s books, Reacher is often the one in great jeopardy. Tom Clancy and James Bond books are about stopping national disasters.

    This doesn’t mean there isn’t a mystery to be solved. Just that some threat usually plays the larger role. Think of Non-Stop or Taken. There’s a big mystery to be solved, but the main threat defines the story. Think of the last James Bond. Lots of mysteries and reveals. Solving the mystery is a big part of resolving the threat. But the story isn’t over until the threat is eliminated.

    If you look at the various thriller subgenres, you see they’re often defined by the arena in which the threat occurs–espionage, medical, historical, military, techno, etc. The scope of the threat plays into this as well–POTUS is in danger versus the woman in her cabin.

    Second, thrillers usually feature more action. Fights, chases, sneaks, escapes, battles, etc. Which makes sense if a threat is driving the main story line. And not only are there more external threats, and our hero encounters them more in a thriller than he or she does in a mystery. Think of 24 or Alias or Burn Notice versus The Mentalist and Law & Order.

    Third, thrillers are often about preventing something from happening while mysteries are about figuring out what has already happened. Again, there’s often a lot of mystery in the thriller story. And there can be danger and threat in the mystery story. But for thrillers, the main story question is usually about preventing disaster.

    Finally, thrillers are usually faster paced. This means their story turns come more frequently. Again, another function of the threat/danger plot driver.

    If you look at those many subgenres, you see the other things that are added to flavor the tales. Romance, humor, furry detectives. But I think the above account for most of the differences.

  4. IMO another difference is the kind of question(s) posed: I’d only consider it a mystery if the question is kind of open-ended, multifaceted, diverse. If you know that the victim was killed by a rival gang, and the LEOs only have to find out, and prove, which of the gang members did it, and apprechend her/him, that’s not really a mystery.

    An interesting case study are police procedural TV shows:

    Monk, Castle, CSI are definitely mysteries according to that definition; even if CSI is typically quite fast-paced, it’s most often about complex questions (the obvious answers are often red herrings).

    NCIS episodes are different. They are almost always fast-paced; some are mysteries with complex questions, some are “less mystery – more thriller” when the perp is known but is difficult to apprehend and poses great danger.

    Spy stories provide more examples:

    “Tinker, taylor, soldier, spy” is rather a mystery, even if the stakes are high – the mole is a thread to the intelligence service and the security of the nation – because the focus is on solving complex questions.

    “The Honourable Schoolboy” is more thriller than mystery, even if there are complex questions to be solved, and even if the pacing is rather too slow for a proper thriller, because the focus is on the – first national then personal – jeopardy.

    I think the most important consideration is that the “mystery level” is kept consistent: The more complex and open-ended the question(s), the more complex and comprehensive the process of unraveling needs to be.

    Of course, a seemingly simple question can be anything less than straightforward to answer …

  5. Brandon mentioned mysteries and thrillers where the audience knows whodunit from the beginning, and the engagement typically lies in watching the cat-and-mouse game of the detective slowly closing in on the perpetrator while the perp tries to avoid being caught. All of the examples of this sort of plot that I could think of were criminal-POV mystery/thrillers like Death Note or season 2 of Dexter, both of which I love.

    @Brandon (or anyone else who has a good answer), did you have any particular examples of these stories in mind? I’d love to find a few new ones to read or watch.

  6. I listened to almost every episode of Writing Excuses while I was working an easy night shift for a few months. I studied writing in college. It was helpful, but also restricting and….lots of things. I needed some extensive rehabilitation afterwards, not only for my writing but also for my heart. Writing Excuses provided that for me, in addition to hours of enjoyment and excellent advice and….um…excuses.

  7. Let me start by saying that I love the podcast, and this is the first time I’ve ever felt this way, but I was genuinely frustrated by this episode. Mysteries, and thriller’s for that matter, are not well represented on the podcast, and in this episode it really shows. Please have some guests who are primarily writers of mysteries and thrillers on. The genres, imho, don’t get enough discussion on the podcast.

    And on the question of if “Thriller” is just a marketing term for mysteries, in response to the cozy, sorry, no. Hardboiled is the response to the cozy. Thriller is a whole different thing, with not just different tropes, but different story goals. Others have discussed the differences, but I’d say you can’t emphasize enough that in a thriller, the protagonists are racing against a clock, there is usually some event to be prevented.

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