Guest Blog: The Bones of Mysteries and Thrillers

Elizabeth Sims

Elizabeth Sims

The Bones of Mysteries and Thrillers

by Elizabeth Sims

One of the most popular presentations I give is “How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that SELLS.” I initially wrote it as a webinar for Writer’s Digest, then I adapted it for in-person presentations and workshops, and then I included some of the material in You’ve Got a Book in You. I’ll be giving the presentation at the Florida Heritage Book Festival in St. Augustine in September.

Today’s post is to give you one of the nuggets of that presentation.

When I started out writing fiction seriously, I made a point to read stuff on how to write great fiction or at least fiction that doesn’t suck, like writing magazines and interviews of famous authors. And I remember having anxiety about whether my stories were mysteries or thrillers. Why? Because so many writing authorities, including editors and agents, were shouting that you have to write one or the other, and the forms are very different, and you must follow the correct form, or your manuscript will be shoved into the feed box of the monsters that live in the tunnels below Manhattan, because editors and agents require precise categorization of the novels they traffic in, and they have like zero patience.Tunnel monster

[I risked my neck to capture this image of a Manhattan tunnel monster during a recent trip to New York City, so I could prove to you they exist. As you can see, one hand is a catcher’s mitt, the other a Garden Weasel. Terrifying.]

The thing was, every authority’s definition of mystery and thriller was different! The formulas seemed complicated, dogmatic, and hopelessly impossible to follow exactly. Anyway, what kind of writer would want to?

It took me a long time to figure out the single basic difference between the two forms:

A mystery is a puzzle.

A thriller is a pursuit.

You just went, “Yeah!”, right? Because somehow you knew that already, and it totally fits.

To be sure, most mysteries and thrillers contain some puzzling stuff, plus some getting-chased-by-the-bad-guys stuff. But it’s usually more of one than the other, and so there’s your category.

Currently, it seems agents and editors (not to mention readers) aren’t as hung up on dueling definitions, but they still like to categorize books for the sake of promo and marketing, which is important.

But most important of all is a good story.

Join me in St. Augustine, OK?

Elizabeth Sims is the author of seven successful novels, including the Rita Farmer Mysteries (St. Martin’s Minotaur) and the Lambda Award-winning Lillian Byrd Novels (Alyson Books). Booklist calls her crime fiction “as smart as it is compelling,” and Crimespree magazine praises her “strong voice and wonderful characters.” Elizabeth writes frequently for Writer’s Digest magazine, where she is a Contributing Editor. Her latest book is You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams (Writer’s Digest Books). A popular instructor at workshops and conferences across the country, Elizabeth has helped thousands of fledgling writers find their wings. She holds degrees in English from Michigan State University and Wayne State University, where she won the Tompkins Award for Graduate Fiction. She belongs to several literary societies as well as American Mensa.

Register for the Florida Heritage Book Festival


One thought on “Guest Blog: The Bones of Mysteries and Thrillers

  1. Oh My God! I can’t believe that you didn’t turn to stone when capturing that image! Those are clearly stone-crunching teeth, to hide the evidence (ummmm, mystery?) after those slitty eyes turn the photographer-prey into granite. The left foot is clearly holding a martini glass (to freshen the breath) and the right foot is a fin to swim away undetected amongst the alligators in the subway tunnels.

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