At a recent industry event, I found myself chatting with the prolific New York Times bestselling author CJ Lyons, who has had great success with her thriller books. It's easy to confuse thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels, so I asked CJ for her thoughts on what makes the genres different. Here's what she had to say:

Here's my take on the whole mystery/suspense/thriller spectrum:


  • Mysteries: These deal with "who," as in "who did it," "who will solve the case," etc. They are mainly focused on a past event that begins the action (usually a dead body).
  • Suspense fiction: These are about the "why." Why did the criminal act that way, why did the victim become the victim, why does the crime-solver care and become involved? They are mainly focused on the present - the impact of the crime on the psychology of those involved. This gives suspense novels that claustrophobic feeling, because you're living moment to moment, focused on the here and now.
  • Romantic suspense: These again focus on "why," but with an additional "why should these two people be together" added. The romance is so intertwined that you cannot remove it from the rest of the plot.
  • Thrillers: This genre is about the "how," as in "how will we save the world?" (Here, "world" can be anything from the entire universe or planet to a country, town or other larger entity.) How will we stop this terrible thing from happening? How will the hero find the courage, strength, tools, allies, etc. necessary to overcome overwhelming odds? How will it all end? The emphasis is on the future, which, in my opinion, is what gives thrillers that wonderful free-fall feeling, that head rush of adrenaline as the stakes keep building and building. You can have lots of action in mysteries and suspense, but the larger stakes and that constant forward momentum are what make thrillers, well, thrilling.
  • Thrillers with Heart: This is a term I coined for my own work, books that have at their core an emotional relationship that adds another dimension to the action plot. Again, like romantic suspense, this essential relationship cannot be dissected out.

Thanks CJ! Where do your own books fall in this mystery-suspense-thriller spectrum? Btw you can learn more about CJ and her books at


Maria Murnane is the best-selling author of the romantic comedies Perfect on Paper, It's a Waverly Life, Honey on Your Mind, and Chocolate for Two. She also provides consulting services on book publishing and marketing. Learn more at


This blog post originally appeared on Reprinted with permission. © 2014 CreateSpace, a DBA of On-Demand Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.


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Comment by D. Wright Downs on January 9, 2014 at 1:49pm

Thank you. I like this. Some things really confuse me and this has been one. I have been reading since I was 4 years old and one would think i would remember this.

Comment by Kristen Elise on January 7, 2014 at 5:58pm

One thing that I think frequently (not always) distinguishes a mystery from a thriller is the role of the villain: In a mystery, you're often trying to figure out who the villain is through the whole story. In a thriller, you're more likely to know the villain as such from the beginning.

Comment by R.E. Donald on January 7, 2014 at 2:02pm

Those of us who love to watch true crime shows like 48 Hours or Dateline Mysteries will agree that solving the puzzle of "who done it?" is the most intriguing part of a story. At least, it is for me! If I already know who the bad guy is, and all that's left is the "thriller and suspense" parts, I'm always disappointed! I sometimes think I'm in the minority, but then I remember DorothyL!

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