Thursday, October 18, 2012

What do Readers Expect from Mysteries and Thrillers?

 Last week I hosted a monthly Twitter chat with fellow members of the Apocalypsies (a group of 140+ kidlit authors debuting in 2012). Fellow Sleuths Spies & Alibis members Laura Ellen, Talia Vance, and F.T. Bradley were among the participants, weighing in our topic of mysteries and thrillers.

A lot of interesting points came out of this discussion. I've been mulling over two of them.

1. The distinction between mysteries and thrillers. Sometimes these terms get used interchangeably. For books that have elements of both genres (such as Laura Ellen's BLIND SPOT), using both terms to describe them is fine. Many books, though, fall firmly in one genre or another, and readers may be misled by the wrong label. For example, sometimes my book, TOKYO HEIST, is described as a thriller. While it has its share of danger and thrilling moments, I would call it a mystery. A puzzle drives the plot. In the Twitter chat, we defined mystery as a story that revolves around a puzzle to be solved, and a thriller as a story focused on immediate, pressing dangers. Both mysteries and thrillers have tension, but problem-solving drives the tension in mystery and action/danger (or psychological suspense) drives the tension in thrillers.

2. Readers' expectations of mysteries and thrillers. We talked a lot about Nancy Drew (I admit we weren't exactly kind to her) and how YA/MG mysteries today have changed from the classic sleuthing stories. Technology, some of us felt, was a big factor. As Kristen Kittscher pointed out on this blog a few weeks ago ("Murder, She Blogged"), technology has totally changed investigative work in real life and in fiction.

But maybe other things have changed too, raising our expectations for YA/MG mysteries and thrillers. As Talia mentioned, Nancy Drew didn't solve (or even have) her own problems; she solved other people's problems. We don't have a sense of her as a real person; one participant in the discussion couldn't even remember Nancy's boyfriend's name. (It's Ned).

It seems that it's no longer satisfying -- it may even be laughable -- to have a series with a character who just bounces from adventure to adventure. We now expect:
  • More character depth
  • More plot twists and turns
  • More action
  • More details
  • Faster/better pacing
  • Some degree of realism
  • Emotional impact
In short: More.

Whew. Much as I tend to agree with all this, I find myself missing Nancy a little. Life seemed simpler then. Well, mystery writing did, anyway.

Are any of these criteria for modern-day mysteries at odds? Can we have "better pacing" and "more action" while still reaching for more character depth and realism than a Nancy Drew type of sleuth? Character development does sometimes get sacrificed a bit to service plot or pace in mystery -- can we really have it all?

YA author A.C. Gaughen suggested, towards the end of the Twitter chat, that "with more books, more authors, more competition, the bar gets raised." Readers don't just want a good mystery; they want "GOOD FICTION."

Are mysteries and/or thrillers harder to write than ever? Is the bar raising because there are so many being published? Do we really expect mysteries/thrillers to have it all these days? (Even in middle grade/young adult markets, where word counts tend to be shorter?) How can mystery/thriller writers overcome the potential paralysis of trying to write the mystery/thriller that Has It All?

What do you think? What do you expect from YA/MG mysteries and/or thrillers? What would you like to see more of -- or less of?

[PS - Have you entered this week's great giveaway yet? No? There's still time to win a signed copy of the just-released DOUBLE VISION by our own F.T. Bradley! Check out her great interview with W.H. Beck from Tuesday; the contest entry form is right below it. Oh - and how cool is it to have two initials before your last name? It just occurred to me that F.T. and two other blog members do this. I think I'm gong to declare a Double Initial Day in honor of DOUBLE VISION!]

D.C. Renn (aka Diana Renn) was born in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and son. TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin, published June 2012) is her first novel.


  1. I like this Double Initial Day idea... :-) Great Twitter chat! I hope to have more in the future--such fun...

    1. Great having you in the chat! Next one up is Nov 12 (don't know the theme though...)

  2. I'm a HUGE Nancy Drew fan and she's probably the main reason why I love mysteries so much today. But anyways as for what I would like to see more of . . . it would have to be more of the darker side of mysteries and not the fluffy kind and less of predictable endings. I mean, I don't mind predictable mysteries now and then but for once I would LOVE something shocking to happen in the book . . . you know a major twist point to happen at the end instead of "oh yeah he/she did it I totally knew it!".

    1. Thanks for commenting, Erin! Predictable or "cozy" mysteries definitely have their place, but are not for everyone. Check out BURNING BLUE by Paul Griffin (out next week) - I recently read an ARC -- I think it may have the darker, edgier feel you're seeking, and shocking twists galore. I couldn't predict the end.

  3. Diane, thank you so much for hosting a terrific Twitter chat! I agree with all of the points raised, and does make mystery writing a challenge. While plot-driven stories are fun, readers want to be invested in the characters too.

    1. You're welcome; I'm so glad you could join us! Thanks for weighing in!


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