psychological thriller

A Crash Course in Thriller Sub-Genres

Thriller Genres

Image Credit: Dave Dyet

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

We’re now moving away from speculative fiction in our examination of genres. This week I’m delving into thrillers, and in two weeks (after my regular monthly post at Fiction University) I’ll be looking at mysteries.

What Makes a Thriller? What’s the Difference Between a Mystery, a Suspense, and a Thriller?

Just like with the speculative fiction genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, before I can talk about thrillers, I need to go over how thrillers are different from mysteries and suspense.

A mystery is meant to be a puzzle. We don’t know who the “bad guy” is at the beginning. The reader discovers things along with the main character. The biggest difference between a mystery and a suspense or a thriller is that, in the latter two, the reader often has knowledge about the “bad guy” that the main character doesn’t.

In thrillers, we know who the “bad guy” is from the beginning. Whereas mystery readers want to figure out the who, thriller readers want to figure out the how. How is our hero going to stop the bad guy in time? In a mystery, the sleuth’s life usually isn’t in jeopardy. In a thriller, the hero’s life almost always hangs in the balance at many points during the story. Thrillers are action-packed.

The best explanation of suspense I’ve ever heard came from Alfred Hitchcock. He said suspense is “a state of waiting for something to happen.” The example he gave was of a couple eating in a restaurant and a bomb goes off. If we had no forewarning, it’s surprise. If we watched the villain planting the bomb and then page after page agonized over whether the couple was going to get out of the restaurant in time, whether the bomb was actually going to go off, or whether someone would discover the bomb in time to stop it, you have suspense.

There are two main differences between suspense and thrillers. The first is that, unlike thrillers, a suspense doesn’t need to be action-packed. There’s tension and danger, but not necessarily a lot of physical daring do (like car chases). But the biggest difference between suspense and thrillers is the scope. Thrillers tend to have big picture consequences. If the protagonist doesn’t succeed, terrorists will unleash a devastating biological weapon on North America or the world will be thrown into World War III. Suspense novels tend to have more intimate consequences. If the protagonist fails in a suspense, she might die, but the world will otherwise continue as it always has.

Is there overlap between these genres? Of course! If you’ve learned nothing so far from these posts, I hope you’ve learned that genres aren’t a straightjacket. They’re more like maps. (In fact, many a psychological or legal thriller would be better called a psychological suspense or a legal suspense.)

If you’re a thriller writer, you might want to consider joining (or in some way becoming involved with) International Thriller Writers or the Crime Writers of Canada.

Defining Thriller Sub-Genres

Espionage – Also called spy fiction, espionage is the land of the CIA, assassins, secret agents, and James Bond. If you’re writing something like Robert Ludlum’s Bourne books or you want to be the next John La Carre or Alan Furst, you’re probably working on an espionage novel. They’re often set during World War II or the Cold War, but that focus may now be shifting to more modern settings as well.

Medical Thriller – Your POV character in a medical thriller is going to be employed in the medical field (e.g., a doctor, a medical examiner) or be closely tied to a hospital setting. This type of thriller is a race to uncover or fix a deadly medical situation–organ black markets, an out-of-control virus, patients falling in mysterious comas, etc.

Psychological Thriller – These are battles of the mind and the wits. They’re often dark and focus more on emotional trauma to the characters than physical trauma. Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and Along Came a Spider by James Patterson would both be categorized as psychological thrillers.

Legal Thriller – Similar to medical thrillers, the POV character in a legal thriller is an attorney. The story centers around a legal dilemma or courtroom drama. John Grisham’s name is almost synonymous with legal thrillers.

Historical Thriller – If you set your thriller prior to around 1960, you’re likely going to fall into the historical thriller sub-genre. Readers of this sub-genre expect historical accuracy and engaging details as well as a fast-paced read. Good historical thrillers can be especially challenging to write due to the need to evoke a rich historical atmosphere without slowing down the story.

Techno Thriller – The most powerful technology of today has fallen into the wrong hands, and it’s up to your main character to get it back or destroy it. Ever read a Tom Clancy book? Then you’ve read a techno thriller.

Military Thriller – Military thrillers have a lot in common with techno thrillers, but instead of focusing on technology, they focus on military objectives. Your main character in a military thriller is likely to be a member of the military (no shock there). Bob Mayer’s Green Beret series is an example of military thrillers. Both techno thrillers and military thrillers are often global in their scope.

Supernatural Thriller – Supernatural thrillers blend the expected fast-moving suspense plot with some paranormal or other worldly element. Your main character might be a psychic or see ghosts.

Thrillers are my second love (after speculative fiction). What’s your favorite genre? Do you ever read outside of it?

I hope you’ll check out the books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, including How to Write Dialogue and Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction.

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Are You Struggling to Forgive?

Tips for ForgivenessBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

My book of two suspense short stories (called Frozen) is now available for purchase. Today and next Tuesday, I’m going to share with you some of my inspiration for the two stories inside.

I’ve told you the story before of the best friend I lost to a drunk driver when I was only 20.

What I haven’t talked about before is how much I hated the man who killed her. And how much I hated myself.

Amanda called me the Saturday before she died and asked if I wanted to tag along and keep her company while she took her car in for an oil change. I turned her down. It was less than a week post-9/11, and I wanted to stay home and watch the coverage on TV.

Once she died, I couldn’t forgive myself for not going. It wasn’t that I regretted not getting that last day with her (though I did regret it and I’d trade a lot to have it now). It was that the voice inside my head told me I was selfish because I’d put my own desire to watch TV ahead of her desire for companionship. I was a horrible friend.

I didn’t contribute to her accident, and I couldn’t count the hours we’d spent together over the years. My guilt and self-hatred was irrational.

But when we lose someone we love, our emotions aren’t always rational. In fact, they seldom are.

It took me years to work through my guilt and self-hatred.

When I wrote “A Purple Elephant,” one of the suspense short stories in Frozen, it was this dual hatred—for myself and for Amanda’s killer—and the need to forgive and move forward that I tapped in to.

I wanted to explore what would happen if a woman was responsible for the death of her only child and couldn’t forgive herself. What would that do to her mentally and emotionally? What would it do to her relationship with her husband?

And how far would someone go to punish the person they believed killed their child?

Forgiveness is a tricky thing, in part because we hold so many misconceptions about what it really means to forgive. I won’t tell you whether or not Candice and Gerry (the characters in “A Purple Elephant”) learned to forgive or not—no spoilers here! But I will tell you what helped me most to actually forgive the man who killed Amanda.

(You might ask, Why would you even try to forgive someone like that? Well, hating him didn’t change anything that had happened, and I found that hating someone was turning me into a person I didn’t want to be.)

To forgive, I had to figure out what forgiveness isn’t. I had to sort through the myths to find the truth.

Truth #1 – Forgiveness isn’t reconciliation.

Reconciliation has many meanings. When I say forgiveness isn’t reconciliation, I’m talking about when two people reconcile, make amends, and come to some sort of agreement or restore a relationship. They “mend fences.”

At his trial, the man who killed Amanda showed no remorse. Near the end, when given the chance to speak, Amanda’s mother asked him to look into “the face of a mother whose heart you broke by murdering my only child.” By refusing to look up, he also refused to admit any guilt or to try to make amends in any way.

For a long time, I didn’t even try to forgive him. How, I asked myself, could I possibly forgive someone who didn’t want to reconcile with those he’d harmed? The answer? I couldn’t.

A pervasive myth about forgiveness says that to forgive you must also reconcile with the person you’ve forgiven. But forgiveness isn’t based on restoring a broken relationship.  Forgiveness is something that we do internally, not something we need to do externally.

If someone has hurt you, you don’t need to continue a relationship with that person (or form a relationship with that person) in order to forgive them.

Truth #2 – Forgiveness isn’t condoning the harm that was done.

The more I learned about his history, the angrier I became. I was angry that he got into a car drunk that night, angry that his girlfriend gave him her car because his was impounded, and angry that the law doesn’t inflict harsher punishments on first- and second-time DUI offenders. Amanda’s death was his third drunk driving conviction.

I thought that I couldn’t even start to forgive until I was no longer angry. My mind had wrongly yoked forgiveness with condoning sin and excusing him for what had happened.

That was a false connection too. I could still feel that what he’d done was 100% wrong. I could be angry that he’d done it. Yet I could still forgive him for it.

Truth #3 – Forgiveness isn’t pardoning.

In the end, he went to jail for second-degree murder, the first conviction of its kind in Michigan. Relieved at the closure of having the trial over, I tried to figure out what life looked like now without Amanda. I even started to think that I’d forgiven him…until his appeal a year and a half later.

I prayed that his appeal would be denied, but felt guilty for it. If I’d truly forgiven him, shouldn’t I be alright with the possibility of his conviction being overturned? Didn’t forgiveness mean pardoning him?

Any good parent will tell you that isn’t true. Sometimes people still need to suffer the consequences of their actions even after they’ve been forgiven. If an offence against us broke a law, we can forgive while still insisting that the offender receive the full legal repercussions.

Truth #4 – Forgiveness isn’t forgetting.

Thankfully his conviction stood. Time passed, and the “forgive and forget” mantra haunted me. I couldn’t forget what had happened. Did that mean I would never be able to forgive?

When I researched this, I found that the Greek word for “remember” means “to call to mind.” Its opposite is not “to forget.” Instead of “forgetting” the wrongs done to us, what we should seek to do is stop dwelling on them. When we choose to forgive, we’re saying that we want to focus on the good things in our lives and to build from there. We’re not saying that we should or can ever forget what happened.

Have you struggled to forgive someone? Or to forgive yourself? What helped you most?

Frozen: Two Suspense Short StoriesHere are a few more details for you about Frozen.

Twisted sleepwalking.
A frozen goldfish in a plastic bag.
And a woman afraid she’s losing her grip on reality.
“A Purple Elephant” is a 2,900-word suspense short story about grief and betrayal.

In “The Replacements,” a prodigal returns home to find that her parents have started a new family, one with no room for her. This disturbing 3,600-word suspense short story is about the lengths to which we’ll go to feel like we’re wanted, and how we don’t always see things the way they really are.

Frozen is currently available at Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords. More venues coming soon!

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