Does Your Hook Match Your Genre?
- By: Jessica Faust | Date: Oct 01 2008
In September I had the honor of speaking to the NYC chapter of Sisters in Crime, and one of the things that so often comes up when discussing mysteries is the importance of hook. Hook is what usually grabs an agent’s, editor’s, and even a reader’s attention. It’s what makes us pick up a new book by a new author and what makes your mystery, romance, or fantasy stand out from all the others on the bookshelf.
But is a hook enough? No. One of the things I so often see, especially in the mystery world, is a hook that doesn’t match the mystery. I think there are three basic types of mystery. There’s the cozy, the mystery, and the suspense/thriller. Each type has “rules” or guidelines and an audience of a certain type.
Cozy mysteries are just that, cozy little books that might make you think of your grandmother. Now I realize I’m oversimplifying and there are many non-grandmotherly types reading cozies voraciously, but a cozy doesn’t include a lot of blood and guts, usually doesn’t show the villain’s point of view, and rarely do we see more than one or maybe two bodies. Cozy sleuths are amateur sleuths and often have a love outside sleuthing. The trend these days is a craft or hobby like knitting, crochet, glassworks, rubber stamping, quilting, a bible study group, or bunco.
Mysteries are one step up on the darkness scale from cozies. They are still a mystery, which means the goal is to solve the case one clue at a time. A mystery can still involve an amateur sleuth, but typically the amateur sleuth has a little bit more experience in something that might help solve the mysteries. For example, the sleuth could be a doctor who understands something about diseases or a PI who is obviously not an amateur sleuth, but has the background to actually solve crimes. A mystery can be grittier and darker then a cozy and can definitely include blood and gore.
Suspense/Thriller is the darkest of the three and has a different plot setup. While cozies and mysteries tend to be about solving the crime, suspense/thrillers tend to be about stopping a killer or crime. In other words, often we know who the killer is, it’s not necessarily a whodunnit, but now we must find him or find a way to stop him. Suspense/thrillers can include a potential victim who’s forced to help solve the crime and someone who doesn’t see herself as a crime solver, but has the background experience necessary to help. Typically, however, suspense/thrillers have at least one protagonist who is connected to law enforcement in some way.
Okay, so where am I going with all of this? Each of these mysteries is very different in tone, and just because you are writing an amateur sleuth doesn’t mean you are writing a cozy. A protagonist who is, for example, a medical reporter, might have some interesting things to contribute to a case, but is probably not a cozy sleuth. It’s just not a cozy career. A medical reporter, however, would make a fabulous mystery protagonist. Imagine the things the reporter could uncover that others might not be able to find or even understand. A medical reporter would also be a great protagonist to stumble into a thriller situation where she finds something she wasn’t supposed to and is now on the run.
What if you decided to write a book about a knitter, she’s in her sixties and retired and she likes to garden and knit? What’s the appropriate genre or plotline for that book? I’ll tell you right now, it’s unlikely that she’s going to be hunting a savage serial killer through the Cajun bayous. It just doesn’t fit.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Picking a hook is really important, but it’s even more important to pick a hook that suits your audience. If you are determined to write about that medical reporter, go ahead, but something is going to have to give. You can’t do it as a cozy. So you have to decide what’s more important to you. Are you better at writing cozies and need to come up with a fresh hook or are you attached to your medical reporter and need to consider writing a new sub-genre?
Great advice, Jessica.
I hope you’ll do this kind of post for other genres…oh…let’s say like all the varieties of women’s fiction.
Not that I have a specific interest in that genre of anything (cough).
So, may I ask, what genre are the books in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and books by Sujata Massey (which feature a Japanese American who sort of solves mysteries but not the violent type)? These mysteries don’t seem like cozies but perhaps they are? Can a mystery be a cozy if there’s no death to solve?
I’ll tell you what, if there was a book about a sixty-year-old knitting grandma who also hunted serial killers through the Cajun bayou, I’d buy it.
This post I found to be quite helpful and could possibly assist some of the beginner writers in my writer’s group. Would it be allowed for me to post this to my beginner’s writing blog to help the new writer’s I know? Of course I would give appropriate credit to you.
Love this post, thanks. Wish I could have heard you speak on the topic at Sisters in Crime.
I’m about to start my next RS and will take another look at my H/H’s training and abilities to get the job done. I always think of romantic suspense as softer than thriller but perhaps I’ve gone to far to the softer side. Maybe if I think thriller and try to write darker I’ll come up with the recipe for a romantic suspense that sells. Ha ha.
Do you feel paranormal mysteries fit into any of those categories or are they a genre unto their own.
I don’t know about the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, but Sujata’s books are definitely mysteries. The distinction, in my mind, is whether or not you’d feel comfortable reading the book aloud to, say, your mother-in-law. If you’d stumble over a certain passage or phrase (as in Sujata’s first mystery when Rei’s with her lover–yikes!) you’d definitely be in mystery/thriller terrain. Of course, this would depend on what kind of gal your mother-in-law is!
That’s an interesting comment, Carla. I guess I couldn’t read Massey’s book out loud to my Grandma, but I could read No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to her without being embarrassed. So cozies are G rated then? Does a cozy have to star an amateur? Would a G-rated (or PG-rated) mystery with a PI, for example, be a cozy if there was no murder but the PI solves other kinds of crimes?
Yes, I’d say cozies are basically G-rated (though the occasional swear word might slip in) and traditional mysteries more PG/R rated. The key is that stuff is toned down in cozies–sex might happen, but it happens off-screen. Death occurs, but it’s pretty sanitized (for example, there’s a dead body, but there’s little description of maggots, blood-soaked flesh, hideous bite marks all along her…you get the idea.)
If there’s no death at all, then it’s neither cozy nor traditional mystery, but suspense. Generally, in suspense, there’s one person at risk.
Thrillers are definitely PG/R rated and more than one person is at risk. This would encompass such things as environmental disasters, serial killers, rampant disease, and so on. Usually, the reader knows who is the bad guy or what is the bad thing.
Do others want to weigh in?
I think that suspense can vary from something PG-ish to well beyond with an X for violence. (Or should that be a V?) Personally, I prefer the gentler suspense (sometime mixed with romance) in which the story is facinating enough to keep you turning the pages, but not so gory it turns your stomach. Maybe these would qualify as simply mysteries then, I don’t know. But my favorites are the humorous mysteries, a catagory no one mentioned. Sarah Graves and Donna Andrews would be good examples.
And I’d like to know the answer to the question about the paranormal mysteries, too. My novel is a paranormal with elements of romance and suspense…I am still struggling with what the heck to call it.And there is humor, so some have said it is actually paranormal chick lit. Oy.
I prefer mysteries that defy any kind of categorization–perhaps that’s why I set my two novels in an imaginary Great Lake city and incorporated elements of the occult. I’m a huge fan of the novels of Jack O’Connell and, especially, James Crumley (sadly, he died 10 days ago). Re: Crumley, I can think of no other author who comes close to his exquisite writing and peerless characterization. Mystery, like most genre fiction, often falls into the formula trap, so much of it is derivative and dull. Crumley set the standard and it will be a long time before we see his like again…
I wrote the story before thinking of a hook and now I’m stepping into that territory and it’s intimidating! I’m fantasy though, so I expect it’s a whole different ball game, but on the same note it [hook] has to coincide with your story. Gives me more to think about going into it, Jessica, thanks!
Would one of the agents at Bookends be willing to tell us what genre No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is? No killings there, just nice and fun mysterious goings on.
Thanks in advance if you answer!
Wow. Could you just keep reading my mind for a few days? At this rate you’ll have every question I could possibly have about my recently finished 1st novel answered in a couple of weeks!
In all seriousness, thank you. Do you ever get people who aren’t sure which category to use, so they cheat and write mystery/thriller, or some such?
Thanks so much for this post Jessica! Since I’m not a mystery writer, this helps to make sense of where differet mysteries fall.
Good explanation of the various categories. Thanks. And I agree with 150’s comment about the grandma hunting serial killers in the Bayou. We grandmas aren’t what our grandmothers were. 🙂 My oldest grandson once bought a T-shirt that read, “My Grannie is the Toughest Lady in Texas.”
Wow! I had just put my two cents worth in at the SinC ListServe when I found yours. This is a perfect examination of the genre — and I’m in total agreement.
Great description for different types of mysteries. Thanks, Jessica.
How would you categorize one of the books in Robert Parker’s Spenser series?
I'll tell you what, if there was a book about a sixty-year-old knitting grandma who also hunted serial killers through the Cajun bayou, I'd buy it.
Good news. Check out the Mrs. Pollifax novels by Dorothy Gilman.