You pick up the latest suspense novel from your favorite bookstore, take it home and dive in. The cover captivates you before the plot even has a chance to draw you in. Suddenly you’re on the hut for a serial killer right along some of the FBI’s finest. Anticipation grips you like a vice as you know the killer is about to strike again. Heart racing, you speed read until the end, where justice is served and the bad guy is put away for good.
But what’s the difference between a suspense story, and other genres like thriller and mystery? Would a story set in World War II with the lead character being a PI who solves murders be historical, suspense, mystery or all of the above?
Suspense provides the anticipation of danger, while a thriller gives the reader non-stop in-your-face action. A mystery usually takes the reader on a journey of discovery, giving them clues along side the protagonist. While the categories overlap, the timing of things makes the biggest difference.
Suspense novels will draw the reader in through anticipation and promise of danger. Typically, the crime or inciting incident hasn’t happened, but the reader knows it’s coming. The reader watches the protagonist teeter on the brink of disaster, and is emotionally invested in the outcome.
A thriller speeds up the action and timeline. The reader sees the drama unfold as an eyewitness. Then the plot takes the reader on a race to catch the bad buy, solve the crime, and bring swift justice, all with the protagonist’s life on the line throughout 99% of the novel. A thriller isn’t leaving readers wondering when the protagonist will meet his or her fate, it’s more focused on how the protagonists gets out of the situation alive.
A mystery has the inciting incident at the beginning, or even before the novel starts. The crime, murder or theft may have already taken place before the reader begins on page one. The reader begins to solve the crime along with the protagonist, and the story unfolds as the clues take readers one step closer to the resolution.
Lines get blurred with these distinctions, but authors generally have an idea of the timeline when writing. Steven James wrote an article with tips on writing suspense: 6 Secrets to Creating and Sustaining Suspense. The main considerations for writing a strictly suspense novel versus a thriller is timing of action and pacing. A thriller will move the action along as a swift pace, while suspense will set the stage and draw the reader in to the action by creating tension along the way.
For more articles and information on writing suspense, mystery, or thrillers, check out my Pinterest Writing board for links.