Suspense vs. Thrillers By Stacy Green

Welcome to Writers’ Uni-Verse-City (or WUVC for short because every university has an acronym), a place where writers/bloggers can meet to discuss the craft of writing in the Internet age. WUVC will involve independent research, setting a curriculum and hopefully finding other participants (like you – readers/bloggers/writers) to: chip in, give tips, suggest books and other materials for study, teach me the ways of the warrior writer, and offer to guest post here at Uni-Verse-City (contact: annotationseditorial@gmail.com).

Today I’m pleased to welcome Stacy Green as part of the Literary Genres Blog Series. Stacy’s giving us a peak into the differences between Suspense stories and Thrillers.

When Nicole first asked me to write this guest post, I jumped at the chance. With my Thriller Thursday feature, of course I could tell everyone the difference between the two genres.

Right. Defining the two turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated. Suspense and Thrillers are so interchangeable that pinpointing a true separation is tricky, but the subtleties are there, if you look closely.

“Suspense is the state of waiting for something to happen.” – Alfred Hitchcock.

When I think of suspense, I picture dark shadows, peaking around corners, heart pounding, body sweating, stomach-churning waiting. Readers often sit on the edge of their seats with the nagging feeling that everything is adding up to the moment the main character is going to be in mortal danger. Suspense novels are akin to puzzles: lots of little pieces come together for a shocking, “oh my goodness, that’s the bad guy” moment. Sometimes the most benign circumstance can turn out to be the clue that binds the entire story together.

Suspense is subtle, building with the story. It’s slower paced (not boring, but the action scenes are more calculated and the pacing is different). Readers might be inside the bad guy’s head in some suspense novels (Allison Brennan), but they don’t always know his true identity. In most suspense novels, the main character starts out with very little sense of danger and is simply thrown into a situation.

For example, in Greg Iles’s excellent novel Turning Angel, prosecutor Penn Cage has remained in his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi to raise his young daughter in a safe world. But then the nude body of a prep school student shows up, and Penn’s best friend is a suspect in her murder. Penn agrees to help and gets caught up in the world of blackmail and deadly violence. As the book progresses, Penn finds himself in increasing danger, and of course, the bad guy is never who we think it is. Getting to the heart of the plot and the building sense of foreboding keeps readers turning the pages in suspense novels.

So how do you write great suspense?

  1. Strong, relatable characters. Penn Cage is a small town doctor and a widower just trying to do what’s best for his young daughter. He’s middle-aged and handsome but has no idea how to get back into the dating game, nor does he care. He wants to do what’s right, but he can’t turn his back on his friend.
  2. Setting is key. The mood of a story can be set and changed with each scene description. Vivid descriptions and pacing can be used to set the tone so the reader knows something heart stopping is just around the next page.
  3. Conflict. Like any novel, conflict needs to be in every scene, and your main character must continue to limp forward despite her setbacks.
  4. Antagonist must be riveting and as three dimensional as possible. In suspense, he’s usually a step ahead of the protagonist, and the clues are constantly building as to who the bad guy is and what his motivations are.
  5. Keep it visceral. One of the main elements of suspense is the nerve-wracking wait for the next shoe to drop. Show your main character terrified, confused, upset. Make the reader feel what your protagonist is feeling. Margie Lawson’s Empowering Character’s Emotions is a fantastic guide for getting a reader deep into your character’s head.

Thrillers have all these elements, too, but they also have something more.

It “thrills” as one reads it. The plots are scary, the characters are at great risk and the novels are constructed in a manner that makes the reader really want to turn the page.” –Thriller Press

Thrillers are more like a terrifying, nine-hundred turn roller coaster. Fast, slow, fast, dip, circle, quick pause, and then start all over again. And don’t forget the gigantic ticking clock in the background. That’s a must in a thriller, but it doesn’t always have to be a high concept, end of the world or bust deal. The stakes can be local (saving the next women from becoming a victim in Tess Gerritsen’s brilliant medical thriller The Surgeon) or global, as in War of The Worlds.

And there are any number of thrillers: spy thrillers, techno thrillers (From Russia With Love), legal thriller (John Grisham), medical thriller (Robin Cook), true crime, action/adventure, and my personal favorite, the psychological suspense (The Silence of The Lambs, Shutter Island.)

Seriously, if you want a lesson in how to get into the minds of your readers and scary them silly, study Silence of the Lambs. Thomas Harris makes us feel Clarice’s every emotion: fear, pride, anguish, anger. When Hannibal calls her at the end of the novel, even though the main story line is all tied up and Buffalo Bill is dead, our hearts our still pounding at what the good doctor might say. That’s the essence of a thriller – the ride doesn’t stop until the very end.

So what do you need for a great thriller?

  1. Start off with a bang. An action scene is a great way to kick-start a thriller – think of any James Bond movie. They always start when Bond’s in a precarious situation and has to fight his way out of a jam.
  2. Larger than life hero/heroine. Your main character has to be someone capable of outwitting whatever evil he’s facing. Clarice Starling is a quiet, reserved FBI recruit with the heart and determination of a lion. It’s her sheer will and stubbornness that defeats Buffalo Bill and saves the senator’s daughter.
  3. Your villain had better be all-powerful, too. In Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, Robert Langdon is up against the powerful and secretive Illuminati as he tries to thwart the group’s efforts to destroy the Catholic Church. These guys are willing to sacrifice themselves – and each other – for their cause.
  4. What about the stakes? Whether they’re local or global, they’ve got to be high. Saving a president from assassination, biological warfare, or stopping a serial killer – it’s about life and death from the beginning in a thriller. And the main character knows it. That’s the key difference. Robert Langdon knows he’s trying to save a life (his own neck) in The Da Vinci Code as soon as he’s suspected in the priest’s murder. And in Angels and Demons, the threat is global, as the anti-matter being stolen from CERN is the inciting incident.
  5. Hero’s Plans. He’s got to be out to stop the villain from committing a further crime, not just trying to solve a previous one. Clarice is trying to save the senator’s daughter, Robert Landgon the Catholic Church – you get the point.

So what do you write? Thrillers or suspense? Or both? Are current thrillers more interchangeable with suspense than the classics?

Thanks to the Writer’s Unboxed Facebook group and Catie Rhodes for their help with this post.

Stacy Green writes suspense thrillers with a dash of romance. Her debut novel, INTO THE DARK, will be available from MuseItUp Publishing in November. Her popular Thriller Thursday series features true crime stories, forensics, and the occasional ghost story. She lives in Marion, Iowa with her husband and daughter and their three lovable but annoying dogs. Find Stacy Online: Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Newsletter Signup

See the schedule of the upcoming guest posts and genres for the rest of this blog series, in this post.

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About Nicole Basaraba

Nicole Basaraba is a Canadian writer focusing on topics of travel (Mondays), writing and literature (Wednesdays), lifestyle (Fridays) and her experiences living in the capital city of Europe: Brussels, Belgium.
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27 Responses to Suspense vs. Thrillers By Stacy Green

  1. donnagalanti says:

    Great post Stacy! Sometimes it is hard to distinguish the two. I think of suspense as nail biting waiting for that “drop” and it can be internal and psychological build up with some action. But for thriller I always visualize fast, heart pounding action.

    • Stacy Green says:

      Thanks, Donna. Glad you enjoyed it. This was a really hard topic to write on, because they are so connected. I’m like you, suspense is very much a waiting game.

      Thanks so much to Nicole for having me!

  2. talhea says:

    To Hitchcock’s definition, I would add, “…knowing it will happen, but not what it will be.” Great post, Stacy. For me, a thriller is a suspense with higher stakes. Dramatic episodes along the way, either physical or psychological, escalating to the final climax. Fascinating topic for discussion.
    PD

  3. Stacy, this blog is fabulous. You know your stuff, Toots! I write whodunits, but in order to do so, it’s best to know the difference between all three of these genres. Sometimes the lines get a little hazy, but ultimately they’re going to fall into one of the mystery, suspense or thriller categories. Unless it’s a romance. Then all bets are off.

    • Stacy Green says:

      Wow, Heather! Thank you – that means a lot coming from you. This post took a long time to write because the two ARE confusing, especially when you’re trying to label your book for a publisher. Mysteries are tricky, too, because they really need both these elements, but again, have their own criteria. Thanks so much, again!

  4. Great post! I’m working on a suspense/thriller and wasn’t quite sure where it really fell. But now I know. Thank you!

  5. Cyrus Keith says:

    LOL, I just received the EPIC eBook award for “Best Suspense/Thriller” at EPICon 2012. Someone there asked me if I could state the difference between the two, and I just said, “No!”. We had a great laugh about it, but I also wish I had read this post beforehand. Very good! Now I can say I wrote a “Suspense Thriller!” Ain’t that a hoot?

    • Stacy Green says:

      Congrats again, Cyrus! Trust me, stating the difference is really hard, and I don’t think it applies to every book. Combining the two is my personal favorite. Thanks:)

  6. Stacy, this is a great post, as everyone has already said. I like slicing and dicing and parsing analysis and you’ve done a wonderful job here! You’ve created a great checklist for writing any of these three types of fiction. Meeting reader expectations is especially hard, it seems to me, because these sub genres are so blended that it’s almost impossible to have one without the others and many great books blend all three: mystery/suspense/thriller. I generally think of a thriller as an outgrowth of the horror genre where the creature was damn scary all the time; I usually say that every book should be suspense because the reason I read (and write) is to find out what happens next; and I rarely read a story unless it contains a mystery somewhere along the way, even in a romance where the mystery may only be “how the heck are these two gonna work this out???” Thanks for a great post!

    • Stacy Green says:

      Thank you. I’m not the best at analyzing, so this post was a challenge for me. And I agree, meeting reader expectations is tough, especially since they always different. I do agree, many great books do blend all three, and those are my favorite. Lisa Gardner is suspense, but she’s also (in my opinion) a mystery and thriller writer.

      That’s a good explanation of the thriller – I’ve never thought of it that way. I’m the same. I don’t read anything unless there’s a mystery to it.

      You’re welcome, and thank you!

  7. Catie Rhodes says:

    I loved reading this post. So much good info. I always classify thriller with bigger stakes–you know like bio warfare that could spread worldwide. But I think my definition of thriller is probably too narrow and I probably read more of them than I think I do. LOL

    Good job.

    • Stacy Green says:

      Thank you, and thanks for all your help on it. I classify thrillers that way, too, but I think there are several that are smaller stakes, or rather, more local. THey’re all life and death, tho.

  8. Julie Glover says:

    What a great low-down on these genres, Stacy! I’m partial to suspense here. I love those moments of holding my breath and wondering what will happen next.

  9. Cheryl Dale says:

    Late – as usual – chiming in. Great post.

  10. Great insight and tips, Stacy! I love thrillers, much because of the rich amount of suspense they contain. I feel that the words can nearly be used interchangeably, though the thriller genre is definitely faster-paced. I find some of Anita Shreve’s books extremely suspenseful, though they are FAR from “thrillers.” 🙂 Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    • Stacy Green says:

      Thank you, August. I love thrillers as well, although a good, old-fashioned suspense book is my favorite. I’ve never read Anita Shreve’s books – will have to check her out. Thanks again, and glad you enjoyed it:)

  11. Reetta Raitanen says:

    Thank you for explaining the difference between suspense and thrillers. Most of your pointers benefit all writers. I’m partial to thrillers and Ian Child’s Jack Reacher novels are my favourites.

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