Genre Basics - Suspense - article

What is a Suspense Novel?

The suspense genre is closely related to a mystery or thriller, which can make it difficult to classify. Often, the three genres are lumped together by publishers and classified as Mystery/Suspense or Suspense/Thriller, but other times they are kept separate. So how do you know if you’re writing a suspense novel?

In general, “suspense” refers to the sense of worry or anticipation a reader feels when reading. This means, in general, all mysteries and thrillers contain suspense. What differentiates them is the type of suspense that is created throughout your story.


Suspense vs. Mystery vs. Thriller

In a mystery, the plot normally centers on a protagonist trying to get to the bottom of a crime. Because the reader is aware of the same information as the detective, there is often a lower level of suspense compared to other genres. The majority of suspense in mystery novels comes from clues that mislead readers and the anticipation for solving the mystery. 

In a thriller, the protagonist is suspended in an almost constant state of danger. These stories create suspense more because of their quick-pace than the building of plot. Unlike mystery, thrillers are not about solving a puzzle, but rather about the pressure of high-stakes scenarios. 

In a suspense novel, the sense of worry or anticipation is very high because the reader is aware of things that the protagonist is not. This creates even more anxiety in the reader, causing the novel to be more suspenseful than a mystery or thriller.

Despite their differences, it is very possible that your book may fall into two—maybe even all three—of these categories. That’s normal. Most Mystery/Thriller/Suspense novels blur the lines between these genres, which is why it can be so difficult to categorize them.


5 Elements of a Suspense Novel

Now that you know if you’re writing a suspense novel, let’s determine what makes a good one. There are a handful of things you’ll need to get right if you want to keep a reader turning the page.

1. Conflict

Every novel needs conflict, and it’s also incredibly important for building suspense. Whether your story is about trying to solve a murder or a protagonist trying to save the human population from extinction, this conflict will be the center of what makes your reader eager to find out what happens. You can also have smaller conflicts that build off of your main conflict to build even more suspense around your plot.

2. Pacing

The pace of your novel is another important component to building suspense. If your plot is unfolding too slowly or you’re taking too much time on small details that don’t enhance your conflict, readers will stop feeling the need to keep turning the page—thus lowering the feeling of suspense in your story. Build more suspense with quick pacing, such as giving your conflict a deadline or a short time limit to solve the problem.

3. Red herrings

Red herrings are clues in your story that mislead readers. These are extremely important in suspense because they send your readers down incorrect paths and keep them from solving the mystery before the end.

4. Atmosphere

The mood and tone of your novel are things that will affect how readers feel when they read your book. Where your story is set and the atmosphere it brings to the overall plotline will help build suspense in your novel. For example, setting your story in a dark, abandoned building will make readers feel more on-edge than a busy theme park on a sunny day. 

5. High stakes

Similar to conflict and time, you need your story to have high stakes if you want it to be suspenseful. If your entire story revolves around a character losing $5, your readers won’t care much about the outcome. However, if it involves something serious like the difference between life and death, your readers will be desperate to know what happens!

To learn more about genres, whether you need them, and how to choose the right one, make sure to check out our comprehensive article on The Basics of Genre.

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