I’m trying to sort out the difference between suspense and thriller before I appear on a Thriller panel at a mystery conference. You never understand something until you write about it, so here goes:
Genre vs. Technique
This is the first thing to sort out—are we talking about a literary technique that may show up in any genre, or are we talking about the genre?
The techniques of film noir (low-angle shots, high key light, many constraining shadows or other framing techniques, and a protagonist with a socially unacceptable but perfectly understandable goal) showed up in a lot of movies that weren’t in the film noir genre. Similarly, techniques of suspense and thriller show up in many genres, including literary fiction.
Perhaps the clearest film example of techniques vs. genres is Silence of the Lambs. It looked like either police procedural or serial killer story from the previews, but it used many horror film techniques. The surprise of that made it a very popular movie.
Let’s define the techniques first, and then jump to genre.
The structural and thematic techniques of thriller and suspense are similar, but distinct.
The elements or techniques of thriller writing include:
- Literal or metaphorical “highest stakes possible” that get surprisingly higher with every story beat. Molly’s Game is an interesting example of thriller technique in a softer film genre (I’m using movie examples as more people have seen them). A better example: the first Bourne movie—personal annihilation starts the story, and the threat balloons up. Of course the Bourne trilogy of films are also in the thriller genre, so we’d expect them to use thriller techniques.
- The dramatic question is always “who will win—protagonist or antagonist.” While this is usually a part of any story, it’s not always the dramatic question. For example, Maltese Falcon’s dramatic question is (arguably) “will Spade be corrupted by the corrupt world he lives in?” That’s why the story is over when he sacrifices true love for justice. However, every Jack Reacher film I’ve seen has at its core: will Jack achieve his goals and not lose a major limb or worse?
- Every story beat increases the stakes and pushes the protagonist farther from his goal. The most a protagonist gets is a reprieve, a partial replenishment, maybe a sage or hidden helper, until the final climax. In a non-thriller plot, the protagonist usually suffers reversals at specific points (once per act, sort of—it’s complicated). In a thriller plot, the rails are greased and point straight down until the end.
- Protagonist is hopelessly outmatched in power and reach compared to the antagonist.
- Protagonist is seriously in the dark about what’s really going on. While this is a common technique in stories, it’s most pronounced in suspense. Thriller technique may hide how Mr. Bad Hat is going to blow up the world, but suspense technique hides from the protagonist that there is even a plot. In Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb, for example, our protagonist doesn’t seem to realize the danger she is in. (I’ll have to reread that to see whether I think its genre is Suspense or Thriller…)
- Protagonist faces emotional or identity annihilation.
- The twin engines of anticipation and suspense (duh!) are hard at work through most of the story. That is, we can tell from the action & characters that *SOMETHING* has to happen, but we aren’t sure what. John McCain in Die Hard must save his wife—but he’s so afraid of heights. How can he resolve this?
Now that we have a clear if not exhaustive definition of suspense and thriller techniques, what about the genres? Are they just labels on a shelf, rough conveniences or artificial distinctions? I’d argue: not entirely.
The thriller genre contains stories that have more thriller techniques and fewer other techniques. The same applies to any genre: a collection of techniques of a particular type, and more of that type than other techniques. If the mix of techniques approaches 50/50, we recognize the work as a mixed genre book. If the author has employed techniques of multiple different types, she’s either a genius or more likely, unpublished.
Structural and thematic techniques tend to push the genres in specific directions. Suspense is often psychological suspense, thriller is often “will Mr. Bad Hat blow up the world?” But they aren’t definitions or requirements, they are reflections of what kind of stories are naturally or easily told using which techniques. Enough of them have been told that audiences have certain expectations, and you violate them at your peril. I used to think publishers were afraid to experiment, but these days I think the aversion to mixed-genre books is simply that confounding a reader’s expectations while keeping them happy is difficult.
Identifying the true or main or core genre of a book can be confusing because most well told stories use the twin engines of anticipation and suspense to drive the story forward. They just do it less relentlessly than either thriller or suspense.
The difference between suspense and thriller, then, are subtle differences in the relationship of the protagonist to her world, in the relentlessness of the story motion, in the sharp downward spiral and high stakes in the case of thriller, and the personal nature of the existential dilemma in the case of suspense. These values exist along a spectrum, so sometimes determining genre can be subjective.
Thank you for joining me on this exploration of genre. Please comment on the theory: do you think that the things we call genres are simply collections of techniques? Or do tropes and reader expectations define genre? Do the publishers and distributors who define metadata control what genre a book belongs in? How arbitrary is “genre”?