The Suspense Genre: Creating a Nail-Biting Experience

I don’t want to keep you in too much suspense today because we’re saving that literary device for another day, but I did want to talk about the suspense genre instead.

This genre is a close cousin of the mystery genre and a sibling to the thriller, and to make things worse, they often get lumped together on bookstore shelves. It’s a travesty, so I’m told, as there are nuanced differences between the three genres.

And it’s those differences that I want to look at today, followed by some tips on how to write your own suspense novel.

What is the Suspense Genre?

Let’s start with our definition of what this genre is all about:

Suspense Genre: refers to the sense of worry or anticipation a reader feels when reading a book.

Author Learning Basics

That’s it. That’s the best definition I could find for this genre, and it’s vague at best. And to more confusing, the suspense novel is lumped in with mystery and thrillers.

What’s the Difference?

So how do we differentiate between the three? Here’s the break down:

The Difference Between Mystery, Thriller and Suspense genre infographic

And it’s this last “definition” of a suspense novel that I want us to use going forward. It’s a story that gradually reveals information to the protagonist while the reader knows exactly what’s coming.

Other Suspense Genre Differentials

According to The Write Practice, other small things make a suspense novel different than a mystery or thriller.

Suspense vs. Mystery

Suspense differs from a mystery in its focus. In a mystery, the focus is on the crime, which usually happens early in the book, and centers around the hero’s pursuit of the villain.

In a suspense novel, that focus is flipped. The villain is in pursuit of the hero, who must figure out who wants them out of the way, determine why, and find a means of stopping it.

Suspense vs. Thriller

A suspense story differs from a thriller in terms of pacing and scope. Thrillers are fast-paced, with little letup from the tension, whereas suspense novels can proceed at just about any pace.

Suspense novels are also focused on one character and are more intimate, but thrillers can be based on a global scale. Additionally, the hero knows who the villain is in a thriller, and they must find out who wants them dead in a suspense novel.

One of the most remarkable suspense books ever written is Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. Fraught with suspense and an underlying sense of peril, it nevertheless moves at a leisurely pace through the dark halls of Manderley.

How to Write a Nail-Biting Novel in the Suspense Genre

As I couldn’t find any historical details about how the genre developed, we’re going to skip to the how-to portion of our post. Before we get to the tips, I want you to sit back and imagine this scenario:

Your heart is slamming against your rib cage; your fingertips are moist as you turn another page. The antagonist is setting up a trap. You wish you could do something to prevent the protagonist from walking into it, but you can’t. You’re helpless, totally at the mercy of the writer. All you can do is turn another page.

Kermit the frog displaying anxiety over the suspense genre

Have that image in your head? Good. That’s what we want to recreate with our writing in this genre. We want readers to burn through the pages, trying to get to the end of the book to see if our hero is alright.

And here’s how we can do that:

Start with your character development.

And that character development applies to both your hero and your villain. They have to be compelling, someone that your readers either love or hate. They can’t be lukewarm characters.

Your readers must know who the villain is because that’s going to create suspense (in the literary device sense). So make this character smart, motivated, and someone to fear. So flesh this character out.

As for your hero, your readers need to believe in and care about them. They need to be able to stand up to your wicked villain.

Give the reader a lofty viewpoint.

Remember our definition, the reader knows things that the protagonist doesn’t, so let them see both the protagonist and the antagonist’s viewpoints. That way, they know the convergence lines between the protagonist and antagonist and feel the consequences of the perils ahead.

This technique also allows the writer to place emotional weight on the reader. The tension will build from the reader’s self-imposed fears of knowing that the hero is on a collision course with disaster.

Use time constraints. 

Another way to build suspense is through the use of time. The protagonist should be working against the clock, and the clock should be working for the bad guys. Every minute you take away from the protagonist is another notch up on the burner under the reader’s seat.

Keep the stakes high. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean your book has to be about global destruction. But the story must be about a crisis that’s devastating to the protagonist’s world, and the hero must be willing to do anything to prevent it from occurring.

Therefore, the story could be about a father trying to rescue his wife and child from an impending flood or an innocent man who’s framed for murder and trying to establish his innocence. The crisis has to be important to ensure readers will empathize with the protagonist.

Create dilemmas and problems for your protagonist. The suspense genre loves them.

The antagonist needs to place awkward challenges or choices that test the protagonist. The option must seemingly be a lose-lose situation for the protagonist. It may take the form of choosing to save one person while leaving another to die, picking up a gun after swearing an oath never to do so again, or taking that offered drink after years of sobriety.

By his nature, the antagonist will cross lines without a second thought while fully conscious of his actions. But the protagonist is a different breed—as a hero, he can’t let innocent people die without a fight or stray from his morals or promises. The great thing about dilemmas is that they need time to be solved, and with the pressure of time constraints, the tension can only build. So test, tease, and tempt the protagonist.

And just when you thought they overcame the latest challenge, the antagonist throws another in the protagonist’s path. Give the protagonist more things to do than he can handle.

Be unpredictable.

Nothing in life runs perfectly. So, make nothing straight-forward for the protagonist. The hero shouldn’t be able to rely on anything going right, and any step forward should come at a price. The antagonist shouldn’t go unscathed, either.

As our protagonist and antagonist are pitched in a battle of wills, other factors are happening around them. Life is happening, and it has a way to mess things up. Maybe have your antagonist set off a bomb in his lair, now they have to get out of the building quickly with the hero on their tale, but the bomb goes off too early.

Your reader may know how it ends, but how they get there doesn’t have to be predictable. So make sure you add in those plot twists.

As I’ve mentioned, the suspense genre is all about keeping your readers at the edge of their seats. Not with a fast-paced plot but with a slow burn where they can see the events unfold before the protagonist does.

And there are many ways to do this, such as mood, atmosphere, character development, and continuous raising of the stakes. Once you get those mixed in you’ll be well on your way to making your reader fly through the pages of your novel.

What do you think makes a suspense novel suspenseful? Any tips I missed? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below! I love hearing from you.

Stay safe, everyone.

Until next time.



Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


5 Responses

  1. I love this definition! I think that the contrasts between suspense and mystery are not just subtle nuances, but distinct differences.
    Going along with what I see in your post, in a mystery the crime has already happened. The hero/heroine sleuth is acting after the fact.
    In suspense, the point is to prevent the act from occurring. It can’t be a natural disaster- – it has to be something the protagonist can prevent.
    The audience has to be compelled to care about whether the event happens or not, and whether the protagonist prevents it. We also need to care about seeing the antagonist NOT succeed.

    1. Suspense and mystery are definitely more distinct, but I think many new writers think they’re the same because mysteries use suspense as a literary device, but not in the way that a suspense novel does. And you’re on the nose about the definition. 🙂

  2. Good tips! I’m new here and I was wondering if you guys could check out my page and give it a follow a like or even just some feedback! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving! I wrote a darker suspense story recently if you want to check that out also.

Leave a Reply

Get New Articles & Publishing Opportunities Straight to Your Inbox

Enter your information below to get notified about new articles and publishing opportunities each Sunday.

%d bloggers like this: