Friday, July 5, 2024

Genre Expectations: Writing Suspense and Thrillers

by A.C. Williams @ACW_Author

I grew up reading Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden (not that you asked, but Trixie Belden, in my humble opinion, is superior to Nancy Drew in every way). Every week, I’d march into our town library and pull one of the old, ugly rebound versions of a Nancy Drew mystery off the shelf and devour it. So I assumed I knew everything there was to know about mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels at the highly mature age of sixteen.

Yes, you can laugh at me. I’m still laughing at me.

While Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden certainly fit in the genre of mystery, neither of them really work when you hold them up to the modern day expectations for either the Suspense Genre or the Thriller Genre. And make no mistake, those are two different genres. So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. 

But first, since we’re quite a ways into this series on genre expectations, here’s what we’ve discussed so far (all posts are linked at the end of this post): 
  • Romantic Fantasy and Fantasy Romance
  • Fantasy and Space Opera
  • Steampunk and Gaslamp
  • Magical Realism and Contemporary Fantasy
  • Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance

Yes, primarily all of these posts have been speculative in nature, mostly because that’s my own specialty. But both Thriller and Suspense are such hugely popular genres that it would be a shame to skip over them, especially because both are important additions within speculative fiction. 

So, what is the primary difference between the Thriller genre and the Suspense genre? From what I can tell, the primary difference is Action versus Anticipation. 

Thriller stories contain high levels of action and intensity. The narratives are fast-paced, and the plots are designed to engage. Thrillers utilize dangerous situations, high stakes motivations and consequences, and exhilarating action sequences. Additionally, a thriller story will focus on how the protagonist is actively pursuing a goal. 

In comparison, a Suspense story is less focused on the protagonist’s goal and more about creating a sense of anticipation in the story. It’s all about the tension. Information that is necessary to the story’s resolution is revealed slowly, gradually. Suspense stories depend on psychological tension, plot elements that lead a reader to question the motivations and actions of the characters. 

It’s not that suspense stories are slow burn while thriller stories are rapid fire. That is certainly one hallmark, but it’s not the only determining factor. Much like the differences between romantic fantasy and fantasy romance or fantasy and space opera, the focus of the story is how you can tell the difference. 

Tension is something that must be present in every story we write, regardless of genre. Without tension, without the perceived possibility that something will go wrong, a story is a challenge to tell. Story is conflict, and conflict can’t exist without tension—or at least, it shouldn’t.

But with the suspense genre, specifically, the goal of the story is to create tension. In the thriller genre, the goal is for the character to solve a problem.

If the story is focused on the slow reveal of information concerning what happened, and it doesn’t rely on fast-paced action sequences, it’s likely you’re reading a suspense novel. If the story is focused on a detective or a problem solver who is beset by pulse-pounding obstacles in the pursuit of a specific resolution, it’s likely you’re reading a thriller.

So then this begs the question: Can you have a Suspense Thriller? 

This is fiction. Of course, you can. 

You can also have a Mystery Suspense Thriller where you combine elements of all three into one novel. However, it’s still wise to make one of them the primary focus of the story. If you give all three genre elements equal weight, it will be difficult to decide which category you will use when you are marketing the book.

Ultimately, marketing is the reason we have genres. In today’s industry, more and more authors are combining genres to put a fresh spin on frequently rehashed stories, but in order to market the story effectively to the correct audience, one genre needs to stand out among the others. 

All that being said, I am not an expert in these two genres specifically, so if you have learned something different about them, please feel free to chime in with your experiences! The more we know about audience expectations for the genres we write, the better we can connect with the people we want to reach. 


A.C. Williams, also known as Amy C. Williams, is a coffee-drinking, sushi-eating, story-telling nerd who loves cats, country living, and all things Japanese. Author of more than 20 books, she keeps her fiction readers laughing with wildly imaginative adventures about samurai superheroes, clumsy church secretaries, and goofy malfunctioning androids; her non-fiction readers just laugh at her and the hysterical life experiences she’s survived. If that’s your cup of tea (or coffee), join the fun at


  1. Trixie Beldon! Yes! Never read Nancy Drew, maybe because we had a dog named Trixie.

  2. This is an interesting post, A.C., and clarified what frustrated me about a movie we streamed a few days ago. I was expecting at least some suspense, but it was all thriller (action). The problem was that both protagonists and antagonists were able to locate each other instantly, in every scenario, with no explanation re how that even happened or was possible. They simply made it too easy, in an unrealistic ways. For example, a huge scamming company used their real name while scamming a woman on her computer, and 5 min later the avenger is in their office. Those retaliating instantly knew the avenger's name and home location from a simple comment he made. Zero suspense felt like lazy script-writing and made me eye-roll a lot. I do think some stories can, and perhaps should, be a good mix of both, because a thriller becomes quite boring if there is no suspense at all, right? I think The Fugitive (with Harrison Ford) combined thriller and suspense together well in one package. I can see how marketing this genre can be a little tricky. Thankfully online bookstores can use multiple keywords to describe books!