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Genre 101: Understanding the Thriller/Suspense Genre- And How It'll Help You Write One

To write a successful thriller/suspense novel, it stands to reason that you have to have an understanding of what elements make up works within this genre. You can do this by devouring similar books, but that isn't so cut and dry. Here you'll learn the inner workings of this genre without the hassle of piecing together its secrets by yourself.

What is the Thriller/Suspense genre?

Novels that fall into this genre grip readers with their tension, suspense, and their ability to keep readers guessing. As a fiction genre, several different subgenres fall under this category including mystery thriller, paranormal thrillers, crime thrillers, and more. The main appeal of these stories are their ability to draw on our emotions and keep us glued to the page. They make us feel feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety. They keep us asking questions and trying to solve the puzzle. It typically includes elements of a cover-up and literary devices such as red herring, plot twists, and cliffhangers are common. There is also usually a good versus evil story where a protagonist must overcome a villain-driven plot.

What subgenres fall under this category?

There's quite a lot that goes into each of the above categories. They're all different and there's an endless amount of ways that you can write your story. From comedy to psychological, to historical, these novels encompass a broad range of options and tones. To learn more about each type, visit my post Genre 101: The Complete List of Genres & Subgenres for Fiction Writing Part 2.

How did this genre begin?

While the term Thriller is a modern invention, stories with elements of suspense have been around for a long time. Epic poems such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer's The Odyssey and the The Mahābhārata used similar narrative techniques, while The Three Apples, a tale in the Arabian Nights, is a murder mystery with multiple plot twists and characteristics of detective fiction.

Later we see the development of more thriller-like novels in the modern sense. In 1844, The Count of Monte Cristo featured a revenge thriller about a man seeking to destroy the lives of those who betrayed him. The first recognizable modern thriller was Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903), in which two young Englishmen stumble upon a secret German armada preparing to invade their homeland.

It's not until the 1900s that we begin to see the dawn of military and espionage thrillers. In 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps was written by John Buchan. It features an innocent man who becomes the prime suspect in a murder case and finds himself on the run from both the police and enemy spies. In 1959, Richard Condon wrote The Manchurian Candidate which became a classic of Cold War paranoia. Here a squad of American soldiers is kidnapped and brainwashed by Communists, implanted with false memories, and sent back into American society as sleeper agents. Modern day thrillers include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) by John le Carré and The Bourne Identity (1980) series.

What is the structure of a thriller/suspense novel?

There are three crucial parts to a successful thriller story:

1) Promise: Make an initial promise to your readers- that the protagonist will solve the mystery, defeat their nemesis, save the kidnapped woman, etc. Whatever promise, make sure you follow through.

2) Pressure: Up the stakes. A great way to do that is by adding a ticking time bomb. By lowering the amount of time your protagonist has to solve their problems, you create tension and suspense that can then amp up the force of your conflicts and your character's emotional response to them.

3) Pressing Circumstances: This is the dire circumstance that your character meets midway through the story that forces them to act. It's a dilemma that they cannot get out of and therefore must respond to in some way. Whatever they do will influence how the story ends.

These 8 elements are the key ingredients necessary to make a novel within this genre.

1) The element of surprise: Learning when and where to reveal information within your novel is important. This is especially true for thriller novels. They have a central overarching plotline that ends with the answer to the question poised at the beginning. The answer shouldn't be delivered all at once, but rather split into clues for the reader to pick up and ultimately piece together at the end.

2) A hero: These are the heroes with flaws, the interesting ones where bravery, doggedness and ingenuity are their greatest traits. Your character doesn't need to be perfect, but they do need to have skills that aid them in their quest.

3) A sidekick: Choose a sidekick that will support your main character. It could be a friend, mentor, love interest, or family member. Their purpose lies largely in providing comic relief, provide aid/advice, and either help cause or stop trouble for the protagonist.

4) A villain: The most important character aside from the protagonist, your villain's actions and motivations need to contrast with your protagonists. The problems cause by their actions create the conflict within the story and in the case of thrillers, the mystery to be solved.

5) Plot twists: Keeping your readers on their toes is a crucial part of a thriller novel. It's what the readers want to see from this genre. While it's important to keep your integrity and not outright lie to the reader, it is okay to imply things that lead them to draw false conclusions or keep them guessing.

6) Red herrings: A red herring is a distracting and misleading clue. In a thriller novel these are used to purposely mislead the reader into thinking that one person is involved in a certain action or crime but the reality is that they may not be.

7) Cliffhanger: These are really handy when it comes to keeping your reader hooked and reading. When you close each chapter or wrap up a question, make sure to leave with a cliffhanger. By raising more questions whenever you end something else, you keep your readers motivated to continue.

8) An exciting climax: End your story with a bang. Whatever conclusions are drawn, it has to come from an exciting climax, the result of a gradual progression of tension and anticipation. The protagonist must overcome their final obstacle or villain.

What are some examples?

Writing thriller/suspense novels requires a good sense of timing, the ability to place careful clues that often lead to dead ends and misconceptions, being able to build tension and suspense, and most of all creating memorable, capable characters who are able to solve a good mystery and overcome all the challenges they face.

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