Suspense vs thriller: What are the differences?

If you’ve never really understood the difference between a suspense and a thriller, rest assured you’re not alone. Writers and readers often aren’t sure of the difference, or get these two genres muddled up. They definitely have a lot of similarities and crossovers. Let’s take a deep dive into both so you are never confused again.

Summary of a suspense novel

Suspense stories feature feelings of anxiety, anticipation, and uncertainty, but they often develop slowly. This means these feelings develop throughout the story, building the tension, but the reader remains uncertain about the outcome. In suspense plots, the answers to what may happen are delayed as long as possible. They are stretched so the reader feels the heightened anticipation. This is what makes a suspense novel so successful.

Suspense stories often focus on characters in danger or on the brink of discovery, and the tension is built from the uncertainty or expectation of what could happen next. Indeed, American writer Sidney Sheldon said, “Life is like a novel. It’s filled with suspense. You have no idea what is going to happen until you turn the page.”

That’s exactly what a suspenseful novel is like.

What’s a good example of a suspense story in literature? Many of the classics like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado fit the suspense category. More modern options would include The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins), The Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris), or The Talented Mr. Ripley (Patricia Highsmith).

RELATED READ: Action and Sequence Scenes

Summary of thriller

A thriller is fast-paced and gripping. It’s a heart-pounding, plot-centred account of a very clear threat or danger to the main protagonist. Indeed, the plots often centre around the push and pull between the protagonist and who may be after them, the antagonist.

It usually remains plot-centred and there’s a very clear threat or danger to the main protagonist, who is usually in danger from the get-go. It’s also usually very clear who that villain in, and the tension is built through the fast pace, action scenes, and edge-of-your-seat plot twists. In fact, thrillers often have direct conflicts or fight scenes.

Thrillers are designed to thrill and excite readers and are often associated with espionage, crime, or action stories.

American science fiction writer Nancy Kress said, “If you’re writing a thriller, mystery, Western or adventure-driven book, you’d better keep things moving rapidly for the reader. Quick pacing is vital in certain genres. It hooks readers, creates tension, deepens the drama, and speeds things along.”

What’s a good example of a thriller? There are certainly plenty of great movies, for whom this genre is perfect. In fact, many good thrillers often get turned into TV shows or films. Think of Speed and Jack trying to outwit the bomb-on-bus scenario and who designed it. In literature, Stephen King is one of the modern-day masters of the thriller genre. But he also writes a lot of horror, and the two sometimes combine.

Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders is a popular modern-day thriller. Classics would include Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that details a mentally ill doctor with a split personality.

Main differences

Hopefully, just through the explanations above, you’ve started to see what the differences are. In a nutshell, we’ve already established suspense is about building tension and what may happen, while a thriller is a more push and pull between the hero (our protagonist) and the villain (antagonist) with an established conflict. But there are also key differences in the pacing of the story.

  • Suspense builds. Thrillers race.
  • Thrillers have action. Suspense has danger (but not necessarily action)
  • Suspense outcomes are unclear. Thrillers are the sequence of events after the big reveal
  • Suspense focuses on internal events. Thrillers focus more on the external events
  • Suspense keeps you on the edge of your seat. Thrillers might make you jump off your seat

RELATED READ: Tension vs Conflict in Fiction Writing


As with all things in the literary world, these genres exist along a spectrum. And some novels may even combine many elements of both. Remember also that these genres also have subgenres like political thrillers, mystery thrillers, and spy thrillers and so they can tend to crossover into other territory as well.

What kind of story appeals to you may depend on your mood. If you want action, you might go for a thriller. If it’s tension and inner turmoil or you feel like solving a puzzle, look at a suspense novel.

Get more help

To find out more about writing a thriller, look at our blog How to Write a Thriller: everything you need to know. It also details some of the different types of thrillers, tips for writing them, and more examples of classic thrillers in literature.

This might inspire you about how to write. However, there’s no greater example of the need just to get started than Stephen King. He says, “You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free so Drink. Drink and be filled up.”

And if you’ve reached the stage where you could benefit from some input into your writing, consider any of editing services to help you reach your goal. A good thriller or suspense novel will need some help to make sure the pacing hits the right notes, the action holds the reader’s attention, suspension and tension are maintained, and there are good character arcs.

Get a free editing sample outlining areas you need to fix before publishing.

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