Hi guys, this is going to be another NYC Midnight genre primer post. In the past we’ve discussed the different flavors of the comedy genres, particularly political satire, but this is another common issue that vexes NYC Midnight contestants.
Every year I see the same flurry of panicked tweets and forum posts asking if anyone knows the difference between thriller and suspense. I’ve had my own issues with it in the past, but after some diligent research I think I can help shine a light on where the categories overlap – and where they differ.
To start with, let’s take a look at NYC Midnight’s official genre definitions before we break this down a bit further (I’ve edited them down to their core components for brevity’s sake, but the full definitions are linked above. Emphasis mine.)
Summary of Genre Definitions
Suspense: A story that slowly generates feelings of anxiety, anticipation and uncertainty in the audience. Common elements: slower pace, heightened anticipation, audience knows more than main character, dramatic music.
Thriller: A fast-paced, gripping, plot-centered story…usually the protagonist is in danger from the outset. These fast-paced stories typically involve major threats…and the attempts to prevent something from occurring. Common elements: faster pace, action scenes, plot twists, prominent villain, “ticking clock” timing.
Action-Adventure: A suspenseful story in which a mission involving risk and danger forms the primary story line…Action sequences are frequently featured, especially those involving chases, explosions, and attacks. Common elements: likeable hero, unlikeable antagonist, physical action, fast pace, violence, changeable setting.
Ok, so now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the three areas that best define these genres as a group: Pacing, Plot, and Dramatic Tension.
Pacing is the most obvious way to define these genres, which is why I grouped them together initially. Think of it as a sliding scale, with Suspense on the low side, Action-Adventure on the high side, and Thriller somewhere in the middle.
Suspense has the slowest pace, with tension gradually building to a climax. Thriller is more fast paced, and centers around what happens after the danger has been established. If suspense is waiting for the shoe to drop, thriller is the sequence that follows the reveal. Action-adventure is also typically fast paced, but the scenes more often involve direct conflicts such as fight scenes or escape from imminent danger, whereas a thriller can have more of a psychological element that’s common in suspense.
Like pacing, plot drives the story for these three genres. Don’t think of plot as how complicated the story is (it’s flash, you won’t have room for complex twists) but rather, what is the conflict and how does it play out?
Suspense, with its focus on anxiety and building tension, can have a much more mundane set of external events while focusing on the internal conflicts or employing dramatic tension (see below.) Action-adventure is on the other end of the spectrum with more overt conflicts between two opposing forces, be it a conflict with a nefarious villain or the natural environment as in disaster movies.
Thrillers fall in-between by having a more action-oriented plot than suspense, while still digging into the complex psychological aspects that make suspense so engaging for the reader. You want to capture that edge-of-your seat feeling here more than either of the other two genres. In terms of content, thrillers are one of the hardest genres to define because they blend so well with other genres:
Thrillers provide such a rich literary feast. There are all kinds. The legal thriller, spy thriller, action-adventure thriller, medical thriller, police thriller, romantic thriller, historical thriller, political thriller, religious thriller, high-tech thriller, military thriller. The list goes on and on, with new variations constantly being invented. In fact, this openness to expansion is one of the genre’s most enduring characteristics.
But what gives the variety of thrillers a common ground is the intensity of emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness, all designed to generate that all-important thrill. By definition, if a thriller doesn’t thrill, it’s not doing its job.
For all three genres, you want to make sure that the stakes are high. Tension is a major factor in these genres, and you can’t have that if the outcome doesn’t make a impact on the protagonist in a meaningful way. The conflict can be a perilous situation, a threat of impending disaster, or even something that is important to the protagonist on a personal level. Stakes need not be world-ending cataclysms, but they still need to be high enough that engage your reader throughout the full narrative.
Here we come to the part where the genres branch out most distinctly. Dramatic tension asks: who knows about the conflict, and how is it conveyed through the story? The biggest difference comes from how the tension engages the reader. A key point in the above suspense description is that the characters don’t know about the danger, but the readers do. Alfred Hitchcock said it best:
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.
Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one.
In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
― (full quote available here.)
This is what makes suspense distinct. In a thriller or action-adventure, the protagonists are often aware of their predicament and are fighting to resolve the conflict. To continue Hitchcock’s analogy, a thriller would involve the characters attempting to defuse the bomb and engaging the readers with the tension of their actions, whereas suspense draws its tension from the dramatic irony of knowing something the characters do not.
It’s important to note that suspense, like thrillers, can also blend with other genres, most notably horror. Thrillers can also overlap with horror, but as noted above, that type of horror is the kind you’d find in 80’s slashers, whereas suspenseful horror is more likely found in gothic stories and weird, Lovecraftian tales. For more on the creeping dread-like qualities of the suspense in horror, check out this video below:
The most important thing to note when comparing and contrasting these genres is that they exist on a spectrum. They often share many traits with each other and the variance is mostly due to the intensity of their story components. You should feel free to explore different flavors of these genres as well: try a suspense that doubles as a mystery. Make your action-adventure a swashbuckling historical fiction piece. Spy thriller? Absolutely. These genres are limitless in their possibilities, so don’t freak out too much about what is and what is not allowed, so long as you engage your readers with a tension-filled narrative.
Want a typical example of each you can read right now? Check out:
Got any tips to share with the class? Questions about what may or may not qualify? Leave a comment and let’s brainstorm some examples together!