14 June 2019

Suspense Fiction

by O'Neil De Noux

These are not rules, not guidelines, not anything etched in stone. These are observations about suspense novels from publishers, editors and writers I've known.

What is a Suspense story/novel? Here are some notes taken over the years:

A subgenre of the Mystery genre, it is more about menace than crime. Most of the time.

Crime usually serves as danger. The layout of the story/novel centers on the rising suspense of the storyline, which is dramatic, exciting with a rising level of tension.

The intent of the suspense story/novel is to achieve an emotional reaction from the reader – fear or anticipation. It is not merely suspenseful, the focus of the story/novel is suspense, defined in the intention of the writer and the expectation of the reader.

It is realistic in his presentation and usually logical in its execution. If it jumps the shark midway with characters acting illogically, the writer can lose the reader. How many times have we read books or seen movies and thought – why did this character do something so stupid? Yes, stupid. Turn off all the lights and run around in their underwear. Not calling police when they can. Leaving the gun behind. Not scooping up a machine gun to use their snub-nosed revolver in a gun battle. #1 - not shooting the bad guy when they have the chance to end it all.

Tension results in the manner in which an expected conclusion is achieved. Often it is malice aforethought. In the novel Malice Aforethought, Frances Iles begins with the statement that Dr. Bickleigh will murder his wife.

The focus centers on the human passion, the results of action on the people in the story/novel more than the deed of series of deeds bringing the passion to the surface. For example – in a Techno-Thriller, the focus is more on the hardware than the people's reaction to the events.

The supernatural has no place in the straight suspense story/novel. If the supernatural appears, the piece enters another genre – horror, fantasy or science fiction.

As I said, these are not rules or even guidelines. Just observations.

Alfred Hitchcock's movies are excellent examples of the suspense story: The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Birds, Rear Window and others.

That's all for now.


  1. I agree, O'Neil. Nothing says suspense like the films of Hitchcock. I also like a few films that mess with the genre, like The Sixth Sense, which is suspense until it jumps genres at the very end .Run Lola Run, too, with it's constant re-editing of history. Is that suspense or fantasy?

  2. I agree with all those statements, O'Neil. And also about Hitchcock. After all, he is called the Master of Suspense. Love the movies you mentioned by him...except The Birds. I never found that particularly suspenseful or really good. But there's always exceptions to the rule. And I would add Vertigo to the list, but also many other Hitchcock movies.

  3. I also love that subtle Hitchcock - Shadow of a Doubt with its respectable middle class setting and its seemingly charming villain.

  4. Excellent column, O'Neil! I've always been interested in the differences between suspense stories and traditional mysteries. One author said that in traditional mysteries the question is Who committed the crime? and in suspense stories it's How will the hero survive? It's also been said that first person is more often the POV in mysteries and third person in suspense. And so on and so on. I love 'em both.

  5. And suspense can cross genres - The Haunting of Hill House [the original] is more suspense (and one of the most terrifying movies ever) than either horror or crime.

  6. Somebody said in a mystery the hero pursues an unknown villain. In suspense a (usually) known villain pursues the hero.

  7. In my college class, and in Crime Writers of Canada, we define it thus: in a mystery, the crime happens close to the beginning of the story and the story is about the solving of the crime. In a suspense story, the story is about a person in jeopardy. We may even know who the villain is. We read to see if our protagonist will survive. I like your point about supernatural, O'Neil. I had to council a student on that just this week. His mystery had supernatural in it, which kicks it out of the 'follow the clues' mystery novel genre.

  8. Great comments. I thought I'd put the pros to sleep with this one. Thanks.

  9. Another possible distinction is that with suspense, we in the audience know more than the characters in the story. (Hitch himself once said he made a mistake in SABOTAGE, that the bomb shouldn't have gone off - the audience knows the clock is ticking, but they expect the terror plot to be foiled at the last minute.)
    I think, too, with suspense, we usually know Who - the puzzle is Why. Very often, in conspiracy stories, once the knot's unraveled, it's a letdown. The existential threat, in noir, is the moral environment. Look at Fritz Lang's MINISTRY OF FEAR. It isn't so much that the guy stumbles into a plot, it's that the deck is stacked against him regardless.
    One other observation. In suspense, we're sometimes as likely to be rooting for the bad guy evading a trap as we are the good guy. An example would be Barry Foster in FRENZY, trying to get the stickpin from his tie back from Anna Massey, after he's bundled her body into the potato sack.


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