I don’t know about you, but I’ve always loved a good scare. It all started when I was very young. I started reading mysteries geared toward children, and I got hooked. Then my grandmother introduced me to Agatha Christie, and I loved all those books… Then I moved on to Alfred Hitchcock movies and TV series (which are more suspense stories than they are mysteries). I loved it all!
Recently, my family and I gave up our cable TV because we just couldn’t justify the expense, so we’re using a digital antenna. As part of the TV package with that digital antenna, we get the pleasure of watching ME-TV, a station that plays old, wholesome TV programming – you know, that stuff you just can’t find on the regular broadcast networks these days. It’s a gem, and if we hadn’t given up cable, I probably never would’ve discovered it.
Well, their Sunday night line-up is my favorite. They start out with Columbo movies at 8, then the sometimes show MASH at 9:30 (if they’re running the shorter Columbos), and then they follow that with Boris Karloff’s Thriller and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – a mystery/suspense/thriller lover’s dream come true.
Now, I’m fairly certain I’ve already seen every Columbo ever made (started watching those when I was a kid), but they’re still fascinating to watch. And who doesn’t love Columbo himself – “Ah…just one more thing….” 😉
However, until just recently, I’d never heard of either Thriller or The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Certainly, I’d heard of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and I love that show, but The Hour is so much better, in my opinion (or maybe I just think that because it’s newer to me).
As I said, I think of Hitchcock’s stuff as being more suspense than thriller, but watching these two shows back to back kind of blurs the line for me. What’s considered a thriller, and what’s considered suspense? When do the two intersect (if ever)? How? Judging from what’s currently available on the Internet, there seems to be a lot of confusion about this topic, so I’m not alone.
The master of suspense himself came up with, I think, the best distinction between the two.
As he explained it, “Contrary to popular belief, suspense bears no relationship to fear. Instead, it is the state of waiting for something to happen.” The crucial element is surprise. In a suspenseful situation in a novel or a movie, for example, two characters are calmly sipping lattes in a cafe, unaware that someone planted a bomb under their table, which is set to explode at any minute. A thriller is the surprise of the explosion and the 15 seconds of action after the event.
To have your story considered a thriller, then, you have to keep the audience informed.
Hunter Emkay breaks it down even more clearly in her blog post, “Elements of the Psychological Thriller, Mystery, Suspense, and/or Crime Fiction Genres“:
Suspense = when the reader knows something the character doesn’t, and the tension builds from wondering how or if the character will survive. Will he or won’t he fall into the trap, get shot by the sniper, or be eaten by the monster we know is waiting in the closet. Our hearts beat faster as the tension builds.
Thriller = the reader doesn’t see the threat coming. It’s slam-bang action, and the reader rides along with the protagonist, experiencing things as they happen to him, and is just as surprised when the monster jumps out from the closet. Thrillers place the crime or event to come.
Suspense Thriller = …loosely defined as a story in which the audience is waiting for something significant to happen. The protagonist’s job is to prevent the speeding bus from exploding, or the aliens from eating the crew. The reader experiences a vicarious thrill by identifying with the hero and the danger he faces, becoming a participant in the chase.
Naturally, given my lifelong love of mysteries/suspense/thriller stories, when I decided to write my first novel in a Nano-like 50,000 words in 30 days haze, I picked a mystery. Except, when I got into it, I found that it wasn’t much of a mystery at all. It was more of a suspense story…except it wasn’t that either. It was a thriller. So, the finished product is a 65,000-word suspense thriller called SHADOWS OF THINGS TO COME, which ended at a cliffhanger and left my readers guessing for years. Because I’m just mean like that.
Actually, I felt the need to work on a couple other projects before I tackled the sequel, which I neglected for far too long. I am, however, currently working on it. As I do, I find that it is shaping up to be more of a mystery than the first book, but it’s certainly still got some of the suspense/thriller elements in it. I’m hoping to have it out by the end of August, so keep watching for updates! 🙂