When you sit down with a book, are you hoping for a particular type of story experience? This is a common desire, since readers—know it or not—are drawn towards specific genres and genre conventions.
From a writer’s perspective, knowing these genre “flavors” and how to create them to satisfy reader expectations is key to writing stories that will keep readers coming back.
In addition, understanding the genre conventions and obligatory scenes helps you push yourself farther and reach higher to innovate and twist what’s been done before, astonishing readers . . . and even yourself!
How to Write for Suspense Genres
Something amazing has happened to me in my writing so many times that I’ve come to expect it rather than be surprised by it. It’s this:
I’ve planned, plotted, and written most of my story and I’m nearing the finish line. I have a pretty solid idea about how the story is going to end, but I let my mind wander a bit and a new twist for the finale leaps into view. Usually, all it requires is a few tweaks in the previously written parts to set it up, and I’ve added a whole dimension to the story.
Thriller readers expect an extra twist like this before the story’s conclusion. A false ending is one of the genre’s obligatory scenes. If I leave the false ending out of my thriller, I leave readers unsatisfied at the end of my book and they may not even realize why.
They simply won’t move on to my next book, and I’ve lost a reader. I never want that to happen. And you don’t, either.
So, let’s dig into what readers are looking for when they pick up a book in the suspense genres.
Note: I’ve drawn a large portion of this information from Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know.
Mystery Genre Emotions
According to Shawn Coyne, the core emotion readers want to feel—the reason they make mysteries and crime stories their choice of genre—is intrigue. They want to be challenged with a stimulating puzzle and get a chance to solve it while exploring the lives and relationships of engaging characters in interesting settings.
The puzzle usually involves at least one murder, which can also evoke feelings of fear and concern for the characters. And the story’s resolution should bring a feeling of fulfillment or surprise, as well as a pleasurable release of tension when the criminal is brought to justice.
If the mystery is not a “whodunit” murder, but instead a caper or heist, the reader may cheer for the perpetrators and feel anxiety over whether they’ll get away with it or not.
You can help generate these emotions for your mystery readers by creating characters they can care about. It’s also critical to design an intriguing puzzle with clues and red herrings, delivering all the information in the right order for readers to solve the case or experience the story along with the viewpoint character.
Mystery Genre Conventions
A genre convention is something readers expect to find in a story from a particular genre. If the element doesn’t make an appearance in the story, readers will be disappointed without really understanding why, so it’s important to include these conventions in your mystery story.
The MacGuffin in a mystery is something pursued by the characters, the Object of Desire, and it drives the story forward as the pursuit unfolds. It can be something tangible, like treasure or a coded message—an example is the Maltese Falcon in the story by that name. Or it might be something intangible, such as secret knowledge or proof of innocence, like Roger Thornhill’s quest in North By Northwest.
In a murder mystery, the MacGuffin is most often the solution to the crime.
Clues and Red Herrings
These are the pieces of information gained by the sleuth that send them along a line of investigation. Clues, if interpreted correctly, lead to the solution while red herrings lead to dead ends or false conclusions. For more information about clues and red herrings and how to create and plant them in your story, check out my Ultimate Guide to Clues and Red Herrings.
Antagonist making it personal
As the protagonist sleuth gets closer to the truth, the more uncomfortable the criminal becomes until, at some point, the antagonist makes it personal. This can mean anything from interfering in the investigation and planting false clues to mislead the protagonist, to attempting to “bump off” the protagonist altogether.
Someone, somewhere along the line, is exposed as a shapeshifter, hypocrite, or traitor. This is a secondary character who says one thing and does another, impacting the protagonist’s progress in solving the puzzle.
The betrayal doesn’t have to be momentous, and the shift involved doesn’t have to be for the worse. An apparent enemy can prove to be an ally, for instance.
While a mystery doesn’t apply the same kind of time pressure as a Thriller, without some kind of a clock moving it forward, the story can drift and get flabby. Limiting time is an effective way to keep a mystery story fresh, active, and moving toward a resolution. It’s something readers and writers alike have come to depend upon in the mystery genre.
Clear threat of escalating danger
This danger does not have to be physical. It can imperil the sleuth’s credibility, sanity, or dignity. Or the threat may impact something else significant. This escalating threat raises the stakes, keeps the reader emotionally involved, and helps drive the story forward.
These six conventions of the crime genre, which includes mystery, are set forth by editor Rachelle Ramirez in her article, How to Write a Crime Story.
Let’s move on now to the obligatory scenes.
Obligatory Scenes of the Mystery Genre
When crafting a mystery story, be sure to include these key scenes in your planning. Without them, your mystery will likely fail to resonate with fans of the crime genre. These iconic moments don’t each need their own scene but may be combined as the story progresses.
A crime or the threat of a crime
According to both Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, long-acknowledged authorities on the subject, this is the definition of a mystery story. It must have a crime or the plausible threat of a crime. Usually, this is what occurs in the Inciting Incident of the story.
The sleuth, your story’s protagonist, must actively pursue a solution to the crime and bring the culprit to justice, or enact an alternate, satisfying resolution. If the story is a caper or heist, the plan must unfold and lead to the capture or escape of the thieves.
Speech in praise of the antagonist
This is rarely something as formal as an actual speech. Instead, it entails a character pointing out the antagonist’s prowess or apparent superiority in some way. Perhaps as a warning to the sleuth or a secondary character’s admiration of the antagonist.
Protagonist discovers antagonist’s MacGuffin
At some point in the story, the sleuth comes to understand the criminal’s core pursuit—what he’s really after. For example, the motive behind the crime may become clear, representing a big jump ahead in reaching the solution.
Initial strategy fails
Most successful stories begin with a character, in a setting, with a problem. From there, they go into a series of try/fail cycles until the ultimate “try” of the story’s climax. So, the initial attempt must fail, forcing the protagonist to change strategies and try again. And again.
Core Event in the climactic scene
In a mystery, the core event involves exposure of the criminal and revealing the solution to the crime—explaining what happened and how the truth was discovered.
In the case of a caper or heist, the core event is the enactment of the plan—putting it all into action and moving toward completion or failure.
Criminal brought to justice
The final obligatory scene, which may or may not happen during the story’s climax, is bringing the criminal to justice or an equally satisfying resolution.
In the case of a caper or heist, this is where the protagonist either succeeds and gets away or is caught.
Remember that readers want to feel intrigued by the mystery. Be sure to present a challenging, interesting puzzle and deliver all the pieces to the reader for a satisfying conclusion.
For more about Mysteries, see How to Write a Mystery Novel.
Emotions of the Suspense Genre
Readers of suspense read to experience the feeling of . . . suspense. That uncertainty that comes with knowing there’s something going on below the surface but only getting hints as to what it might be.
These are the stories that mess with your mind.
The suspense genre teeters on the border between mystery and horror. It involves piecing together—not necessarily a crime, as in Mystery—a bigger picture of a hidden reality. You’ll often see these sorts of books categorized as psychological thrillers, but I class them differently since thrillers demand an unrelenting fast pace, whereas suspense can move along at a variety of paces.
For example, one of the most enduring suspense stories ever written is Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. Fraught with suspense and an underlying sense of peril, it nevertheless moves at a leisurely pace through the dim halls of Manderley.
Remember that Alfred Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense and you’ll have a fair idea of the appeal suspense lovers are looking for. To help you develop this kind of emotion in your readers, work on creating a great atmosphere for suspense. Focus also on techniques for pulling readers into the setting and foreshadowing events.
Suspense Genre Conventions
Because Mysteries, Thrillers, and Suspense are closely related, they share many Conventions and Obligatory Scenes. In this section, I’ll reiterate where necessary, but focus on the difference between genre conventions.
Setting is crucial in a Suspense story. A richly drawn, sinister atmosphere is key to creating the mood and tension suspense readers enjoy. The setting can be thick with foreboding or superficially bright with unsettling indicators that all is not as it seems.
A secret plot
The unknown antagonist is brewing something diabolical beneath the surface of the story that the protagonist seeks to uncover.
Don’t know who to trust
The hero of the story will be surrounded by secondary characters, but she’ll have doubts about which of them she can rely on and which might be trying to harm her. This is the primary dilemma of the suspense novel.
In a mystery or a thriller, the antagonist makes the hero his target at some point in the story’s progression. In a suspense story, it’s always personal. In most cases, the hero has been the target from the start.
Clues and Red Herrings
As in a mystery, the protagonist will gather information to help her form an accurate picture of what’s going on. In a mystery, the clues generally help solve a crime that’s already happened. In a suspense, the pieces lead the hero to discover an evil plan in progress or that will hatch in the imminent future.
Like a mystery, the suspense story will feature at least one shapeshifter—a character who seems to be one thing yet proves to be something else. Remember, the shapeshifter doesn’t have to go from good to bad but may instead be someone the protagonist thought was against her who turns out to be an ally.
The risk to the protagonist must be real and significant—usually hinging on life or death. And those stakes should rise as the story progresses. The scope of that risk—meaning the consequences of the hero failing to discover the truth—most often keeps to the lower end of the scale, affecting only the protagonist or a small circle of contacts.
Obligatory Scenes of the Suspense Genre
These scenes represent the must-have moments in a suspense story. Leave them out, and you risk losing readers who sense something vital missing from your book.
Hero enmeshed in the unfolding danger
You must give your protagonist a compelling reason for being in the dangerous situation and show how they can’t turn back, crossing the point of no return.
Your protagonist must gather information to make sense of her dilemma and formulate a plan of escape.
Initial strategy fails
As in all effective stories, once the character is in a setting with a problem, her first attempt at overcoming the problem fails and she is forced to scramble for a new plan, usually at greater risk to herself as the stakes rise.
Core Event in the climactic scene
The core event of a suspense lies in the hero exposing the big, underlying secret and destroying the evil plan or escaping its grasp. Or perhaps not. Suspense does not always have a happy ending, though readers do prefer them.
Often (but not always) in a suspense story, the ending is left up in the air, an ambiguous conclusion. Readers must decide the final outcome for themselves or remain forever suspended in uncertainty. This is in keeping with the overall unsettled, disconcerting tone of the story. And leaves possibilities open for a sequel.
For more information about what makes a Suspense story and how it differs from Mystery and Thrillers, I invite you to read How to Write a Suspense Novel.
Emotions of a Thriller
Readers dive into thrillers expecting to feel excitement, to experience danger and thrills without actual risk. They want the stimulation of traveling to far off, exotic places without leaving home, the buzz of being privy to momentous secrets, the breathless high of jumping from one narrow escape to the next while staying safe. They want an action story.
Thrillers, like crime stories, also play on a reader’s sense of justice and sanctity of life. Thrillers tend to pit bad guy against good guy and bring the good guy out on top. That is a major appeal of the thriller.
And readers want something more from thrillers—they want to know what it feels like to inhabit a particular sort of world. That’s why there are so many sub-genres of thrillers—to provide the emotions and sensations craved by readers for each milieu.
For example, in addition to the emotional appeals listed above . . .
- Espionage and Secret Agent thrillers let readers experience the thrill of international intrigue, clever tactics, and breaking the rules to achieve a crucial end goal.
- Disaster thrillers allow readers to feel the vicarious terror of panic and destruction, giving them the opportunity to speculate how they would react under such dire circumstances.
- Military thrillers give readers a chance to get down in the trenches and feel the fear, the tragedy, the intimate violence of war as well as rousing emotions of heroism and patriotism.
- Technothrillers allow readers to feel like they are insiders to safe-guarded military and technological information, like they have a Top-Secret clearance to access vital issues of national security.
- Legal thrillers bring readers into the fascinating machinations of the legal system, letting them take part in high-profile (albeit fictional) trial proceedings and feel the associated angst and prestige.
- Financial thrillers allow readers to feel the cachet of wealth and the power that comes with it, and to experience lifestyles of the rich and famous.
- Serial Killer thrillers let readers feel the brush with death and get a peek into a mind so deranged they’ll never be able to understand it.
- Medical and Bio-thrillers are terrifying on such a fundamental level that they create feelings of mortal weakness and helpless fascination.
- Political thrillers impart a strong fear factor as well, inviting the paranoia of conspiracy theories and government takeovers.
- Paranormal thrillers allow readers to be beguiled by the other-worldly and unexplainable, giving them a little chill of excitement.
You can facilitate these emotions for your readers by pulling them deep into the story setting, making sure they understand what’s at stake, providing effective and exciting action scenes, and delivering the information they need to be active players in the reading experience.
Designing cliffhangers that work is another powerful way to evoke the target emotions in your thriller readers.
Thriller Genre Conventions
You’ll notice a lot of crossover in the conventions and obligatory scenes. For this section, I heavily referenced Rachelle Ramirez’s article Secrets of the Thriller Genre.
Here are the conventions you’ll want to include in your story if you’re writing a thriller. Readers want them. Readers expect them. Don’t disappoint.
The setting is a vital part of a thriller and should be portrayed in clear and specific detail, bringing it alive and making it immediately threatening.
Remember, this is the Object of Desire, what everyone is after. Nuclear codes, diamonds, cold hard cash—whatever it is, make it crucial for both antagonist and protagonist to obtain, pitting them against each other.
The Inciting Crime
The crime or threat of a crime that kicks off the story must contain some clue about the MacGuffin.
Protagonist has a special gift
There is something—a unique talent or ability—that sets the protagonist apart. His superpower. He may suppress that gift or foster it, but in the end he must unleash it to overcome the villain.
The pace of a thriller is almost relentlessly fast, and the countdown is an important convention. It doesn’t have to be a literal ticking clock, but you must find some plausible way to apply the pressure of time in your thriller.
Protagonist pursues an investigation
The hero needs to be actively engaged in an effort to catch the criminal and put a stop to his dastardly plans—following up on clues and hunting or being hunted.
Nothing less than life itself can be on the line. The lives of innocents must be at stake and depend on the hero’s victory over the antagonist.
Elements of suspense
The story must contain the elements of suspense, providing information that allows readers to predict and anticipate outcomes, heightening the emotional investment and driving the narrative.
In some types of stories, the bad guy can be reasoned with and possibly dissuaded from his course of action. In a thriller, that’s not the case. The villain is intent on destruction and determined that nothing will stop him.
Speech in praise of the villain
Someone, somewhere in the story, must remark on how cunning or invincible the villain is, highlighting the hero’s disadvantage and lengthening the odds.
Protagonist is the final victim
In the climactic scene, the protagonist is the last barrier between the antagonist and his goal of annihilation—he becomes the final victim and either triumphs or ultimately fails.
Clear threat of escalating danger
Not only is there danger, not only are the stakes high, but that danger must escalate and the stakes must rise in a cause and effect chain of events throughout the story.
Again, the shapeshifter or hypocrite is an important part of the story, someone whose deception impacts the protagonist in a real way and usually in a vulnerable moment.
Justice or injustice prevails
In a thriller with a positive ending, the villain is brought to some sort of justice, appropriate to his crimes. In a thriller with a negative ending, the villain gets away and injustice prevails.
However, these are not the only two options: the villain can escape justice (for now) but his evil plan is destroyed. He will rise again with a new plan in the sequel.
Obligatory Scenes of the Thriller Genre
Remember, these are the scenes that will make your thriller. If you leave one out, you will break your thriller. Don’t do that.
Inciting crime indicating that a master villain is at work
The crime must have a perpetrator, leave victims in its wake, and be of such a clever or dastardly design that it must be the work of a master criminal.
Clear point of no return
There must be a point at which the protagonist can never go back to the way things were before. This scene pinpoints the moment when the hero’s world is knocked off its axis.
Initial strategy fails
The protagonist’s first attempt to foil the villain’s diabolical plan fails, setting off a try/fail cycle that escalates up to the climactic scene.
Protagonist discovers antagonist’s MacGuffin
The hero gains insight into the villain’s intentions as he discovers and comes to understand what the bad guy is ultimately pursuing.
Villain makes it personal
At some point as the story progresses, the protagonist’s efforts to obstruct the villain’s plan land him square in the bullseye. The antagonist targets the hero as his primary victim, bringing the conflict to a personal level, and the two are on a collision course for a head-to-head battle at the story’s climax.
Hero at the mercy of the villain
This is the climactic scene where the hero faces the villain at overwhelming odds and has to dig deeper than ever before to unleash her special gift—the thing that turns the tables and makes it possible for her to defeat the antagonist.
Just as the reader is catching her breath and thinking all is resolved, the antagonistic force rebounds to challenge the hero again.
For more information, check out How to Write a Thriller Novel.
Give Your Readers What They Crave
These landmark scenes will give your story what it needs to hold and satisfy readers. They help your book to resonate, making your audience happy, because those bedrock elements of story are in the reader’s DNA, bred and nurtured through years of absorbing stories.
So, use these conventions and obligatory scenes to make your story work. The trick is in innovating them so they feel fresh to the reader. Bring your own voice and creativity into the process to make that happen.
Above all, remember that readers read to feel something, and what they want to feel from the suspense genres . . . is suspense. And all its glorious offshoots—excitement, dread, anticipation, intrigue.
If you’ve followed this series of articles, The Elements of Suspense, you’ve packed your writer’s toolbox with dozens of techniques and must-have skills for grabbing readers and creating a suspenseful story. And that’s exciting!
How about you? Do you recognize these conventions and scenes in the stories you read or watch? Tell us about it in the comments.
Practice incorporating these core emotions, conventions, and key scenes into your work in progress. For this exercise, choose one of the obligatory scenes for the story you’re currently writing and create that scene.
If you don’t have a WIP, use one of these prompts to get you started:
- Daniel is trapped in a high-rise office building as he discovers the truth about the villain’s MacGuffin.
- Victoria scrambles through a booby-trapped jungle in a failed attempt to stop the villain’s escape in a helicopter.
- Peter investigates the crime scene, observing clues and formulating ideas about suspects and motives.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you are finished, post your writing in the comments, and don’t forget to give your fellow writers feedback as well!
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.