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Craft: Differences in Suspense, Intrigue and Thriller

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011

(Blog Post)

Q. Will you please explain the difference between novels that are suspense, intrigue or thriller? Seems like they are very similar and they cross over into each other in many books but how do they differ and who are some writers whose works fall into these categories?

A. Sure. Understand that often the lines blur because authors tend to pull elements from more than one of these three cited into the same novel. So in many, you have a touch of suspense and intrigue or a thriller with suspense. That’s why it’s easy to get confused on what is what. In those cases, the books are typically classified by the dominate element. A suspense with intrigue. A thriller with a suspense element.

It helps to think of it in the light you do Romantic Suspense. That’s easier to differentiate because the elements are further apart on the genre spectrum. You can have a romantic suspense novel or a suspenseful romance novel. What you can’t have is one where both elements receive equal weight. When you don’t have a dominate element, the book is weakened due to the lack of intense focus on either element. So one must rule. The other must weave into it.

The same applies when you mix suspense, thriller and intrigue. One has to dominate. But an author who writes suspense likely has novels that are classified as thrillers or intrigues. They seem similar but they’re distinctly different. Let’s take a look at them to see how.

Suspense: A suspense novel is one where the reader is uncertain of some outcome that is vital to the characters and the plot. The reader might well know the situation–more than the characters know or as much as the characters know–but the outcome is in doubt. How the challenge will resolve is the unknown.

An example from my ALL DUE RESPECT: The reader knows the heroine suffered abuse and that her ex-husband has been in jail. The reader knows he’s out now–long before the heroine knows it. The reader and heroine know that he will torment her and try to kill her if he has the opportunity.

When he’s released and she’s not notified, the reader knows he’s had opportunity. The question is: will she be able to protect herself from this man who is hell-bent on killing her? The second major question (dual plot lines in this book) is also suspense. Will she find the person in her organization responsible for selling technology/weapon systems that will be used against Americans before they take possession or can use those weapons?

Other current suspense examples:

BLOW FLY, Patricia Cornwell
CHAPEL NOIR, Carol Nelson Douglas
C IS FOR CORPSE, Sue Grafton

Intrigue. An intrigue novel is one where the outcome is in doubt and the reader discovers the leads to the resolution at the same time as the protagonist. There are unanswered questions in the plot that are vital to a positive conclusion and the protagonist (and reader) must use their wits to unearth the truth before dire circumstances occur. Those circumstances can be physical, emotional, or spiritual and often have bits of all three.

The intrigue differs from the suspense in that more insight or information is not given to the reader than is given to the protagonist trying to answer the questions.

An example from my LADY LIBERTY. The heroine must stop a missile launch but she’s not sure how or who’s behind it. As she surmounts one obstacle, another rises, and another and another until she and her sidekick slot all the puzzle pieces, work through all the obstacles, and only then do they have a shot at stopping that launch. The reader discovers and makes the connections right along with the protagonist.

Other current Intrigue novels:

THE BIG BAD WOLF, James Patterson
THE COMPANY, Robert Littell (about the CIA)
LIGHT IN SHADOW, Jayne Ann Krentz
THE PARIS OPTION, Robert Ludlum, et al.

The thriller. In the thriller novel, the reader well might be aware of every single danger–in fact, s/he typically knows the challenge, the stakes, who’s doing it, and sometimes why. The unanswered question arises through obstacles to achieving the goal. Will the protagonist succeed at accomplishing XYZ and how? The odds seem overwhelming. These are edge of your seat novels/movies because you know what’s coming, you just don’t know if the protagonist can best the villain in what’s coming and have a positive outcome.

In my ACTS OF HONOR, the heroine knows her brother-in-law didn’t commit suicide. She knows there’s a lot more to events than has been revealed, and she also knows she’s unlikely to be able to break down the barriers between where she stands and the institution that has the truth. The question is getting from here to there.

Now in this novel, there are secondary elements of intrigue and suspense. So this novel has all three of these elements, but the thriller element is dominate, so it’s classified as a thriller.

Other current examples of thrillers:

SPLIT SECOND, David Baldacci
BALANCE OF POWER, Richard North Patterson
BLEACHERS, John Grisham
BLINDSIDE, Catherine Coulter

Lastly, a good example of a project that contains all three elements is the movie: THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT. It’s an action thriller with elements of suspense and intrigue.


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