Storytelling: Suspense vs. Terror vs. Horror

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We are back with more storytelling distinctions! Today I’ll be talking about the difference between the story elements of suspense, terror, and horror (because yes, they’re all different!). Horror and suspense are both genres in and of themselves, but all genres can use these three elements to push and pull the narrative and the reader’s experience with the story. Let’s start with the difference between them.

This is how I remember the difference between these three things. I read it in a Tumblr post and it has stuck with me ever since:

  • Suspense is knowing that a monster is chasing you.
  • Terror is seeing the monster racing towards you.
  • Horror is realizing that your feet are stuck to the ground.

So knowing that these three things invoke different reactions, and that they’re all related, means that they can be used effectively in telling your story. The key is to consider how you want your audience to feel when they’re following your story. In this example, all three elements are being leveraged in the same scenario, but it’s perfectly okay to pick and choose what storytelling elements you want to use in your story.

If you’re working within the horror genre, then your focus should be mostly on that feeling of having your feet stuck to the ground. If you’re working within the suspense genre (also called thrillers) then maybe you don’t use horror at all and instead lean into the looming suspense as your main theme with terror only coming into play at the climax. It’s most common to use terror sparingly, only at moments of climax or conflict, otherwise readers can tire. Use your experience with books, movies, TV shows, etc. to figure out your threshold for experiencing terror, and then write with that threshold in mind.

Consider how you feel when you’re experiencing storytelling elements like these, and conduct market research by reading/viewing other works in your target genre. For me, the above example that I use to tell the difference between these elements, helps me conceptualize how I should be writing when using them.

Now that we know what they are and the difference between them, here’s how these storytelling elements can be used as narrative tools:

  • Suspense is very cerebral. Knowing a monster is chasing you means that in moments of suspense, it’s out of view and the sensory details are focused on it not being there. Things like seeing shadows and imagining that they’re where the monster could be hiding, or facing a fork in the road and wondering which would lead you to the monster (or the monster to you). Suspense is all about the looming “what if” that keeps readers on their toes.
  • In direct contrast to suspense, terror is visceral. When I use terror as a narrative device, I go into hyper-detail with sensory information. This slows the narrative down and makes my readers feel like they’re experiencing everything in slow motion despite the scene happening very fast, mimicking that moment of panic when you first realize that you’re terrified. Remember to explore the threshold I mentioned earlier, whether it’s in your own work or someone else’s, and play around with how long and how frequent your terror scenes are. If they last too long, then the reader will acclimate and it’ll take the sting out of your scenes. If they happen too often, then the same can happen by becoming predictable to the point of monotony. It’s a balance that takes practice, so this is yet another reason to consume media in your target genre. Get a feel for what other people are doing, and how those works are received, to get an idea for how your story will land.
  • Horror is a mix of cerebral and visceral, but for me it’s much more slow-paced than the other two elements. My favorite horror books are Wilder Girls by Rory Power, and the Escape From Furnace series by Alexander Gordon Smith (5 books), and they both use all three of the elements I’ve gone over in this post, but the horror scenes are slow. They’re described in meticulous sensory detail, to get the full effect and set the scene and subjects, but they include the cerebral element of the point of view (POV) character realizing just how horrifying these scenes are. If it’s a gory scene, there are alternating sections of description and cerebral context according to the POV. For example, the POV character sees a grievous injury but takes the time to imagine what the injury would be like to experience themselves. It adds the element of processing the information while receiving it, compared to the fast-paced terror scenes where there’s no time to process in that moment.

As always, just remember that your story is your own and there’s no right or wrong way to use these elements. Genre research is a great way to learn how other people have used these tools, but you’re the author, so your job is to use them in your own way. Posts like these are examples and opportunities to learn how to use tools effectively, but… rules are made to be broken, yes?

What about you? Do you like using suspense, terror, and/or horror in your writing? Do you like writing/reading/watching these narrative elements? Any favorites? Let me know in the comments! And if you don’t want to miss out on any Author Rescue content, join the monthly newsletter!


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