As I have previously mentioned (last week as a matter of fact) I primarily write fiction heavy on suspense, from horror, to mystery/detective fiction, to thrillers. It’s the type of fiction I do best. The primary reason this is true is simple. I’m best at writing suspense fiction because it’s what I’ve practiced over the years. I haven’t tried to write many romances, or westerns, so I’m not very good at them. And I’ve spent most of my time and energy trying to write suspense fiction because it is the type of fiction I have always preferred to read. I was trying to write along with the authors and stories I admired.
According to some sources, I’m not alone in that admiration. Combined, the suspense sub-genres form the best-selling group in all of fiction. By far. Mystery fiction by itself is the best-selling sub-genre in the United States, for all age groups and all genders.
Is it any wonder that most of the best known writers of our generation work in suspense fiction? Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and James Patterson all work in suspense fiction, though in different sub-genres.
So why is this type of fiction so popular?
Because it’s scary.
Most people live lives of varying degrees of tedium, full of monotonous, boring routine. Their day-to-day tasks, while important, are seldom what one would consider exciting. Reading a scary or suspenseful story provides a nice, safe break from that routine.
People enjoy being scared. They enjoy experiencing high-tension, anxious, and frightening situations. We enjoy suspense fiction for the same reason we enjoy roller coasters, whitewater rafting, and sky diving. It shoves the heart rate up, gets the blood pumping, boosts adrenaline levels. We are built to enjoy the trill of the chase. We feel more alive.
Combat veterans—those willing to talk about it—report that while combat was terrifying, they’d never felt so alive as when they were in battle. Time seems to slow down. All their senses are tuned in to everything. They can hear the faintest of sounds, see astonishing detail, smell odors they never would have noticed before. Fear turns up all the body’s senses in an effort to stay alive. And you are truly alive, experiencing everything in total detail.
The thrill of the chase. Unfortunately, in real life, that thrill and the adrenaline rush that comes with it, usually come with a serious risk of injury or death. People die every year from sky diving, whitewater rafting and even roller coasters. (We won’t even count combat.) It’s a tiny fraction of the participants, but that risk is there. It’s why the experience is so exciting. Fear of death or injury.
And that is the great appeal of suspense fiction. Because it is fiction it is a fairly safe way of experiencing the rush of fear. When done well, suspense fiction recreates a little of that sensory aliveness. But, if it gets a little too intense, the reader can always close the book mid-sentence and walk away for a while, letting their emotions return to normal.
Try doing that halfway through a sky dive.