Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mystery or Suspense?

by Nick Conrad

I have had authors ask me many versions of the following question: “I’m writing this suspense/romantic suspense, but it’s not a mystery because the killer is revealed early on. Is that okay?” The short answer, provided that the lack of mystery doesn’t compromise the author’s goals for the story, is yes. This article is the first installment in a short series about the differences between mystery and suspense and how they overlap.

Some publishers and book vendors group “mystery” and “suspense” together because there is frequent overlap of the two. However, “mystery” and “suspense” are not synonyms. Generally speaking, a mystery will contain some elements of suspense, whether it is a hardboiled thriller with lots of gore or a cozy mystery with nary a speck of violence or threat of violence. Stepping away from book genres for a minute, a mystery is an abstract object — a story with a missing piece. Suspense is a feeling that is evoked by an outside factor, be it fear, anticipation or curiosity. So most well-written mysteries will inspire feelings of suspense in various forms. Pick up a book by Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Higgins Clark, or John le Carré, and you will most likely encounter instances of danger for the protagonist and some kind of life-threatening menace. In a word, one might call these stories “hair-raising”. Meanwhile, there might not be anything particularly life-threatening or hair-raising about Donald J. Sobol’s Encylopedia Brown character trying to figure out who stole the neighbor’s pet frog, but the story still presents a compelling puzzle. Can the reader solve the mystery before Encyclopedia does? It becomes a race against the clock. The crime itself might not evoke fear or anxiety, but solving the puzzle presents a challenge to the reader — the suspense lies in the challenge.

So most mysteries contain some kind of suspense as a rule. But the fundamental part of a book that fits the mystery genre is the actual mystery — the whodunit and how it was done. In a suspense story, on the other hand, the heart of it lies in the feeling the story evokes. A suspense story can contain mystery elements to various degrees, hence the decision of some publishers and vendors to cross-classify; however, the mystery itself is not a requirement for suspense. The root of the suspense, then, is that the reader doesn’t know if the protagonist will “win” — will the killer be caught? Will the protagonist come out of the story alive? Will a satisfactory resolution be reached? A good example of how suspense can work without containing an actual mystery is the subgenre of romantic suspense. The protagonists’ relationship forms in the midst of a dangerous situation they are experiencing together. Often the relationship is intensified by these outside elements, bringing the protagonists closer together because of the emotional intensity of what they are going through. It also ups the ante for those characters’ investment in overcoming the conflict — they not only want to protect themselves and resolve the conflict, but they also have concern for each other’s safety and well-being. The emotional intensity and raised stakes in this instance can make for a whole new level of suspense.

To further explain suspense, we should look to the broader genre that contains it — thriller. The simplest definition of a thriller is a story that places the protagonist in extenuating circumstances, often well outside the realm of normalcy for them. Thrillers are often cross-genre, and many are mysteries. Murder or the threat of murder is almost always involved in some capacity, often framed as a race against time. It makes sense, then, that suspense fits neatly within this greater genre, and that an overlap exists between all three:

So, in a nutshell, mystery and suspense might be two different entities, but they can certainly make excellent bedfellows.


Delilah Devlin said...

Nice explanation. My sister is a pro at writing mystery. She tells me I should give it a try, but I've seen how much plotting she has to do to drop all those clues before the big reveal. I'm allergic to plotting. She tells me she'd much rather write suspense because the plotting makes her crazy too, but when you find a true talent... :)

Wilfred Bereswill said...

And then there are Thrillers.

Terry Odell said...

At the mystery conference I attend, the usual simplification of the distinction between the two genres is that in a mystery, the reader is solving the puzzle with the protagonist, and is usually a step behind him/her. In suspense, the reader knows things before the protagonist does, so is a step ahead.

I prefer mystery, and in my novels, I don't use a villain's POV which keeps the reader from getting ahead. I've also been 'dissed' because there's not enough 'suspense' -- but I'm not writing suspense, I'm writing mystery set against a romance.

I think the publishers did the romance sub-genre a disservice when it decided to call the 'mystery continuum' of romances ROMANTIC SUSPENSE because it shifts reader expectation. If you ask the booksellers, agents and editors, they'll say the sub-genre covers everything from cozy to thriller, but I don't think readers have caught on.

Anonymous said...

Well said, but . . . (the ellipsis indicates suspense [ :) ] the problem with the current genre distinctions, as determined (I suppose) by publishers and booksellers is that readers who want a good mystery (a whodunit or a puzzle) can't find it easily either on bookstore shelves or in online lists, especially bestseller lists. Because thrillers like those of James Patterson dominate the Mystery/Thriller lists, great mysteries are being elbowed out of the market (IMHO).

Terry Odell said...

I agree to some extent. However, I belong to they Mystery Guild, and there are still a lot of mysteries out there, but not in the romance sub-genre.

I've got a bigger beef in the way everything seems to be paranormal these days. That's a genre I have NO interest in, with very, very minor exceptions (a well-done time travel ala Lynn Kurland or Karen Marie Moning), but everyone's got to move to vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, psychics. Total turnoffs for me.

Give me a puzzle with a good relationship and I'm yours. Which might be why I had to start writing my own!