Are you writing a mystery or a suspense novel?
Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
A few weeks ago I wrote about the industry-wide confusion over what is narrative nonfiction and what is memoir.
Another widely misunderstood distinction exists between what is a mystery and what is suspense.
First, why should you care?
- Readers of mysteries launch into your book with a sharply defined set of expectations. These readers might not even realize such is the case, but disappointment is bound to ensue should you not deliver a true mystery. Likewise for a suspense novel. In these moments of mistaken identity, a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet.
- Editors generally grasp the difference between the two and often set out to acquire one but not the other. If you mislabel your submission, you’re showing you most certainly can’t meet the category’s requirements.
- Likewise astute agents know the difference between the two and might immediately eliminate your query if you show you don’t know the distinction.
Now, on to the differences:
In suspense, the reader anxiously waits for something to happen: a bomb is set to go off, a bank robbery is about to occur, a deadly virus is about to be released. Generally the protagonist is aware of the impending danger and attempts to divert it from happening. The outcome is suspended until the end of the book as the protagonist rushes to divert the tragedy.
In a mystery, the catastrophe has happened or occurs at the book’s outset–the bomb has gone off, the bank has been robbed, the virus has been unleashed…or more commonly, someone has been murdered. The protagonist solves the puzzle of who did it by tracing through how the crime was carried out and eliminating suspects–sometimes while the perpetrator continues to act by creating additional havoc.
In suspense, the action tends to be physical, and the reader knows who committed the crime–and often why.
In a mystery, the action tends to be mental as the protagonist–and the reader–tries to solve the puzzle–and find out why the crime was committed. As in true crime, readers of mysteries want to understand why such a horrendous act was carried out.
A suspense novel often involves situations that are wide-ranging–life on Earth could be eradicated or a bomb could go off in an airport. On the other hand, mysteries often are set in closed communities–on an island, a small town, a college campus, on a train, at a dinner party, etc. That enables the protagonist to pursue the possible killer within a set range, and the number of suspects is limited.
Author Lynette Eason wrote a blog on this topic, and she mentioned other distinctions:
An important element of a mystery is the red herrings–the suspects who look so likely…yet turn out not to be the perpetrator. In suspense, the protagonist is thrust into a cycle of mistrust. And, of course, if the protagonist trusts the wrong individual or group…well, that ratchets up the suspense.
Mysteries’ conclusions are intellectually satisfying. Suspense endings are emotionally satisfying.
I’m an avid viewer of “Masterpiece Mystery” on PBS, and I confess that my favorite mystery series is “Prime Suspect” with Jane Tennyson. But last week “Masterpiece Mystery” presented me with a new series entitled “Silk,” which focuses on a British female attorney dealing with crimes. In the first episode, I discovered: a) there was no mystery; b) a suspense thread is developing. Uh, if you call yourself Masterpiece Mystery…
Do you prefer mysteries or suspense–either in your reading or viewing?
What examples of each category–either in a book, film, or TV show–can you think of?
Note: I’ll be traveling today, returning from the American Christian Fiction Writers Conference and won’t be able to be as engaged in the conversation as I’d like.
What distinguishes a suspense novel from a mystery? Click to tweet.
Why writers need to know the difference between a mystery and a suspense. Click to tweet.