Mystery vs. Suspense Part 1

I checked out a book from the library last week called WRITING THE THRILLER by T. Macdonald Skillman. She started off the book in an interesting place: defining suspense fiction. Suspense (or thriller) fiction is different from a mystery. Sure, some mysteries contains suspense, and some suspense stories contain a mystery. But there are significant differences in the contents, presentation, and overall structure in the two genres. For the next several posts I’d like to explore some of these differences. Today I’ll start with the biggest difference.

Skillman says, “The focus of a mystery novel is the puzzle. A crime has been committed. Whodunit? Howdunit? Whydunit?”

As the protagonist (detective, private investigator, amateur) goes about solving the crime, there’s usually a strong element of suspense. There are various sorts of danger, both for the protagonist and the other major characters. But Skillman points out that most mysteries today are series books, and in a series, the protagonist rarely dies. Because of this, readers aren’t too concerned about the fate of the protagonist. He’s bound to live through the book. He might get a good scare, he might get hurt, someone close to him might get hurt, but he’s going to make it through to the end of the book alive and ready to take on the next mystery.

Agatha Christie killed off Hercule Poirot, but her publisher refused to release the book until the end of Christie’s career. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was force to resurrect Sherlock Holmes after he was killed. But these are exceptions. Fans of Kinsey Milhone, Eve Dallas, and Myron Bolitar expect that the heroes of these books will be solving crimes until the authors themselves are no longer around to write stories. (Rest in peace, Robert Parker ~ We’ll all miss Spenser, Jesse Stone, and Sunny Randall.)

If mystery is a puzzle, then suspense is emotional. “It’s surprise and confusion and fear and anticipation,” says Skillman. “It’s danger. Immediate danger. It’s worrying about what’s going to happen, not about the action taking place at the moment.” Skillman goes on to say, “A true suspense novel is a book about characters who find themselves trapped in a series of increasingly frightening incidents that force them to take extraordinary steps to survive.”

Mystery engages our mind. Suspense engages our emotions. More on this in the next post. For what it’s worth.

-Sonja

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