Mystery vs. Suspense Part 2

I’m picking apart the differences between mystery and suspense with the help of T. Macdonald Skillman’s book, WRITING THE THRILLER . Today’s post will also be aided by Carolyn Wheat, who came up with sixteen differences between the two closely related genres.

Last week I covered the number one difference: mystery is a puzzle, suspense is a nightmare.

Number two, according to Wheat, is this: “Mystery is a power fantasy; we identify with the detective. Suspense is a victim fantasy; we identify with someone at the mercy of others.”

This is fairly straight forward, but I’ll illustrate it with well-known authors to drive the point home. I’m reading a Harlan Coben mystery right now called BACK SPIN. The protagonist is sports agent Myron Bolitar, who also happens to solve mysteries when they drop in his lap. The book contains elements of suspense–scary things happen to Myron as he’s investigating. Bad guys try to beat him up or otherwise scare him off the case. But he sticks with it until he achieves his goal. In this book, the goal is to find the missing teen-ager. I know, for certain, that Myron will survive because there are six more books in this series. The reader identifies with Myron as he follows the clues, interviews people, and talks through the possible scenarios with his friends. We sympathize with Myron as he gains the upper hand and overcomes the bad guys.

Suspense often contain elements of mystery and horror, so it’s hard to separate them sometimes, but usually in a suspense, the reader knows whodunit and get to see at least a few scenes from the antagonist’s perspective. The bad guy knows that the good guy is closing in, and plans to stop the good guy. Then the reader gets to anticipate the moment when the protagonist walks into the trap.

Or the reader is privvy to some other danger lurking nearby that’s unrelated to the antagonist’s plans. Sometimes the antagonist has no plan. Think of the movie JAWS. The shark hasn’t set out to have bikini-clad girl for lunch. She just showed up at the right time. The viewers know of the danger. The girl does not. The viewers identify with the girl, shouting at the screen, “Get out of the water!”

Consider SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, when the young woman gets dumped into the antagonist’s pit. The basket of skin lotion is lowered down to her. She’s frightened out of her mind, but she doesn’t have a clue (yet) what’s in store for her. We do. And we’re terrified for her. We feel sympathy for the victim and hope she makes it out okay.

More about mystery and suspense coming next week. Same bat time, same bat channel.


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