I’m discussing the differences between mystery and suspense, blatantly stealing content from Carolyn Wheat, as presented in T. Macdonald Skillman’s book WRITING THE THRILLER. (Side note: Carolyn Wheat also put her list of 16 differences in her book HOW TO WRITE KILLER FICTION. It’s a great resource for anyone’s resource library. I just don’t have it in front of me at the moment, so I’m copying it out of Skillman’s book. Before I get started on today’s post, I want to say that I won’t be covering all 16 differences in these posts–check out one or both of these books from your local library if you’d like the entire list.)
Number six on Wheat’s list is this: The most important action in a mystery takes place offstage. In suspense, the important action happens onstage.
In a mystery, the inciting crime almost never occurs on the pages for the reader to experience first-hand. The crime usually happens before the protagonist steps in to solve it. (Note: In those instances where the reader gets to witness the crime first-hand, we don’t know the identity of the killer. That’s the puzzle the reader–and the protagonist–are trying to figure out.) In J.D. Robb’s mystery NAKED IN DEATH, homicide lieutenant Eve Dallas is called to the scene of the crime. We see it through her eyes: the dead woman shot in her own bed. As the book progresses, we learn (with Dallas) all the details of the crime that took place offstage, before the book began: who, what, where, how, and most importantly, why.
In suspense, the scary stuff happens to the protagonist, and the reader gets to experience all the anticipation, confusion, terror, and nerve-wracking tensions as the protagonist experiences them. In Michael Crichton’s book SPHERE, we experience the scientist’s terror as they struggle to stay alive in a hostile environment against a powerful and temperamental entity they call Jerry. Our heart races as Beth and Norman try to figure out how to neutralize Jerry and get safely home. (spoiler alert) All our spit dries up when the book ends with Beth’s creepy smile.
There will always be overlap in these genres. SPHERE had a mystery to solve. The IN DEATH series almost always puts Lieutenant Eve Dallas in a dangerous situation. But this definition holds: if the main crime took place offstage and there’s a puzzle to solve, it’s a mystery. If the reader gets to experience the protagonist’s emotional state (usually involving terror and dread), it’s a suspense.
For what it’s worth.