Annie knew she had to find her way out of there. But it was so dark! Suddenly a flash of lightning lit up the dark hall. An earth-shattering clap of thunder followed right behind. The hall seemed to go on forever. In that moment, Annie recognized the door that she was sure Philip had gone through not five minutes earlier.
Feeling along the wallpapered wall with her left hand, Annie moved slowly. It was totally dark again. She could feel her heart beating. Any louder and she would hear it; pounding so hard it would be heard by anyone else close by. Why, oh why had she left the candle at the foot of the stairs!
Another flash of lightning. Another booming of thunder. Annie’s hand found the door and she quickly felt for the glass doorknob. She turned it. The door opened, slowly.
From within Annie could see a lamp shining dimly at the far end of the room. The carpet under her feet meant no one would hear her entering. As her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light Annie suddenly stopped. Just beyond her, not ten feet away was . . .
Don’t you want to know?!
Tell me, what’s there, don’t leave me in suspense, you’re saying!
What’s down the dark hall, is it mystery or suspense?
Why does this matter?
I have loved, loved, loved spooky, scary, mysterious books all my life. I don’t know where that came from; maybe from reading every Nancy Drew book there ever was! That, and watching the best scary movies ever to hit the big screen; classics like Psycho and The Haunting.
And you can watch them over and over again.
So, in today’s post, I’m going to show you EXACTLY how to tell the difference between two very important writing genres!
But, what exactly are you watching or reading? Is it mystery or is it suspense?
Because when you get right down to it, there are many genres of writing. There are
- Realistic fiction
- Romance novel
and hidden within each of these genres are, you guessed it, sub-genres. Just to make life a little more confusing.
I won’t bore you with all of the sub-genres, because the lists will go on forever; instead let’s take a look at a few sub-genres in fiction writing. There are MANY sub-genres in fiction:
- Classic fiction
- Historical fiction
- Science fiction
- Suspense fiction
just to name a few! Whew!
What exactly are you reading when it comes to a mystery or a suspense novel? Do you know? Because there are differences. So, let’s see what each has to offer. Then, you make up your mind.
When I was young, there was an amusement park not far from my home called Olympic Park. There were many rides such as the wooden roller coaster, Wild Mouse, bumper cars, Tumble Bug (I loved this!), a haunted house, and one walk-through dark adventure called “CrackPot”. One of my favorite rides to visit was called “Twister” and it certainly lived up to its name. It was a ride in the dark. As soon as you rode through the doors you were instantly blinded by blackness. There was nothing to see, no matter how many times you blinked your eyes.
Twisting and turning so crazily, that you could hear the grinding wheels on the track under your feet, suddenly a scary face came at you from out of nowhere only to recede the second you flitted by. Then another scene was presented and I recall lots of hysterical laughter and screaming from the props as you rode slowly by in the inky-black darkness.
Here are some of the elements you discover when reading a mystery novel.
- A strong hook. Right from the very first sentence, you the reader, should be hooked in. It has to be good, very good, to get you interested.
Just think about the first sentence of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. You want to know more, you want to keep reading, because what the heck is Manderley?!
A good hook will tease you with wanting to know more. Is it something you want to find out?
- The detective should be the reader. Everyone who reads a mystery should be working through the puzzle pieces they come across as they read; clues that have been left by the author for you to use in solving the mystery.
The characters in a mystery novel aren’t all they seem to be. Some “appear” honest and trustworthy. Ah! but don’t believe everything you read.
- Use of red herrings. Maybe you’ve heard that term but don’t really know what it means. All it means is you’ve been led down the wrong path. All along you thought you had it figured out; ah-ah-ahhhh, not so fast. It was all misleading. Just like going down that dark hall believing you know just what’s behind the door. A red herring can be a clue, an object or a character.
- Make the most of your moods. This is key to a really good mystery novel. A foreboding, quiet mansion by the sea, where parts of the house are off-limits and no longer used. The moors in England where fog and lack of light mask every sound and move. A monastery filled with monks, all who seem to have a grudge against the murdered one.
Classic settings make for classic moods. Characters who seem to be hiding something; walls that have secrets yet to be revealed. How can you be happy and peppy there.
- “I didn’t see THAT coming!” That’s they way a mystery should read. There has to be something withheld from the reader that only the author knows will make all the difference. A good mystery novel uses illusion to cover up what should be right in front of your eyes.
Classic MYSTERY books include: The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco), The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins), And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie), The Daughter of Time (Josephine Tey), In The Woods (Tana French), The Nine Tailors (Dorothy Sayers), A Great Deliverance (Elizabeth George), A Morbid Taste for Bones (Ellis Peters), The Hollow Man (John Dickson Carr), and The Circular Staircase (Mary Rinehart).
They will ALL keep you up nights.
Writing to scare your audience has many overlapping elements to it; whether you’re writing mystery, horror, thrillers or suspense. You’ll want to keep in mind some of these key points when writing suspense fiction.
- Characters you deeply care about are in mortal danger. This is key to building a good suspense story. No one is going to care about characters you haven’t properly fleshed out. They must be REAL to the reader; they must have the same problems and anxieties as you do.
Readers will worry about their character; and as the story progresses, so does the suspense. Tensions need to keep rising and they can be anything. Threats can be physical, psychological, spiritual, or emotional; or a combination of these. Show through your storytelling that something terrible is about to happen; then pick up with a sub-plot and leave your audience hanging.
- Your main character is your hero. They are at the very center of your book. Keep them there. However you write it, your hero is someone who’s world is suddenly turned upside down; someone who goes from a small, safe world to a large, scary scenario. Circumstances are thrust on your main character and are seemingly out of their control.
Be sure that those circumstances are made known to your reader from the very beginning. This is what makes for a good suspense novel. Matters need to look complicated and just when you think the solution is up ahead, another dilemma is created.
- Make the settings and atmosphere classic. By that I mean, your suspense book should take place in a small setting; leave the world-hopping to another genre. Here you want to build a connection between what is happening and where it is happening.
- Suspense writing needs to be quick, needs to be fast. Short sentences. No wordy paragraphs. If you need to build scenes around a narrative, then do that, but keep your dialogue crisp and short. Everything should be in the present tense. Here you have no use for small talk.
Time is of the essence with suspense; and if you do it right, you’ll have one doozy of a story.
- Your hero is someone who is two steps behind the reader. They are always finding something else out; they are learning new skills as they go; their world begins to enlarge. Here you can always introduce spoilers, those who look like friends but become betrayers, cycles of distrust, where so much plays upon the emotions of the reader.
Classic SUSPENSE books include: The Rainmaker (John Grisham), Carrie (Stephen King), The Whitechapel Fiend (Cassandra Clare), The Secret of Chimneys (Agatha Christie), The Moonlit Mind: A Tale of Suspense (Dean Koontz), Dread Journey (Dorothy B. Hughes), Hiding Places (Erin Healy), King Solomon’s Carpet (Ruth Rendell), Black Ice (Anne Stuart), and Strangers On a Train (Patricia Highsmith).
So, now you should have lots of books added to your Wish Lists! There is no more fun than to immerse yourself fully in a good mystery or suspense novel! Dim the lights, light the candles and shut OFF the TV!
Mystery should let you in the secret right from the start; whereas suspense will keep you guessing right to the end. Both are only limited to the author’s imagination, which will take you to the moon and back.
So, remember Annie at the beginning of this post, who had just opened the door to a room from the dark hall? Just beyond her, not ten feet away was . . .
another door! This one was crafted of dark, shiny wood, with what appeared to be fingernail marks all up and down its length. Annie instinctively moved her hand to the door knob. Grasping the knob fully in her hand she turned it.
The doorknob turned in her hand but the door wouldn’t budge. Something was stopping it from moving. Something heavy. Something bulky. Like a body.
What’s down the dark hall: is it mystery or suspense?
YOU can discover that for yourself! Suspense is like a dream; a nightmare dream, and mystery is the “detective” calling you to follow her. Wherever you are, it will scare you.
Just another way to
“Homekeeping Inspirations for Crafting Your Best Life!”