Monday, January 26, 2015

Suspense or Mystery

Suspense can be found in every story. Be it romance, crime novel or a fantasy fiction, suspense rumbles beneath the surface of the tale. It pushes us to keep reading and worrying that our favorite characters might not get what they want.

Suspense is an essential part of horror, but it’s a subtle contributor to romance. “Will she or won’t she?” The long-lost lovers sit on park benches, their backs to each other: “Turn around, clueless lovers!”

Mystery is not the same thing.

Mystery is unweaving what the characters want and what they might have done to get it. In Jodi Picoult’s latest book, Leaving Time, a title fraught with double meanings, the story contains both elements, suspense and mystery. They are foreshadowed by the author’s adroit and well-placed hints. Disclosures and scenes in points-of-view dovetail seamlessly into the plot while we take clues that include knowledge of elephant societies. Their social structure is the metaphor for our human behaviors, family structures and grief modeling.

Picoult uses standard ingredients important to creating suspense and/or mystery fiction such as:

FORESHADOWING: It is said if a gun sits on the mantle in an early scene it must be fired by the ending scene.

She leaves clues in the early part of the book, but readers must pay close attention.

The first mystery book I read as a teen was Hasty Wedding, by Mignon Eberhart. I found she usually introduced the murderer at the beginning of the third chapter. Talk about formula writing. Once I caught on, I stopped reading her books and looked to other writers, more varied and subtle. Three authors I especially like for their handling of suspense are Greg Iles, Harlan Coben and Stephen King. They know how to set up validation for their endings and keep the mood steadily escalating.

MOOD: can be achieved in words that sooth in menacing ways, slick and slow body language, or by using harsher language and shorter sentences to indicate this might not be the safest setting. Description contributes to mood. You won’t find any 78-degree days with bright sunshine spotlighting a murder scene…unless, by contrast, a shiny weapon or a huge eyeball is glinting in an otherwise pleasant environment.

CONTRAST: Contrast is the startle factor: Boo! Yikes! Such deviations as furniture out of place, picture frames be-cocked, bleeding fireplaces, mirrors that waver like water, crooked vases, even a treasure map the keeps rotating upside down will lead us to the fear factor.

BUILD UP: In movies, music helps enhance the mood and leads us to the climax. In literature, we don’t have that luxury. The mood is set by details that put appropriate music in our heads. (See Ute Carbone’s TWV blog for November 8.)

Without these elements, the reader doesn’t care who lives or dies or who gets the girl. The girl must be hard-won.

John Jakes said of readers: “Make them laugh; make them cry; make them wait. But most important, make them wait.” That’s the mystery of suspense.

Julie can be reached at:
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Twitter: @JulieEPainter
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Kai Strand said...

I don't read a lot of mystery, but I agree that all books need suspense. Steven King is indeed a master at it.

Big Mike said...

Well put, JP.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Angelica Hart and Zi said...

Enjoyed your post. Ang's first mystery was Nancy Drew and Zi's was Hardy boys. Yes, they were formalized but at those young ages, we didn't care. Both of us were drawn to Steven King from his first novel. At the same time, we adore suspense in any genre and we read about every genre.