Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mystery or Suspense..or Romance?

What I'm reading: The Sentry, by Robert Crais

I've noticed a fair number of recent blog posts offering tips about writing compelling suspense. They were all good, except I don't really like suspense. I'm a mystery fan, first and foremost.

Often we see the two genres combined—it's not unusual to see "mystery/suspense" as a category. But they're not the same. According to the dictionary, suspense is a state of uncertainty, enjoyable tension, or anxiety. A mystery is something you cannot explain, or don't know anything about. It's easy to see how they overlap. But there are distinct differences.

Let's take a look at both:

In a mystery, the reader follows a step behind the detective/protagonist as he or she solves the crime. The reader doesn't know anything until the protagonist does. Normally, the crime has already happened, and the detective has to figure out who did it. Mysteries are puzzles.

In a suspense, the reader is a step ahead of the detective/protagonist. A suspense is usually about preventing a crime before it happens, or catching the killer before he kills again, or stopping the villain from blowing up New York, or any number of threatening possibilities.

Often the major difference in writing a mystery as opposed to a suspense will boil down to POV. If there's a villain's POV, then the reader knows what's happened. Suspense. Think Alfred Hitchcock.

If there's only the detective's POV (and I'm being simplistic, because often there are multiple POV characters in a mystery, but they're not the villain), then the reader doesn't know what happened. Mystery. Think Sherlock Holmes.

And then, there's the other side of the bookstore, the romance aisles. In it is the broad category the publishing industry calls "romantic suspense" which comprises all the sub-genres of mystery, from cozy to thriller. There's the added hero/heroine story arc, with its requisite Happily Ever After. However, by tacking that 'suspense' term onto the genre, readers might be expecting an actual suspense, not a mystery, and be disappointed.

There can be elements of both, however.

FINDING SARAH starts off as a mystery. Sarah's shop has been robbed and she calls the police. The detective, Randy, tries to solve it. However, later in the book, Randy and Sarah are separated, and Sarah is in danger. Now, the reader will see things through Sarah's eyes that Randy doesn't know, and things through Randy's eyes that Sarah doesn't know. This creates suspense, even though the book wasn't intended as a strictly suspense novel.

In HIDDEN FIRE, the same two characters are part of a more classic mystery. There's been a murder, and Randy must figure out who did it. The reader never sees the killer, so it wouldn't be classified as a suspense.

In DANGER IN DEER RIDGE, because the villain was obvious, I included his POV, and that added elements of suspense to the story. But, in my mind, it's still more of a mystery. If I'd been responsible for labeling romance books that include mystery sub-genres, I'd probably have included a "mystery romance" moniker. But nobody asked me (they never do), so we've got romantic suspense novels that might not have any suspense in them. That's why I like to think of my own books as "Mysteries With Relationships."

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Hart Johnson said...

Interesting breakdown. I write mystery AND suspense, but my suspense, rather than being villain PoV is more lead up to something that is GOING to happen. I think of mystery as 'reader can solve with MC', where suspense is spooky clues that aren't necessarily solvable. I guess though, most of my books I think of as 'suspense' have mystery elements and my mystery tends to have a suspense component (usually in the killer actively trying to block to solving, so somebody is in physical danger)

Terry Odell said...

Hart, I agree, the elements can be combined, but if the reader knows what the protagonist doesn't, that adds to the suspense.

Misty Dietz said...

Great post. I agree, there are definitely expectations for both genres, though I do agree with Hart that the lines are often blurred. :)

Barry Ergang said...

One can argue that any story, regardless of genre, must contain suspense. It doesn't have to be the anxiety-laden, nail-biting kind. It only has to be that which compels readers to keep reading to find out what happens next. Without it, a story will go unread.

Terry Odell said...

Misty - it's always reader expectation, isn't it. If a great book doesn't match what the reader expects (any genre), then they're probably not going to like it. (of course, there are always exceptions)

Barry - oh, definitely. Every paragraph should compel the reader to keep reading, but here, I'm talking about where books belong in the bookstores more than writing craft.

Anonymous said...

I think the best definition of mystery, suspense, or thriller is this: Mystery - What happened? Suspense - It is about to happen. Thriller - Get out of the way, it's happening!

Great article,
Joe Prentis

Michele said...

I guess I like suspense, then, according to your definition! I like to know what's going on and then watch the H/H figure it out!

Sisters of the Quill said...

I'm writing a book that lies smack dab in the middle of these two. I think of Silence of the Lambs as near the middle - and would be even more centered if we had met the killer earlier.

Kathy Bennett said...

I'm definitely in the camp that mystery and suspense are often meshed. I'll even be so bold to say you can have some thriller thrown in there too.

However...I also think most readers of mystery/suspense/thriller books understand the lines are getting blurred more and more and many are willing to flow with it.

Donnell said...

Terry, good breakdown. I agree a suspense isn't a mystery, but it can have mystery elements. I also caution anyone saying emphatically I don't like this or that, because an author may just come along and prove you wrong.

I agree with Kathy that the lines are being blurred. I write romantic suspense, suspense and mystery. I'll leave it to my publisher to define the genre, but I hope no one will tie my hands because I don't fit into a specific mold. It's whatever the story calls for.

But I do like your breakdown of the genres. Well done.

Christine Warner said...

I liked how you broke this down and simplified it. Nicely done. Enjoyed your blog so much I shared it on facebook. An informative read.

I always jumbled mystery and suspense together and believe that my writing style includes a bit of both...leaning more toward mystery, but labeled as suspense. LOL Now how is that for confusing. But my writing is also light and at times humorous, so it's confusing even more for me to pick one genre.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I like the effort to categorize because it helps me think through which elements I want to emphasize in a story. Good post and good comments.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I think Joe's definition is a really good one. Mysteries are about figuring about what happened, whodunits while suspense novels are about preventing something terrible from happening. Of course, the two can be combined.

dlsparks said...

Great post. I write romantic suspense and I've always considered mystery more of a "whodunnit" type work. Like Mrs. Plum in the kitchen with the meat cleaver. Suspense is more knowing the who, what and sometimes why the reader is being taken on a wild ride of the "how". How is the hero going to figure out what the reader knows (or thinks they know if you like to throw in twists like I do). Thrillers to me I think Stephen King and blood. LOL!

carl brookins said...

I agree with Barry. Any good mystery contains an element of suspense and vice versa. And a bunch of other elements as well. I see crime fiction in which the first chapter or prologue sets up a crime-to-be and the rest of the book is very mysterious. One of the abiding mysteries is how/whether the author solves the mystery in time to prevent the crime set up in the beginning. Then of course, we shouldn't omit reference to romance, esp. if the romance is between the perpetrator and the protagonist!

Marian L said...

Love your definition, Terry. I write cop mysteries with romantic elements. I also write suspense.

Terry Odell said...

Joe - great definitions

Michele - that's why there are so many different books. Something for everyone.

SOQ - good luck with your project, and have fun balancing the elements.

Kathy - I agree the lines blur, and there's nothing wrong with combining genres (as happened with Finding Sarah). It's all going to boil down to reader preference.

Donnell - great to be able to have a publisher decide--I've had rejections, however, because they couldn't figure out what kind of mystery the book was. I think so many publishers like nice clean lines (or they just call the book what they think will sell it. I've read many books labeled 'thriller' that didn't come close to my expectation. And since I don't tend to like thrillers, I'd missed some of these books because of their labels.

Christine - thanks for the share!

Susan - glad I helped.

Jacqueline - very true

dsparks - I prefer mystery, but that's personal preference. Oftentimes, when an author sticks in only a few scenes from the villain's POV (crossing the line into suspense) I find myself asking if the book is actually better for those scenes. Often, I think they could have been left out.

Carl - thanks for your insights. I think my next mystery follows your example.

Terry Odell said...

Marian - I love cop stories, which tend to lean to the mystery side of things, although many authors definitely write them as suspense by showing the villain.

Karen C said...

I enjoyed the post, Terry, and will probably be thinking about it as I look at some of my books. I know that I love suspense, mystery, romance, and thrillers and I especially like when the lines are blurred! But as long as you can grab my attention, keep me on the edge of my seat and turning the pages, it doesn't really matter to me what you call it. And for you authors who provide me with that type of escape - thank you!

Terry Odell said...

Karen, no, thank YOU. Without readers, we'd be nothing. We love hearing from you.

jenny milchman said...

I love the area you describe where mystery becomes suspense, or there are elements of both. Perhaps you see some of the bad guy's activities, but not all, so there's still plenty of guess work involved. I agree with Hart--very interesting breakdown, Terry.

Jemi Fraser said...

I nodded all the way through this! I'm writing a 'romantic mystery' or 'mystery with romance' or .... It drives me nuts what to call it, because it doesn't really qualify as suspense!

Terry Odell said...

Jenny - thanks - blending is good, and readers often have no idea of the categories, which has good points and not so good ones--you can win them over or lose them.

Jemi - my pet peeve as well. The romance industry decided to call ALL romance with any mystery sub-genre "romantic suspense." You can write mystery/romance (which I do), but readers don't necessarily understand that it's not our fault!

Rebecca Grace said...

Wonderful blog. I like the way you break down mystery and suspense. I agree with Kathy and Donnell about the lines being blurred. As someone who writes mystery and romantic suspense I also agree that sometimes it just comes down to point of view of your characters, though I love to get that villain's POV stirring the pot!