Friday, September 09, 2005
Twists, and Mysteries, and Suspense, Oh, My!
So here I am, brain-fried. Remember how three weeks ago I finished writing Violet Dawn in time for our family vacation? How I worked like a total idiot those last two weeks, finally writing the last two days pretty much straight through, including all night?
Well, I let the thing sit for a “fresh-eye” look before sending it off to the good ol’ editors. So I gots meself back to California after Labor Day, and the last two days have been reading through the thing.
Surprise, surprise—I now think it’s terrible. Sigh. Fickle author emotions. In my next life, methinks I shall be a secretary.
However, it is nice to see quite a few BG names in my acknowledgments.
Okay, onward and upward. Back to winding up our topic. Thanks to y’all commenters who said the discussion on twists has been helpful. I’m so glad to hear that. Ron left a question yesterday: “Do you think it’s easy to jump from writing mystery to suspense? The two seem to have so much in common.”
Yeah, they do. Let’s talk today about their commonalities and their differences. (These are notes taken from a workshop I’ve given numerous times on the subject.)
The Brandilyn Collins basic, not-rocket-science definitions:
Mystery: A who-dun-it? A puzzle to solve.
Suspense: Agh—what’s-gonna-happen? Danger involved.
Here are some interesting perspectives on the subject from a few of my writing pals:
Mystery: Somebody is dead and the protagonist needs to figure out who-dun-it.
Suspense: The protagonist is in danger of winding up dead and therefore needs to figure out who's-gonna-do-it.
James Scott Bell:
Mystery: Who did it?
Suspense: Will he do it again?
Further: A mystery moves forward toward solution. Suspense is like a coil that gets tighter and tighter. Mystery can have suspense, and vice versa.
A mystery can move slowly, and is psychological. It's a puzzle to solve, but without a panic element. With a suspense novel, time is running out. There's a "ticking bomb" of some kind. A lot of my books are truly mystery/suspense. But some of them are just suspense, such as the ones in which I tell whodunit pretty early in the story, and the suspense is not in figuring that out, but in KNOWING who it is, and how much danger the protagonist is in.
A mystery is a “who dun it.” You have a detective who is out to find the guilty party, and the reader is given the clues (and red herrings) along with the detective. No one knows who the bad guy is until the end of the book, and half the fun is trying to solve the mystery along with the detective.
In a suspense, you are often in the mind of the killer. You, the reader, know exactly who he is and what he’s trying to do. The fun there is watching the protagonist and the antagonist approach each other until the final climatic duel of good versus evil.
And from the book Writing The Thriller, by T. Macdonald Skillman.
A mystery concerns itself with a puzzle. Suspense presents the reader with a nightmare.
A mystery is a power fantasy; we identify with the detective. Suspense is a victim fantasy; we identify with someone at the mercy of others.
In a mystery the hero or heroine already has the skills he or she needs to solve the puzzle. In suspense, he or she must learn new skills to survive.
In a mystery, thinking is paramount. In suspense, feeling is paramount.
A mystery usually takes place within a small circle of friends. The hero or heroine of a suspense novel often finds him or herself thrust into a larger world.
Readers of mysteries are looking for clues. Readers of suspense are expecting surprises.
In a mystery information is withheld. In suspense novels, information is provided.
The mystery asks, who done it? In suspense the question is: What’s going to happen?
A mystery hero or heroine must confront a series of red herrings. The suspense novel hero faces a cycle of distrust.
Mystery endings must be intellectually satisfying. Suspense endings must provide emotional satisfaction.
I agree with Terri B. that many stories can be a combination. Most of my novels could be defined technically as suspense/mystery. They all have the danger, tightening coil element. And they are fast-paced. But because of the twists in the story, the reader also has plenty to try to figure out. My suspenses do not tend to be about telling the reader everything, then letting him watch the results of the fight between good and evil. Well, they may be that on the surface, but underneath, there’s always something else going on.
Bottom line, go for it, Ron.
Any thoughts from you BGs on mysteries vs. suspense?
Final note for the week: At the ACFW conference, we will have a BG get-together during the first night’s (Thursday’s) late night chats--starting at 9:45 p.m. I know some of you will want to go to one of these chats, and that’s certainly fine. We'll miss you. But this is the best time to plan something that is least in the way of anything else. (I can’t meet Thursday before the conference begins, because I’m tied up in board meetings until the afternoon, then will have many people to greet and books to get into the store, etc.) Without knowing the layout of our hotel, I don’t know where it would be best for us to meet (you know, where we’ll scare off the least amount of hoteliers). But, seein’ as how I’m emceeing the conference anyway, I’ll be able to make a quick announcement at dinner Thursday night. And—as Ron said. Don’t forget our BG typing-hand, actually-a-skittering-spider sign. In fact, whenever y’all first spot me across a room, do give me the sign. That’ll let me know you’re a BG, and that you especially rock. :)
See ya Monday. Um. I’ll have to think of a new topic. Got any ideas? Make ’em easy, with a conference coming.