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:

Randy Ingermanson:

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.

Terri Blackstock:

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.

Angela Hunt:

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.


Grady Houger said...

Topic idea! I don't know if it's easy, but I was wanting to know the importance of grammar/sentence structure technicalities. If a mugger jumps out and screams at gunpoint, "What is an adjective!"
I would have to reply; "Being shot is less painful than trying to remember!"
Am I handicapping myself or is it ok to play it by ear?

Also, I can't comment without saying how wonderful the lessons on plotting and twists have been. I have been applying your instruction to a directionless short story fragment and am delighted to see it become more comprehensible than any of my efforts thus far. The downside of your teaching is that I how have three years of writing to revise! But thanks!

Lynette Sowell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lynette Sowell said...

Let's try this again.

I'll see if I can find some spider stickers for our name tags. I arrive Wed. in Nashville... :)

Liked the comparison between mystery and suspense.

Unknown said...

Thanks Brandilyn. I'm still trying to find my niche, and I'm torn between "Cat Who" type silly mysteries, where the author creates a wonderful town full of very odd characters (I know odd very well), and the classic suspense/thriller. I'll find it!

Thursday night it is. Ready with name tag, rubber spider, and Stayin' Alive T-shirt.

I'm leaving Monday, so see y'all there.

Anonymous said...

Grady, you made my day. That was beautiful. :p

Unknown said...

Topic idea. How to best show emotion. I'm always getting from my critique partners: show me more emotion. How many pounding hearts and swallowing lumps in the throat can I have in a thriller.

Gosh, I came late to this blog, I hope I do the spider hand right. Look forward to seeing y'all at the conference.

Domino said...

LOVE the mystery/suspense comments! LOVE the very clear and understandable teaching! THANKFUL does not begin to sum up how I feel about coming to this blog time and time again. I am so encouraged. And I'm actually becoming smarter. How did that happen?

D. Gudger said...

B- I must say again how helpful your blogs on plotting and twisting have been! My WIP is on the back burner since I just started writing grants for a mission organization. What's really exciting, is since I get to tell real-life stories, I've been applying appropriate tidbits of what I'm learning here.

As for the next topic, I kinda like what gina is suggesting - emotion. Editors don't like all capitals or italics or even exclamation points! How can we as writers emotionally grab the reader from the very first sentence? That seems like a tricky skill b/c on one hand it can sound contrived and cheesy, on the other, it can be overdone . . .

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I like the emotion topic, too, but maybe, for something easier next week, how about 1) the importance of going to conferences; 2) how to prepare for conferences; 3) how to conduct oneself at conferences (including skittering hand signals! ; )

Reiterating my thanks for such a great job re. plotting. Helpful stuff for any genre.

Love the mystery/suspense comparisons. Ah, unfortunately it does explain why I'm a mystery reader, though I will continue to make a Brandilyn exception now and again! ; D

Karen Eve said...

Spiders it is, I just hope I can stay awake for the late night. I work all day then still have to drive home after the conference at night. I'm practicing spider movements, just remind us next week.
Thank you for the insight. I've never thought about mysteries, but it was quite helpful to see the difference. That's probably why I'm a suspense person.
BTW - Is our theme song Itsy Bitsy Spider?

Lynette Eason said...

Hi Brandilyn,

Wow, I'm so bummed about not going to the's only about 6 hours from me...ah well, I'll get over it and look forward to hearing from you guys about all the wonderful "stuff" you said and did etc.

Okay, question. BC, you addressed this at one point when you were talking about POV, I believe. But I want a little clarification about how to write third person wihtout revealing the sex of your character. For example, my bad guy is a guy, but I want my readers to think he's a she. I have scenes in his POV and want to make sure I'm handling it right. I hope it's all right to post one of them. I've noticed floating body parts ("glove encased hand set the phone down") and passive writing (was), but don't know what else to do short of writing it in first person and that ain't gonna happen. What do you think?

"What do you mean she's gone?" Anger coiled, sharp and biting until it permeated the room. The hand that gripped the phone squeezed tighter as though to resist reaching through the line to curl around the neck of the man who had the audacity to announce the escape of Cassidy McKnight.
"Find her. And make sure she's dead. Don't call back until you've succeeded." The glove encased hand set the phone down with precise movements. Anger boiled and raged on the inside, but anyone looking at the carefully composed fa├žade would never know of the seething cauldron buried deep within.
A secure future stood within grasping distance. Wealth and power loomed on the horizon. And Cassidy McKnight stood between it all. If the idiot on the phone couldn't take care of the situation in a timely manner, a trip to Brazil might be the only way to get rid of the problem.

Lynette Eason

Anonymous said...

A big THANK YOU to Brandilyn and all the illustrious authors who answered the mystery/suspense question.

I have an inciting incident question. According to the Hero's Journey, the protag is supposed to start out in his/her natural world. Shouldn't I then open my story with a few paragraphs about the natural world before jumping right into the inciting incident? (If this has been addressed elsewhere, please let me know which week.) Thanks so much.

Grady Houger said...

Wow, that's a tough one Lynette Easton. The dialogue you posted sounds male. Power thwarted. Do it now.

To quote a recent story I read; the female villain says things like: "And I also hope you didn't forget what happened 10 years ago, it would be very unpleasant."
Whereas the male villain says things like: "Go, now! Next time we meet, it'll be to kill you."

If your character sounds more androgynous, to where readers weren't sure which way to guess, your villain would have a different mind. How you work it depends on how the plot is changed by the villain's sex. Is it just a surprise for the reader or is the villain confused about his sexual orientation?

Dineen A. Miller said...

On the next subject, I like the idea of emotion. That would be great. I may not get to read them every day since I'll be at the conference, but I'll look forward to coming home to something excellent to read.

Lynette, about your POV predicament. What if you kept this character in thought? What he/she is thinking, like you are, but use movement in terms of how he/she is affected. Instead of the hand, refer to the click of the line. Also, what if this character has a name he/she thinks of him/herself as? Maybe an ambiguous nickname that could even give insight to the character. Then he or she could be replaced to some degree with the nickname. Otherwise keep movements external, as to effect (hearing the click), not cause (the character hanging the phone up). Sounds like quite a challenge, but how unique!