Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mystery vs. Suspense: What’s the Difference?

by Jill Williamson

I've done some research these past few weeks on this topic, and here’s what I found: Mystery novels make you think. Suspense novels make you sweat.

But let’s look a bit closer at each.

The Mystery Novel
A mystery is a secret. A puzzle to be solved. It makes the reader curious. It causes the reader to make guesses as to the outcome. It hooks the reader because the mystery is baffling, unsettling, and begs a resolution.

In a mystery novel, the crime usually happens off stage, and it cannot be solved until the end of the story.

These types of stories tend to have a large cast because the reader needs many suspects. The murderer could be anyone! And as each character is introduced into the story, the reader develops a sense of whether or not each might be guilty or innocent. Clues and red herrings are planted.

The protagonist may be a detective or an amateur sleuth, who gathers the clues or pieces to the puzzle and assembles them in order to find the truth of what happened. In real life, in order to convince a grand jury to indict someone of a crime, there must be probable cause that the suspect committed a crime. The detective or sleuth in a mystery novel must do this as well.

Probable cause states that this person probably committed this particular crime at this place and at this time. And there must be evidence for each of these things to make an arrest. Proof that who did what and where. Just like in the board game Clue (the weapon goes with the “what”). Check out t
he movie Clue, starring Tim Curry sometime. Another great example of mysteries are the Sherlock Holmes books or movies.

In a mystery, the reader discovers the clue or red herring at the same time as the protagonist does. The reader becomes the investigator too. 
Mystery novels tend to be slower paced. They’re an unwinding a spool of thread. They challenge the reader’s smarts. They explore the criminal’s mind and motives. Why would a sane person commit a heinous crime? Or how could an insane criminal so perfectly cover his tracks? A mystery is intellectually satisfying to the reader.

The Suspense Novel
Suspense is a condition of mental uncertainty. Like a mystery, it makes the reader curious, but it also makes the reader anxious and excited as he waits for all to be revealed. It plants questions in the reader’s mind. Will the criminal get away with this? Will the hero figure it out in time?

In a suspense novel, the crime often happens on the page, the reader may or may not know who committed the crime, but the reader is waiting to discover how the hero is going to put it all together and how it might impact his life.

The hero is often thrust into the role. He might be a police officer, but he might be a regular guy without any skills or training to face such criminals. He would rather be coaching little league, but he’s been forced by someone or something to step up and protect his loved ones from danger. The stakes are high.

He must keep the terrorists from obtaining their objective, stop the bomb from exploding, keep the zombies away from the kids. The reader lives vicariously through the hero, experiencing a thrill as he faces danger and tries to save the day. A great example is the movie Speed, in which a young cop must prevent a bomb exploding aboard a city bus by keeping its speed above 50 mph.

Alfred Hitchcock explained suspense as, “A state of waiting for something to happen.” If a mystery is an unwinding a spool of thread, a suspense novel is jumping from an airplane and waiting to hit the ground. The excitement should build and build until the ending. It’s not about fear, it’s about waiting for something to happen.

In a suspense novel, the reader sees what’s going to happen before the hero does. This creates that feeling of danger in the reader. He wants to scream, “No! Don’t trust that guy!” or “Don’t get in the car!” 

Hitchcock uses the example of a bomb to explain the difference between mystery and suspense. In a mystery, two people might be eating lunch in a restaurant, talking, and a bomb suddenly explodes. Then the story would be: Who did it?

In a suspense novel, the reader would see the criminal come in and plant the bomb. The patrons in the restaurant wouldn't see him. But the reader would know. He would listen to the patron’s conversation, on the edge of his seat, knowing that an explosion was imminent. The clock is tick-tick-ticking, just like the reader’s heartbeat. A suspense novel is emotionally satisfying to the reader.

What are some of your favorite mystery or suspense novels, movies, or TV programs?


  1. What a great post! It is nice to see the two in their own categories - something I never really thought of - so thank you!
    I have countless books that I love that have some suspense in (most books I love do actually) but the only real mystery books I have read are the Nancy Drew series. I adore those books and own a collection of over a hundred of them. Nancy Drew was like Spiderman to me...always will have a place in my shelf. =)

    1. Me too, Leorah! I read all the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books when I was a kid. Loved them!

  2. This was really interesting, I never really thought about what the difference between mystery and suspense might be!
    I like mystery better, I've got a lot of Sherlock Holmes books plus some movies, too. Thinking all the time while reading or watching and unrolling that thread together with the detective is simply entertaining, one can never have enough of it :D

    1. They are fun, Xa. Have you seen the new Sherlock from BBC?

    2. Yes, I love that series, it's one of my favourites, though Benedict Cumberbatch speaks a bit too fast at times for me. But that's the only flaw :)

  3. This was really interesting!
    I don't read a huge amount of either mystery or suspense, but I love the few Agatha Christie books I've read! I love how she makes everyone a suspect, and how she drops all these subtle clues (and plenty of red herrings, too!) At the end of the book everything suddenly clicks into place, and makes you feel rather stupid for not noticing before xD

    1. Ha ha, Kate. Agatha Christie is a great example of mystery. Did you see the Doctor Who episode with Agatha? (Random Jill moment.)

  4. That was really intersting. I never knew the difference. I love the Sherlock Holmes movies!!! Well done Watson...I mean, Jill. :)

  5. So cool! I never understood the difference. Now I do, thanks for explaining! :)
    Hmm...I don't read too much of either, but I have read a few mystery novels. I used to adore Boxcar Children books, and I've also read Trixie Belden.

  6. It makes sense! I'm a HUGE fan of the *Sherlock Holmes* movies. For school I read Father Brown Mysteries, which were interesting and gross. I'd rather read them then attempt writing though!

    1. Ha ha. They are likely a challenge to write. I always have a little mystery in my books, and a little suspense too. But to write a solid mystery novel, I think, would take some careful planning.

  7. I've been planning to write some short mystery stories over summer. This post came just at the right time!

    1. Glad to hear it, Alice! I'm going to post more on mysteries on Friday.

  8. Thank you for this!! However, I would disagree with you where you said that the reader is screaming at the MC not to do something. I've read tons of books, and when something like that happens, I end up just feeling irritated at the MC for being so stupid! lol, and that annoys me because now I can't enjoy the semi-well written books.

    I love and hate suspense. When it's over, I can enjoy it. When it's happening I always get so scared, even though I know it will turn out all right. :D

  9. From Amo Libros:
    This is a great post!
    I once heard a mystery writer describe the difference as "In a mystery, a disaster has already happened and the main character is trying to figure out what [or who], whereas in a thriller, a disaster is going to happen and the main character is trying to avert it." (may or may not be exact quote). I enjoy Sherlock Holmes and the Agatha Christie's I've read, but I have to ask, does the Scarlet Pimpernel count as suspense? It certainly has a lot of suspense in it.