Are You More Mystery or Suspense?

by James Scott Bell

Early in my writing education, I read something about mystery and suspense that helped a great deal. The author said that a mystery was like a maze. The sleuth follows clues and red herrings, eventually getting to the answer.

But suspense is like a coil that gets tighter and tighter until the final SNAP.

You can have elements of both, of course, though which one predominates will determine your category.

Suspense is where I hang my keyboard, but almost always with a mystery attached. That’s why my favorite movie director is Alfred Hitchcock. Dubbed “The Master of Suspense,” Hitch wove tales that had you, as they used to say, on the edge of your seat.

I wish everyone could have the same experience I did when I saw Psycho for the first time.

It was in high school, and I’d never seen it, nor had I been informed about the plot. A friend of mine arranged for a showing in our high school auditorium one night before Halloween.

The place was packed.

The movie started, and there was Janet Leigh absconding with bank funds, and pulling in to rest at the Bates Motel.

Oh, man.

The suspense got tighter and tighter. The audience screams got louder, and loudest (me included) at the big reveal.

I shan’t tell you what that is, lest there be those unfamiliar with the film. (If this is you, you are lucky! Arrange to stream it when the sun is down and you won’t be interrupted!)

Books can be like that, too. The two scariest books I ever read are The Shining by Stephen King, and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. The latter is nonfiction about the Manson Family, which lived in the hills about eight miles from my home. They made a miniseries about it which my roommates and I watched in college.

I had nightmares.

One morning I woke up to a scritch-scratch sound. I turned over and saw the guy I shared a room with, Doug, sitting on the edge of his bed, looking at me and sharpening a knife.

He got a big laugh out of that. Me, not so much.

By the way, if you want to know what that whole Manson vibe felt like, Quentin Tarantino captured it perfectly in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There’s a scene where Brad Pitt goes to the Spahn Ranch, where the family was holed up. It’s a fantastic scene and absolutely right on in the creep factor.

Tarantino made another alternative history about pure evil, Inglourious Basterds (spelling is correct). I’ve never seen a more suspenseful scene than this opening, where the Nazi played by Christoph Waltz interrogates a farmer who is hiding Jews under his house. Talk about a spiral that gets tighter and tighter. Yeesh!

I bring this up because I’m about to re-release the most suspenseful novel I’ve ever written. I had that coil firmly in mind as I wrote it, and kept making it tighter and tighter until…well, I best not reveal anything further. Except, if you’ll allow a bit of shameless self-promotion, this clip from a review:

“You’ve got mail” equals “You’ve got trouble” in this impossible-to-put-down thriller. Bell’s straight-from-the-headlines tale will raise the hair on your neck for one important reason: it could happen to any of us. Empowered by his firsthand knowledge of the legal system, the Christy Award-winning former trial lawyer paints a picture of just how vulnerable our secrets—and families—are, in the age of Internet stalkers. First-rate suspense with a fiery action-movie climax! – Christine Lord, CBD Reviews

The title is Can’t Stop Me (formerly published as No Legal Grounds). As per usual, the Kindle version is up for the special pre-release price of $2.99 (regular will be $5.99). Go here to order.

Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B0C6WGFBM1

Why do I lean into suspense? Maybe because I feel like the world is a tightening coil, where evil exists and does not sleep. We can either give in to it, or we can fight it; we just can’t ignore it. My fiction tries to work all this out. Isn’t that quest the basis of most dramatic action? From Homer and Aeschylus to John Grisham and Lee Child, the guiding light is justice.

What about you? Are you more mystery or suspense? Or something else? What does this tell you about you as a writer? I’ll be on the road this morning, but will catch up later. Have at it.

19 thoughts on “Are You More Mystery or Suspense?

  1. That provides helpful clarity between mystery & suspense. Thus far none of my story ideas have been along the suspense lines & only recently have I gotten involved in writing mystery. Although we all certainly want an appropriate level of suspense in all our books regardless of genre.

    In the case of either mystery or suspense, I can’t read anything too hardcore. Real life is violent enough without graphic, scary depictions in fiction. When I read I want to escape, so escaping to be scared and made uneasy isn’t for me. Thus, I never go to see any scary movies either.

    It has been a bit of a puzzle figuring out where I fit into the mystery writing universe. I just consider myself a traditional mystery writer. I don’t think my work would be considered cozy mystery, nor do I want it dark. I want to portray the violence, crime and injustice only as much as necessary to bring the story of justice. That’s what makes it hard to shop for either mysteries or suspense–there’s no easy way to tell how hardcore the writing is.

    And writing mystery is quite a learning curve. Regardless of genre, it’s been quite the adventure navigating the path between pantsing and plotting, & I still haven’t settled on my best plotting method. Writing mystery adds a whole new layer of complication to that plotting. But that’s part of the fun of writing.

    • I’m so with you on the learning curve, BK–it took me close to two years of continuous learning as I worked through three different versions of my first mystery, but I’m living proof it can be done. One of my beta readers is a fellow retired librarian who I worked with for many years who has a deep knowledge of the mystery genre and she said my mystery worked well (and was very enjoyable, the ultimate goal 😉

      It was a lot of work learning how to craft a mystery, but so worth it.

  2. Definite suspense with an underlying mystery. My goal is always to stranglehold the reader from the first page to the last. In fact, my latest just went on preorder. As usual, I sent it to my street team. One ARC reader started it at 4:30 p.m. on Friday. She finished at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday! When I asked how she read it so fast, she told me she made a nice hot cup of tea and a snack and snuggled into her favorite chair — and didn’t move from that spot till she finished it, except bathroom breaks, when she took her Kindle with her. No interruptions, including sleep. LOL It’s 95K words!

  3. Mystery all the way. Still haven’t forgiven RWA for deciding to lump all mystery/suspense sub genres under the label “romantic suspense” which is misleading to readers.

  4. Mystery front and center for me, with suspense simmering in the background, coming to a boil late in the book. I always aim to craft novels that keep you turning the pages, and with mysteries, that’s the disorder caused by the murder and the mystery that shrouds it, the arc of suspicion that the the sleuth and reader go through, as well as other character conflicts, but that page-turning is driven by tension much more than suspense until the confrontation with the killer, and then there is a sudden rapid boiling of suspense.

    Congratulation on your new release!

  5. Suspense all the way for me.

    If it’s done right, mystery is embedded in the tale, but lurks behind the curtain waiting to jump out and scare the living daylights outta me.

    “The guiding light is justice . . .” Yes. And for me, there’d better be some meted out by the end of the story. 🙂

  6. Definitely mystery. I love creating the puzzle, putting the clues in place, and developing the characters as they search for the truth amongst the noise.

    From Homer and Aeschylus to John Grisham and Lee Child, the guiding light is justice. Yes!

    Just pre-ordered Can’t Stop Me. Looking forward to reading it.

  7. Congratulations on the rerelease, Jim!

    I used to write traditional mysteries with the villain revealed at the end. They were okay but something was missing. Finally, realization hit: I was so focused on keeping the villain hidden that I didn’t pay enough attention to their motives and driving forces. Once I started going into their POV and understanding what compels them to do wrong and justify their acts, they came to life. That was the missing element that changed me from writing mystery to suspense.

    Now the villains are known to the reader, but not to the main characters. Suspense grows from not knowing how/when they’ll attack to keep their identifies secret.

    No matter the genre, I totally agree that “the guiding light is justice.” That’s our only hope in an increasingly unjust world.

  8. Early in my career, I dipped my toes into a straight mystery with a short story and discovered that I was bored with the interrogations while I was writing it. So, I remained using suspense and action/adventure in my stories for the remainder of my career. Dangling my heroine off a catwalk above a Vegas stage suits me much better.

  9. Thanks for all the good thoughts and well wishes on my book today. I was at a conference and came back and caught up on my sleep. Time zone change is (literally) for the birds!

    • “Time zone change is (literally) for the birds!”
      I’m dealing with a 9-hour difference, and it’ll be days before my body knows when it is.

  10. I’m definitely a Hitchcock fan.

    We were at my aunt’s lake house during a hellacious storm one Thanksgiving. The power went out. It was freezing cold and she had a fireplace so she invited the guys next door to come over.

    They were from California and one of the guys worked on Psycho. He told us the story (complete with voices) around the fire. We were terrified. Later, when I saw the movie, it was scary but not nearly as scary as listening to him tell it in the dark around that fire.

  11. Congratulations, Jim, on your new release. It sounds great!

    I’m definitely a suspense lover over mystery.

    What I love most about Hitchcock’s work was how he built and built and built the tension up all without bloody gore and torture (unless I just haven’t seen those movies?). Leaving things up to the viewer, or reader’s, imagination is much more frightening I believe.

  12. “…the world is a tightening coil, where evil exists and does not sleep.” What a true statement! Some of my writing friends don’t understand why I write suspense. Seeing as I’m scared of the dark and pass out at the sight of blood, I’m really not sure either. But this statement sums it up. I hope my books will be a call to arms, not a call to the armchair. Thanks for expressing this reality so well. I may have to quote you the next time someone asks me why.

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