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.
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.