By Josi S. Kilpack
A couple years ago I started writing what I called a suspense novel. About 75 pages into it I decided maybe I ought to read up on writing suspense novels, since I'd never done it before. I got the book "How to Write Killer Fiction" by Carolyn Wheat and I realized that I was not writing a suspense after all, instead I was writing a mystery.
Now, I freely admit that suspense and mystery have seemed a bit interchangeable to me in the past. They are both a kind of Whodunit, and they are both intense and fast paced, however there are some specific differences that need to understood a so that you can pitch your book correctly and fulfill the 'contract' with the reader that picks up your book expecting a specific experience. Here is a summary of what I've learned.
*Crime to be solved happens offstage
*Reader is two steps behind Main Character (MC)
*MC usually a detective or sleuth
*MC uses skills already possessed
*Intellectually satisfying ending
*Danger already took place
*Story is about what happens to someone else
*Central question: Who did it?
*We see the action that begins the story
*Reader is two steps ahead of MC
*MC can be anyone
*MC learns new skills and grows
*Emotionally satisfying ending
*Danger throughout the story
*Story is about what happens to MC
*Central question : Will the Hero survive?
In the book, Wheat compares a mystery to a carnival fun house, where the floors shift and things aren't what they seem, you have to pay close attention to find your way out. A suspense, on the other hand, is compared to a roller coaster ride, intense, heart pounding, pervaded with fear of survival.
There are some cross overs, books that use both elements but it's usually pretty easy to determine which type overshadows the other one--calling your book a mystery suspense really won't work.
Through reading this book I learned that I use a lot of suspense elements in my books, but not so much mystery. It helped explain why writing this book was different and harder than anything else I had written--it was totally new.
I recommend the book How To Write Killer Fiction to anyone that would like a crash course in either mystery or suspense as Wheat offered great information on both genres. I'm still working on my mystery--it's been a slow process and I'm still learning a lot but it's been fun to try something new.