Monday, September 3, 2012

What's The Difference Between Mystery and Suspense?

Picture by Judy Harper 2012

     Have you ever wondered if there was a difference between mystery and suspense writing? I have. In trying to answer this question, I came across a post, by Janet L. Smith, at a blogsite, MysteryNet. She gave a great explanation for the difference by using an interview of Alfred Hitchcock(click here to read her full post)
     Hitchcock: Crucial is the difference between suspense and surprise. To put it simply, if you have a scene where two characters are conversing in a cafe, and a bomb suddenly goes off under the table, the audience experiences surprise. On the other hand, if the audience sees the saboteur place the bomb, is told that it will go off at one o'clock, and can see a clock in the scene, the mundane conversation between two cafe patrons now becomes one of intense suspense, as the audience holds its collective breath waiting for the explosion. Fifteen minutes of suspense, as opposed to fifteen seconds of surprise. It was therefore necessary that the audience be as fully informed as possible.
     Janet L. Smith: based on this principle, the suspense thriller has been loosely defined as a story in which the audience is waiting for something significant to happen. The protagonist's job is to prevent the speeding bus from exploding, or the aliens from eating the crew. The reader experiences a vicarious thrill by identifying with the hero and the danger he faces, becoming a participant in the chase.
     A mystery, on the other hand, is a novel of revelation, with action more mental than physical. A significant event, usually a murder, has just occurred, and the protagonist's job is to discover who committed the crime, and why. The dilemma created for the writer of traditional mysteries is the fact that the villain and the details of the crime must remain unidentified, breaking Hitchcock's rule of keeping the audience informed.
     A mystery writer quickly learns that it is far harder to generate suspense when the story revolves around something that has already happened, as opposed to a life-threatening event that is going to happen in the future. For this reason, most mysteries contain elements of suspense, where the protagonist or another character's life is in danger as long as the villain remains at large. But the mystery writer loses the most significant source of conflict by virtue of the fact that the protagonist and her major foe cannot face off in conflict until the final scene. A threat from an unknown source is never as exquisite as the danger of a known and powerful villain.
     So, if it's that simple, why don't we all give up writing whodunits, and turn our attention to screenplays for the next Die Hard sequel? The answer is simple. While the traditional mystery may lack something in shock value and vicarious thrill, it has other merits. A successful mystery is compelling drama because it explores the uncharted territory of the mind. Few mysteries today rely solely on a puzzle. The contemporary whodunit has become a whydunit. For the same reason that we read true crime, we read mysteries to find out why a sane person would be pushed to commit the ultimate crime, or how an insane murderer could so brilliantly cover his tracks. The reader gets involved because the mystery is such a perfect medium for revealing character. 
     Me:  After reading her post, I thought about the books by my all time favorite author Agatha Christie. She doesn't just rely upon solving a puzzle, she does write whydunits. I now have a better understanding of suspense versus mystery. Can you think of a truly suspenseful book that doesn't involve murder? Or a mystery that doesn't involve suspense? 
     Some links to go along with this discussion is:
            "When I Was Down, You Stood There Grinning", by Margot Kinberg.
            "Six Tips from John Steinbeck", by Jan Morrison
     Do you like blogfests? Click on this link to see an upcoming blogfest.  Alex J. Cavanaugh

1 comment:

Arlee Bird said...

The two definitely go hand in hand, but I think the mystery involves more use of the brain in an intellectuall manner while suspense is more stimulation of the brain to the point where it affects one's other senses and physical awareness creating a thrill.

Hitchcock was the master in especially intellectual suspense.

Tossing It Out