The suggestion from my agent went something like this; “If you could write a story, a literary suspense story using that concept, well, then you might have something.” It’s hard to believe that conversation with him took place a year ago. I only remember it so well because it was also the one year “anniversary” of signing on with his agency. Hmmm, literary suspense. I’ve got the literary part of the story down, it’s the suspense that’s killing me. (Bada boom! Clever work with that sentence, right?)
I’ve had more than one person tell me this genre is hard to write. Not only is it hard, it’s tricky, very tricky. Make that double tricky. I keep re-reading articles on how to write suspense – which in turn makes me rip sections out of my book and adjust the story to stay within the guidelines I’ve just read about. One of the more intriguing statements I’ve come across is how different suspense is from mystery. Before I started trying to learn about that genre, I would have thought mystery/suspense were interchangeable, similar enough to be lumped into the same category. Granted, when you do a book search on Amazon, suspense/mystery/thrillers are all lumped together. I think even some of the reviews on a mystery book for example, might say, “great suspense!”
So. How do you differentiate between suspense and mystery? One of the best examples I found and one that stuck with me, explained the two genres like this:
In a mystery, the beginning involves an inciting incident, whether it’s a murder, kidnapping, or whatever. The main point is, the reader doesn’t know who committed the crime. The good guy, (protagonist) doesn’t know who committed the crime. The reader gets to go along with the protagonist as he/she solves the mystery, with all of its twists and turns, until finally, as a climax towards the end of the book, the answer is revealed. The best ones keep you guessing until the end.
In suspense, the beginning has an inciting incident – except – the reader knows who did it. The reader knows what’s at stake. Think about those horror movies – the really good ones that know how to draw out the suspense by having a character doing something that YOU know they shouldn’t! It’s the same concept here. As the reader you know who committed the murder, the kidnapping, or whatever. You get to go along, knowing who the bad guy is, watch how he strings the good guy along, and all the while, the protagonist is trying their hardest to figure out who is responsible.
But – it’s even more than that. Because suspense writers have given up the big reveal, their secret right at the beginning – so, how are they supposed to keep a reader engaged?
They have to develop interesting diversions, usually something the antagonist has cooked up. These other events should keep the protagonist from figuring out what happened. By waylaying them with problems, one after the other, every time they think they’re getting closer, something should happen, some other thing that prevents them from reaching a goal. It could be the bad guy is trying to make it look like the good guy did it, or maybe the bad guy is trying to win over the good guy, make them their buddy, gain their trust.
Whatever it is, there needs to be a cesspool of problems throughout the story. At this point, I’ve got the cesspool of ideas floating around. My story is teeming with disgusting, twisted things that can/could happen. Keeping track of all that murkiness isn’t easy, but, occasionally I’ll stick my hand in, and pull up a real slimeball of a problem and sling it into the story. I have to make sure it lines up with what’s happened so far, before I dip my hand in again. Tricky, tricky.
Has your story been tricky to write?