Mystery or Suspense – Which is it?

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By Gail Gaymer Martin

People often ask the difference between a mystery and a suspense, and writers will provide varying answers. Have you ever tried to identify the difference between suspense and mystery? It’s not easy. A mystery is suspenseful, and a suspense is often mysterious with obscure criminals and difficult to understand why.

These two genre have things in common, and both create conflict and tension. The longer it takes to resolve the situation, the greater the tension and suspense. Think: conflict, suspense, drama, surprise, resolution. Mystery and suspense also have their own similar pattern.
• Crime happens-killing, body, kidnapping, threat, bombing
• Good guy(s) move in to find the suspect(s) and stop further crimes
• Good guys gather clues and follow the trail
• Bad guys evade and set traps
• Red herrings occur -things that mislead the detectives or hero(ine) and the reader
• Good guys close in/miss target
• Desperation-the ticking bomb about to explode
• Last effort/bad guy is cornered.
• They save the day.
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While each of these genres are similar, there are differences. Mystery is defined as a puzzle. A crime has occurred and the good guy must find the truth and bring order back to the community. Mysteries are often called “whodunit”s because the culprit is unknown. Suspense differs because it often works with a threat or danger on someone’s doorstep. It is an emotional roller coaster, waiting to find who’s hiding the basement or if the person’s best friend is the crazed killer. Suspense tends to have more intensity with more at stake for the main.

Though the two genre have similarities in many ways mystery and suspense are different. Here is a list that helps defines the mystery/suspense classification.

Like a puzzle
Deductive thinking
Action tends to be off stage
Clues offer opportunity to deduce answers
Seeking the suspect and proof
Deals with clues
Focuses on the search
Hero/Heroine have deduction skills
Involves smaller circle of acquaintances
Readers one step behind the characters

Like a jack in the box
Edge of the seat reaction
Action on stage
Clues offer changes to deduce villain
Seeking what, why and who
Deals with suspects
Focuses on the victim
Hero/Heroine learn skills to resolve
Involves people outside their acquaintances
Readers often one step ahead of character

While I have been a fan of writing suspense, my latest release in a romance mystery, and it feels differently than the typical suspense, but it was still great fun to write. As you choose between the two genre for your next novel, refer to this list and use them to create an exciting mystery or suspense. This list is not completed, so if you have noticed other difference between mystery and suspense, please share them.

Gail Martin July 2014Award-winning novelist, Gail Gaymer Martin books are contemporary romance, romantic suspense, and women’s fiction with 55 published novels and nearly 4 million books in print. Her awards, including: the ACFW Carol Award, and RT Reviewer’s Choice Award. She is a cofounder of American Christian Fiction Writers where she serves on their Executive Board. Gail is a keynote speaker at women’s events and is a workshop presenter at conferences across the U.S. Her latest release, Treasures of the Heart, a romance mystery is available both as a trade book and Kindle. Click Here to read the back cover blurb first chapter and reviews. Visit her website at:

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