Mystery and Suspense: Similarities and Differences

Do you know the precise definition of a mystery or suspense in fiction?

Can you tell the two apart when you’re reading?

The two genres have several similar characteristics that make it difficult to differentiate from one another but offer such a different response from their readership it made sense that Fiction Formula takes a stab at providing some clarity.

Mystery Defined

A mystery is defined as a puzzle. A crime, usually a murder has been committed and the hero must find the culprit responsible and qualm the fears of the community. Mysteries are often called “whodunit”s because the culprit is unknown to both the hero and the reader.

Like a puzzle (without the picture board to show you what you’re creating) a mystery is a fictional story about a crime or real-life situation (think NBC’s Dateline) where the facts of the case are unknown and difficult to piece together. They’re engineered to make you think. To make you try your best to solve them.

Agatha Christie is well regarded as one of the best mystery writers in modern time and a master at providing clues to both the detective and her readership. Christie weaved in and out of the main storyline dropping red herrings, and real suspects page after page. Even for the most intellectual of readers determining who was responsible in a Christie novel was only possible when she wanted you to.

Alfred Hitchcock was fond of saying a mystery is an intellectual process, and suspense is an emotional process.

Suspense Defined

The purpose of suspense is to deliver a story with a high level of tension and foreboding. The audience expects something terrible to happen and holds a certain amount of anxiety and uncertainty throughout the story. It’s an emotional journey where the reader experiences the threat of danger and the sense of despair along with the hero.

Unlike a mystery, there is no puzzle to solve. Yes, there are clues sprinkled throughout, but the journey is emotional, and the task of the author is to produce fear in the minds of the reader.

Stephen King is probably the most prolific of suspense authors today. Many of his books are widespread in the horror and thriller genre, but they all offer a level of suspense that is second to none. One of our favorites is 11/22/63 (*affiliate link – if you purchase a book I will receive a commission) where a time traveler attempts to prevent the assignation of John F. Kennedy. If you know the history of the assassination and the people involved, this is a real nail-biter despite knowing the actual outcome. King’s story is anything but what you would expect.

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Similarities

As general as the following list of similarities may be, as writers, there is still something to be said about the context of each and the difficulty in providing the different experience each similarity offers for each genre. Take a look at how similar the patterns for are for each style:

  • Crime (usually a murder) happens.
  • The hero is introduced and is tasked with finding the killer and prevent more carnage.
  • Hero builds a team and gathers clues
  • Villain steps up and covers his tracks
  • False truths throw off the hero and his team.
  • Hero attempts and fails to capture the killer
  • Loss of hope on the side of the hero
  • Last effort by the hero to catch the killer
  • Hero wins

Have you ever looked at two pairs of shoes that have the same color, same laces, the same look and feel in your hand, but once you put them on they provide an entirely different emotional feeling? You may love them or you may not. They may feel great, but one pair may be better than the other.  As writers, you should take a moment to give yourselves a pat on the back for having the ability to shape similar elements of plot into two completely different experiences for your readers solely based on the words you chose.

We’ve defined a mystery and suspense and looked at the similarities to each. Now, let’s take a look at the two significant differences between a mystery and suspense. Above all definitions and similarities, these are the two that should create the most significant divide.

Two Major Differences

Mystery: the hero is tasked with finding the truth related to an event at the beginning of the story, usually a murder. The hero is not often the focus of danger which elevates suspense until they get closer to solving the crime. Even then, the focus remains on solving a puzzle and not imminent death.

Suspense: With a goal to create uncertainty, the reader is usually aware of the potential danger before the hero. The point of view character shifts from the hero to the villain giving the reader an all-encompassing view. Suspense occurs after the villain has set a trap for the hero and the reader is helpless with nothing but watch, or in our case read, waiting for the trap to spring on the hero.

What do you think?

In research for this post, I created the difference between a mystery and suspense to help the novice writer. If you’re an experienced mystery or suspense writer or even an avid reader of one or both genre’s we’d like to know, what are the significant differences you’ve noticed between a mystery and suspense? Feel free to comment below!

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