Suspense vs Mystery: What’s The Difference? A guest blog post by Allison Maruska

As a sponsor of my Word Weaver Writing Contest, you get a free guest blog post!

Oh, you’re having a writing contest?


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For details on how you can win valuable prizes and get a critique of YOUR writerly work by ME, click HERE

Today, contest sponsor, bestselling author, and friend of the blog Allison Maruska uses her guest blog spot to discuss a writerly topic.


renovatio-ebook-v4Before I start, I want to thank Dan for hosting the Word Weaver writing contest and for having me on as a sponsor. My donated prize is an audiobook copy of Project Renovatio, my YA sci-fi/mystery. In brainstorming topics for a guest blog post, Dan and I had a conversation that went something like this:

Dan: How about something about the trilogy? Maybe about their genre?

Me: They aren’t exactly the same, though. Renovatio is mystery. Liberatio and Ancora are suspense.

Him: …

Him: …

Him: What’s the difference?

And behold, we have a blog topic!

Dan, interrupting the guest post: Oh, that is such bullshit. I wasn’t confused or anything.

Allison, also interrupting: LOL. It was something we talked about. I didn’t say recently…

Dan: …
Allison: You can take that out if you want.
Dan: Nah.

(Allison, back in the guest blog post): As genres go, mystery and suspense are my happy places, both as a reader and a writer. I may stray into other genres, but pretty much every piece of literature I interact with is either mysterious or suspenseful in some way.

And yes, they are different, but it’s helpful to think of them as cousins. In fact, they are so closely related that one of my books, The Fourth Descendant, took a sharp turn from mystery to suspense halfway through and I got away with it (hehe). To see how they’re related, consider the following chart I found on Writer’s Digest:



Yes, horror is there too. He’s a second cousin.

Put most simply, the difference between mystery and suspense is this: In a mystery, we have to figure out what happened in the past. In suspense, we have to keep the thing from happening.

That’s it.

It’s all about the timing of an event.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a violent event, either. In The Fourth Descendant, the mystery was finding out what the ancestors locked away in the safe. It became suspense when that was solved and now the characters have to keep the discovery out of the wrong hands.

Consider the following excerpts, the first from Project Renovatio (mystery) and the second from Project Liberatio (suspense).

Levin retrieved his wallet from his pocket, pulled papers from it, and unfolded them. “I got a weird letter in the mail today. From a guy my age who lives in San Diego. He also sent this.”

He held the papers and slid a small photograph across the table.

She picked it up. “He sent you a picture of you?”

“Look closer.”

She analyzed the picture for a few seconds before spotting what he meant–the subject’s nose was too thin. The man’s other features–black, wavy hair, dark eyes, olive skin, and medium build–appeared identical to her brother’s. “Who is this?”

“His name is Scott. His dad’s a reputable scientist who only has a couple more weeks to live. Scott said he went through some paperwork, and he stumbled onto evidence that his dad has a secret, well, ‘other’ family.”

Rana still held the picture but glared at her brother. “What did he find?” And what does this have to do with us?

“Old bills, a couple letters, and this.” He handed her a paper displaying a color copy of a photograph. “Those kids are me and you. The man is Scott’s dad. I was five, and you were one.” He leaned towards her. “I think this guy is our dad.”

Scowling, Rana studied the man in the picture, who sported dark hair like hers and Levin’s. She shook her head. “Our dad died before I was born.”

“According to Mom”

“Why would she lie about that?”

“Maybe there was something about him she wanted to keep hidden–like a secret family. I tried to find information about him on the internet and came up empty.”

Rana huffed. “I can’t believe Mom would hide something this huge from us, especially for so long.”

“She does go on a lot of business trips.”

This is in chapter one, setting up the characters to solve the mystery of what’s up with their dad. It turns into a bigger mystery as they go along.

Now, compare this piece of chapter 2 in Liberatio:

Turning his attention away from Levin, Dr. Craig scanned the group. “If Uriah’s people continue to recruit the Project families that are still out there,” he pointed towards the door, “they could do some very real damage to our original vision and expose you to the general public. If that happens, you will be outcasts. As those who were never meant to be. Our goal is to keep that from happening.” He clasped his hands in front of him again. “The reality is if Uriah’s efforts go unchecked, you will not be able to go home without facing danger, either from his group or from the outsiders. Doing nothing is not our best option.”

Outbursts sprang up from around the room.

“What are we gonna do?”

“You brought us here and now we’ll never leave!”

“How could you let this happen?”

Dr. Craig pulled up a chair and stood on it. “Listen!” He held out his hands, possibly for balance but maybe as a calming gesture.

The crowd quieted, though about half were now standing and glaring at the man who had brought them here.

“Don’t forget who you are.” Keeping his arms up, he surveyed the room. “You must not forget. Our plan depends on it. Your gifts will get you home.”

In unison, a few asked, “How?”

In Renovatio, there is something to solve.

In Liberatio, there is something to stop.

One (or sometimes both) of these are in pretty much every other genre.

  • Romance: Who is the secret admirer (mystery)? Or can the boy woo the girl before the other guy does (suspense)?

  • Sci-fi: How did that old ship end up floating in space (mystery)? Or how will the crew keep the alien race from blowing up Earth (suspense)?

  • Fantasy: Where did this hoard of gold come from (mystery)? Or what if the dragons keep attacking the village (suspense)?

See how this works?

Done correctly, mystery and suspense are what keep us up past our bedtimes. That’s why I love them both.

Do YOU have favorite mystery and/or suspense stories?

Thanks for the explanations, Allison!

Gang, you can check out her published works HERE and her amazing blog HERE.

Enter my Word Weaver Writing Contest and YOU could win an audiobook copy (not signed, I don’t think) of Project Renovatio.

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