Using Mystery to Create Suspense

As a reader, suspense is important for me. It is the most important factor that determines whether I will enjoy a novel or not, even more important than the characters. More than that, it determines how engaged and interested I will be, and even how quickly I can get through a book.

One way to create suspense is through mystery. In a murder mystery novel, mystery is at the center of the story. However, that’s not the only way that mystery can play a role.

Creating obstacles for the protagonist raises the stakes. However, a situation with no apparent solution creates a mystery for the reader. How is the protagonist going to prevail? Will the protagonist prevail? The more impossible and hopeless the situation seems to be, and the longer the impossible odds persist, the more suspense is created for the reader, who genuinely wonders how the conflict will be solved.

The opposite is also true. If the solution is obvious, the story is a disappointment. In The Dragonriders of Pern, Anne McCaffrey hinted early and often that dragons can probably travel through time. It was an obvious solution, but the characters agonized over what to do, until the last minute when they finally thought of it. This was very disappointing and frustrating.

Cop-outs are also disappointing. The first Dean Koontz novel I ever read was Sole Survivor. The protagonist kept looking for an explanation about how this person could have survived the plane crash, and I certainly couldn’t think of one. I was eager to reach the end and see what brilliant solution the author had devised. When, in the end, it turned out to just be magic, I was disappointed.

The solution doesn’t need to be terribly imaginative. In Tatiana, by Martin Cruz Smith, the answer to the mystery is actually quite simple. However, the author is careful to keep us thinking about other things. There were some facts presented right from the beginning that make more sense in the context of the answer, but we assume a different explanation (incompetence on the part of Smith’s corrupt Moscow police organization).