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Sherrill Joseph asks, “Mystery or . . . Suspense?”

Sherill Joseph is the author of the Botanic Hill Detectives Mystery series for middle grades readers. You can find out more about her here, see her books here, or read her last post here.

The famous film director Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock KBE (1899-1980) proudly bore the title the “Master of Suspense.” Suspense surpasses mystery in making my stomach lurch and my heart pound.  Interestingly, suspense can be both terrifying and exhilarating.

“Sacramento, California, USA – March 21, 2012: A 1998 USA postage stamp with a portrait of movie director and producer Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980).

Suspense is defined as “a state of feeling excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen.” It is different from mystery, defined as “something that is difficult or impossible to understand or solve.” The two terms are not synonymous. In fact, they are the opposite. Let’s let Sir Alfred illustrate this for us.  

Ever since I was a kid and saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (without Mom knowing) for the first of many times, I have been a devotee of the Master of Suspense. Hitch earned that title for good reason.

He believed that suspense was more terrifying than everything else, more than mystery, gore, and in-your-face gratuitous violence. He never made a movie that was merely “slice and dice.” Of course, Psycho’s infamous shower scene has a Niagara of blood. But it’s the build-up to the bloodshed—the suspense—that first creates the terror in spectators’ hearts and minds. How did Hitch do this?

In Carlo Affatigato’s 2018 article “What is Suspense? The Definition by Alfred Hitchcock,” here is how Psycho’s director simplified the topic: “Mystery is when the spectator knows less than the characters. Suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters.”

In Psycho for instance, we spectators see Norman Bates brandishing a large sharp knife while creeping toward a showering, unsuspecting Janet Leigh. Full-bore suspense! The stabbing was truly terrifying, but what really made our stomachs lurch into our throats and our hearts race? Seconds before when we saw the gleam of the weapon and Bates’ killer’s eyes. We sucked in our breath and knew the woman’s horrific death was imminent.

The article goes on to say that with mystery, such as an Agatha Christie story, the reader or spectator doesn’t know what’s coming and has to find out for themselves. Where there is crime, there is a culprit who knows everything but tries to keep it hidden as long as possible from everyone; hence, the whodunit.

On the other hand, with the mechanism of suspense, some danger in the story or film is about to happen that everyone knows except the victim(s). This generates apprehension and anxiety that capture and cement the readers’ or spectators’ involvement. Suspense is, therefore, an emotional process.

Hitchcock used a famous “bomb beneath the table” example to illustrate the difference further. If we are watching people sitting around a table, and a bomb goes off beneath it, we are shocked or surprised since we didn’t know it was coming. But if we know in advance there is a bomb under the table, but those around the table don’t, we anxiously await the explosion as the seconds tick, tick, tick away. Now, we are participating in the scene in full suspense mode, maybe with nail-biting and jumping to our feet, ridiculously screaming at the people to evacuate. Check out the Prince Albert Hall concert scene in Hitch’s The Man Who Knew Too Much for brilliant, heart-pounding suspense.

As Hitch put it so eloquently, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

Mysteries can thrill us, pique our curiosity, activate our imaginations, provide insight, and allow us to problem solve safely in our heads. Suspense can kick us in the stomach, involve us in the action, scare the heck out of us, quicken our hearts and the narrative, and indelibly sear a situation into our minds.

So, readers and writers, it’s time: Pick your poison! Mystery or suspense? Or perhaps you prefer a “mixed” cocktail. Mwah, ha, ha!

If you’d like to read the Affatigato article with examples from Alfred Hitchcock films, click HERE.

I highly recommend studying “Seven Hitchcockian Secrets to Writing Amazing Suspense.” Click HERE.

If you’d like to read more from “Why Mystery Matters,” click HERE.

Sherrill Joseph

Sherrill Joseph is the award-winning author of the Botanic Hill Detectives series for middle graders. You can find out more about her on her website, sherrilljoseph.com, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, Pinterest, or Instagram.

This Post Has 28 Comments

  1. Laurie Buchanan

    Great post, Sherrill. I’ll take mine with a double shot of suspense, please! It’s the way I like to read them and the way I like to write them.

  2. Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks, Laurie! I know that about your writing. Suspense is the knock-out punch.

  3. Margaret Mizushima

    This is a great post, Sherrill! You’ve done a stellar job at clarifying the difference here. I do love a book with both mystery and suspense in it, and that’s what I strive for in my writing as well. Thanks for the extra links to articles! I’ll take a look now.

    1. Sherrill Joseph

      You’re welcome, Margaret! Glad you liked it. Enjoy the linked articles. Yes, you do have both mystery and suspense in your books.

  4. I like a *little* suspense. I mean, it’s no fun if there aren’t any surprises. That being said, I am perfectly happy reading nice little cozies with no blood and guts or edge of my seat excitement.

    1. Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks for commenting, Anne. I love cozies, too, for the reason you stated.

  5. saralynrichard

    Wonderful explanation! I spent the summer binge-watching Hitchcock movies and commentaries. We can learn so much from the way he used suspense and mystery, and I love the way you use them in your Botanic Hill mysteries, too.

    1. Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks, Saralyn! Binge watching Hitchcock movies sounds like the ideal way to spend time, no matter what the season. And I count it as research for my writing!

  6. Avanti Centrae

    What a great post. I love combining elements of both into my thrillers. Thanks for making the difference so clear!

    1. Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks! My pleasure, Avanti. I love my “Hitchcock” time. He’s the master.

  7. Sheila Lowe

    A timely post, as I’m always trying to figure out which mine are. It also reminds me of a talk I heard Gayle Lynds give on the different between mystery and thriller, which was that in a mystery you read the book trying to figure out whodunit, and in a thriller, you know whodonut and read the book pursuing that character. She put it more elegantly, but you get the picture.

  8. Sherrill Joseph

    I get the picture! I also think of the old Columbo television episodes where we know the killer at the outset, then watch how Columbo skillfully unravels the dastardly deed and nails the person by pointing out the errors made while committing the crime. Someone referred to these as “Howdunits.”

  9. Christine DeSmet

    Excellent definitions. Great clarity for readers and writers. I have no preference because I love reading all types of fiction and mix up my reading list all the time among mystery, suspense, and thriller, and I like borrowing elements of all three categories to write my cozies.

  10. Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks, Christine! I look forward to reading your work–which I’ll be doing soon since you’re my September star of the month for my newsletter’s Author Spotlight! (I’ll be in touch this week about that.)

  11. Joy Ann Ribar

    I love this post and the reminder about Alfred Hitchcock and his brilliance. My favorite of his is Rear Window and he is such a master of suspense and all its details. I like both genres but have a harder time reading suspense — it makes me itchy and unable to sit still. Maybe I should listen to suspense novels while I’m walking??

  12. Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks, Joy. Glad you loved my post. I especially enjoy Hitch’s movies Vertigo, Marni, and The Birds. I can’t sit still when reading or watching something suspenseful, either. I get downright hyperactive! I’m usually standing, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, or rocking and hugging myself; so, maybe walking is good idea. Or running in the opposite direction!

  13. Valerie Biel

    Thanks for this post! Great discussion and resources. I really like reading both types of books/stories, but I’m finding that writing a pure mystery is harder for me as I struggle with dropping the crumb trail properly along with the red herrings.

    1. Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks, Valerie. Sometimes, I have to go back into my writing and drop more breadcrumbs and red herrings or even change the trail. It isn’t over ’til it’s over.

  14. Laurie's Story

    I’m a fan of both as a reader. It honestly depends on my mood. When it comes to writing, however, it’s all about suspense, especially psychological. Thanks for the information on Hitch. Great post!

  15. Donna Nouveau

    Love the clear comparison. Great job. I like reading both types. Love Hitchcock!

  16. Tim Chapman

    This post really gave me food for thought. Thank you!

  17. Sherrill Joseph

    Wonderful. My pleasure, Tim. I hope it helps you–though you don’t need much help!

  18. Tracey Phillips

    “No terror in the bang” is my favorite Hitchcock quote. Thanks for this post, Sherrill. As a self-proclaimed adrenaline junky, I prefer suspense (and writing it), but I do enjoy a good mystery. Your books are tops on my list!

    1. Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks, Tracey! You do have lots of suspense in your book. Beware the hammer!

  19. jvickwriter

    Once I thought about it, I realized I prefer reading mysteries and watching suspense. I wonder if each activity uses a different part of my brain. 🙂

  20. Sherrill Joseph

    Hmm . . . good wondering! Suspense seems more visceral and immediate to me; perhaps watching it is, too, in which case they would be well matched. Food for thought. Thanks for your reply!

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