The Difference Between Mystery and Suspense (and How to Use Them in Writing)

By Stacy Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

Have you ever been confused by these two writing techniques? Although mystery and suspense often work together, knowing the difference can help us understand which strategy we want to achieve in our story.

WhoDunIt?

Mystery is about solving a puzzle. The protagonist goes from scene to scene gathering clues, trying on motives, following leads to solve the unknown.

It’s about revealing the truth.

How do we use this in our writing? Where do we start?

Those questions are a mystery until I reveal the answers (bwahaha). Ba-dum-cha. We set up a mystery by presenting a question to readers and making them care about the answer.

If you’ve ever seen the TV show The Killing, their question is Who killed Rosie Larsen? That’s the mystery. And the characters work for the answer.

The Question hangs over the protagonist and drives the plot.

Using mystery as a technique can be easy because it’s the need to know that keeps readers turning the page.

Danger Closes In

Suspense is about fear and staying alive. The protagonist goes from scene to scene dodging danger, experiencing terror and uncertainty, and tries to keep safe.

It’s a different type of question: What happens next? Will it happen again?

In my blog post about cliffhangers—I explain how they're a form of suspense and ways to use them. But there are many ways to create short-lived and ongoing suspense that keep readers turning the page, in action, dialogue, and inner narration. (More on those aspects in future blog posts.)

A protagonist’s fear doesn’t always involve getting killed. It can be whatever is at stake for the character—their career, their heart.

Throughout the plot, the protagonist’s fear for his well being chases him and drives his actions and reactions.

Using suspense requires us to go beyond readers’ natural curiosity and tap into their emotion and instinct.

And we must be willing to put our characters through some hell. The more we worsen conditions for them, the more readers will worry.

Are Mystery and Suspense in Every Genre?

When we think about mystery and suspense, we naturally think of mystery novels, thrillers, horror, crime/detective, etc. But mystery and suspense can be used in any genre because they’re writing techniques, tools in our belt. And we can develop side plots in any genre of fiction with these techniques in mind.

In romance...

The mystery might be: Does she love him?
The suspense might be: Will they end up together?

In sci-fi...

The mystery might be: Who are these aliens?
The suspense might be: Will they destroy Earth?

Some mysteries can have suspense and some suspenseful stories can have mystery. One can certainly fuel the other. It’s easy to see how they work together in a novel.

If you need help with these areas in your manuscript, check out my developmental editing services and contact me to see if I can help you achieve your goals.

Do you plan your plot and story strategy with these techniques in mind? Or do you develop these aspects during your revision process?


Stacy Jerger is a freelance developmental editor who's had the privilege of working with authors to organize and strengthen their stories. If you need help with your manuscript, check out the services page or get in touch.