This week: Are You Sure It's A Mystery?Edited by: Jayne
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Today's Mystery Crumb: Agatha Christie is not only a record-breaking author, she is also a record-breaking playwright, with titles such as Witness For the Prosecution, And Then There Were None, and The Mousetrap. Christie's ability to keep things hidden from both her characters and her readers served her well: she wrote six semi-autobiographical novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, and kept it a secret for 20 years!
Writing in the mystery genre can be a tricky endeavour. While the writer’s intent may be to create a solid mystery for their readers, it’s an easy genre to sway into thriller or crime. It’s not as though this is an inherently bad thing if your audience enjoys the stories, characters, and has a good time. But what if what you’ve promised your reader isn’t what they get? Worse, what if it can’t even get to your readers because publishers reject your submission for failing to deliver on its promised genre?
The genuine mystery begins with a crime, and the crime usually (though not always) is murder. The point of the story following the murder is to propel the reader to the crime’s solution while enticing them to figure it out on their own - the who did it and why. This is the whodunnit expectation. Readers also expect some sort of resolution—usually some form of justice. In that light, the hero of the story usually possesses the ‘good guy (or gal)" qualities: empathy, the desire for justice, and often comes with a particular moral code that may be unique in the way it’s expressed, but falls well within the parameters of socially accepted behaviour. Most often the hero is quick-witted and highly intelligent.
With true mystery, the jigsaw puzzle, for both the characters and the reader, should be a challenge and force them to think about the clues being left for them. In particular, inclusion of false suspects and dead ends is important, especially when they tie back to the real killer’s attempt to cover up what they’ve done. Two important points about mystery: the reader generally doesn’t know who the killer is, and the genre usually provides the least amount of violence of the suspense genres. The low violence component is particularly important when considering your audience.
One way to determine if your work is a mystery is to ask yourself if there’s an actual whodunnit. With the crime genre, there usually isn’t a mystery as to who the criminal is! Although the character may be nameless for a time, typically the reader knows a specific character is responsible for the crime, and the excitement is not so much from the breadcrumbs the author leaves behind as it is from the game of cat-and-mouse that ensues. While your reader may still try to piece things together - whether it be an undisclosed underlying motive, or simply trying to figure out what each character will do to outwit the other - it isn’t the same as the jigsaw puzzle seen in true mystery.
Where mystery will often find the brilliant detective (or other hero), in crime you often find the brilliant villain. This doesn’t mean your hero isn’t smart. Quite the opposite, in fact, since they need to match wits with the villain to some degree. Your characters here will likely have deeper flaws than those from the mystery, but both may operate from the same perspective: something is unjust, and they are trying to change it. The difference here is that the ultimate morality of the hero still falls within socially acceptable norms. The exception to this is the Noir genre. In this genre your hero may indeed be so flawed that they themselves commit crimes, sometimes justifiable and sometimes not. In both crime and noir, provided your audience knows what to expect going in, they have a higher threshold for violence, particularly fights, shootouts, and even multiple crimes. The hero won’t just get beaten back by false leads, they might actually get beaten down by the villain. Sometimes repeatedly.
Thriller and Suspense
If mystery is the Sudoku-solving sibling, and crime is the dramatic middle child, then thriller is the baby of the family - if that teething baby also bites your fingers off. Thrillers, by design, should evoke powerful emotions - fear, dread, or even terror. Usually a fusion of the mystery and horror genres, the addition of supernatural elements is often used, but it is not a prerequisite.
Villains here may or may not be overly clever, but what they are is ruthless, either physically, psychologically, or both. The hero may be outmatched, sometimes because their own moral compass will initially not allow them to go to the depths the villain will, or because they are so damaged, it's easy for the villain to exploit their weaknesses. It's important to remember your hero possesses the skills to go up against the villain, and the villain has exploitable flaws of his/her own. Sometimes the hero might have to work harder, or get more creative, but they can overcome the obstacles.
While there are several subgenres of thriller, for all of them the reader’s expectation of violence is higher (but less so than a true horror story), as is the suspension of disbelief (especially into the supernatural realm). The stakes can be much deeper, and can be overarching or intensely personal. The pacing is much faster than a mystery, sometimes disturbingly so, the twists and stakes can be bigger, and can contain everything from car chases, to boat explosions, to psychological damage. Common themes are personal vengeance, terrorism, environmental catastrophe, and similar big-ticket scenarios.
While all mysteries contain elements of suspense, mystery has the whodunnit component, while suspense can have that component, but doesn’t have to. And although suspense and thriller are often used interchangeably, suspense is the more subtle of the two. The principal character is the one in danger, and the tension is often psychological rather than physical. The stories can even appear ‘sleepy’ at first - building tension right under the reader’s nose until they realize they’ve been on the edge of their seat for a long while!
This doesn’t mean your mystery doesn’t contain elements from other genres. It means you get to decide whether you’re going to have a whodunnit, and which elements you’re going to include to expand your mystery’s formula, while ensuring you do, in fact, have a mystery.
Armed with this information, your new challenge is to find a way to bend the rules and break the tropes without disappointing your audience's expectations. By providing something fresh to your readers and potential publishers, you'll deliver on your promise.
Next Jayne issue we'll look at some of the more popular mystery subgenres. See you then!
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