Generating mystery and suspense
The Roman God Janus was depicted with two heads, one looking forwards and the other looking back. It’s a useful image for thinking about the differences between mystery and suspense, and how they work in narrative.
Mystery essentially looks backwards towards some buried event in the story’s past. It’s the desire to discover the truth about this event that keeps the reader reading.
Suspense is the dynamic force that pulls the reader forwards. It operates in the story’s present.
A narrative moves away from its starting point towards its outcome. If both the starting point and outcome are withheld from the reader, you have generated mystery and suspense.
But – I hear you ask – surely it’s impossible to withhold the starting point of a story? The story begins with the first word of the story.
Well, no, not really.
Russian formalist critics distinguished between two different versions of any story. The first they called the fabula, which is the ‘real’ timeline of the story – everything that happens in the story laid out in chronological order. The second version of the story they called the siuzhet, which is what you get once those events have been subjected to the artistic manipulation of the author. This is the story that the reader experiences.
I always construct two timelines when I am planning my novels. One timeline begins with the event that precipitates the events of the story. It’s the beginning of the fabula. But it is, generally, the last thing that is revealed in my second timeline, the timeline of the events as they unfold for the reader, my siuzhet timeline. The beginning of one version of the story provides the ending for the other.
When I’m thinking about mystery, I’m imagining a shadow play. The hidden events of the past cast a shadow on the present. The reader sees the shadows, but doesn’t understand what’s creating them.
The first shadow may be the presence of a dead body. In A Gentle Axe, the first of my St Petersburg mysteries, there were actually two dead bodies, found together. A dwarf inside a suitcase with his head smashed in. And a burly peasant hanging by the neck from a tree with a bloody axe in his belt. It immediately set up a series of mysteries, the most interesting of all, I think, was: Who are these men and what exactly is the relationship between them?
As the writer you have to know what is casting those shadows. You have to have a very clear understanding of events that may never directly feature in your narrative, but which give it its shape. It’s all very well to confuse and mystify the reader, but you can’t afford to be confused or mystified yourself.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb, the narrator Dr Watson compares a newspaper account of a case to his own version: “… like all such narratives, its effect is much less striking when set forth en bloc in a single half-column of print than when the facts slowly evolve before your own eyes, and the mystery clears gradually away as each new discovery furnishes a step which leads on to the complete truth.”
A mystery story is a succession of revelations, but to sustain itself over a novel, I think each revelation has to give rise to, or be replaced by, a new question, or mystery. One of the things I do when I have a reasonably evolved storyline, broken up into notional chapters, is to look at each chapter, or sequence, as a series of questions. For example, my question sheet for the third of my St Petersburg Mysteries, A Razor Wrapped in Silk, reads as follows:
- (a) Who is in the carriage? (b) What happens to Mitka?
- (a) Why have so many children disappeared without trace? What is the significance of the foreign factories?
- (a) Who has killed Yelena? (b) Why was she killed? (c) How is this connected to the disappearing children? Etc..
To be clear, these questions are not answered in the chapter, but they are the questions that I think the reader will be asking themselves at that stage in the story.
Of course, the most important question of all is, What happens next? If you’re doing your job in terms of creating suspense, that’s a question the reader will be asking all the time.
(part two of this guest post will run next week)
R.N. Morris is the author of four historical mysteries published by Faber and Faber: A Gentle Axe, A Vengeful Longing, A Razor Wrapped in Silk and the forthcoming The Cleansing Flames (due out May 2011). A Vengeful Longing was shortlisted in 2008 for the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for best crime novel, and runner up in New York Magazine’s Culture Awards for best thriller. He has twice been highly commended in the CWA Ellis Peters Award for historical crime. His first novel, written as Roger Morris, was the contemporary thriller Taking Comfort, published in 2006 by Macmillan New Writing. He has run workshops on mystery and suspense for City University MA in Creative Writing. He has also written the libretto to an opera.
This post is part of the Guest Tips Series, a collection of pieces of advice and personal experiences from writers who are not me. Bits of advice or ranting from writers who are me can be found here, in the Tips for Writers bit of the blog. If you fancy writing for me, you can find out a bit more about the hows and whys and wherefores here.