5 ways to create mystery when writing your next bestseller by Tony Lee Moral

1. What’s the difference between Mystery and Suspense?

Many readers become confused by the two terms. Mystery is an intellectual process like a riddle or a whodunit. In a mystery, you don’t need to answer every question, it’s important to leave some questions unresolved, so that the audience will be thinking about them at the end of the book. 

Suspense on the other hand, is an emotional process, rather like a rollercoaster ride, or a trip to the haunted fun house. All suspense comes out of giving the audience information. If you tell the reader or viewer that there’s a bomb under the bus, like in Keanu Reeve’s movie Speed, and that it’s going to go off in five minutes, that’s suspense. 

2. Keep Your Plot Moving

In my mystery and suspense novel Ghost Maven I dive straight into the action with a kayaking trip in jeopardy, which quickly puts the central character in peril. The sudden switches of location in a book are also very important to keep the reader entertained. The 39 Steps is one of Hitchcock’s favourite films because of the rapid and sudden switches in location. Once the train leaves the station, the story never stops moving. Halfway through, the lead character Hannay leaps out of a police station window with half a handcuff on, and immediately walks into a marching Salvation Army band. To escape the police, he marches with the band, then slips into a public hall, and ends up on oratory platform and is mistaken for a speaker. The rapid movement from one scene to another, and using one idea after another, keeps the viewer or reader hooked.

3. Use locations for dramatic effect

Never use a setting simply as background. Use it 100%. Hitchcock believed that if you are using a unique location, it should be used to its utmost. He was adamant that the backgrounds must be incorporated into the drama and made it a rule to exploit elements that are connected with a location. When writing my locations, I also thought how they could be used dramatically. In Ghost Maven when Alice climbs the Point Pinos Lighthouse, it twice becomes the setting for her attempted murder. Heather, the high school prom queen’s disappearance becomes the MacGuffin, a plot device that Alfred Hitchcock often used, which is the engine of the story that drives the characters in the second half of the book.

4. Use props for dramatic effect

As well as locations, use your props dramatically. In Rear Window when Raymond Burr’s character, comes to James Stewart’s apartment, Stewart temporarily fends him off using strong flashbulbs from his camera. And Frenzy takes place against a backdrop of Covent Garden’s fruit market. When the villain Bob Rusk hides his latest victim in a potato truck, Hitchcock uses the milieu to the fullest and it even provides the clues to solving the murder. Thanks to the potato dust, the police discovered a trail that will lead them to the true criminal. So the market really functioned as a character in that film.

5. Avoid clichéd stereotypes

One central rule is to avoid writing clichéd characters and stereotypes. Hitchcock has given us some of the most memorable villains to grace the screen. That’s because he avoided the cliché through character and made his villains attractive. “All villains are not black, and all heroes are not white. There are grays everywhere. You can’t just walk down Fifth Avenue and say he’s a villain and he’s a hero. How do you know?” said Hitchcock. “In the old days, villains had moustaches and kicked the dog.” Very often you see the murderer in movies, made to be a very unattractive man. I’ve always contended that it’s a grave mistake, because how would he get near his victim unless he had some attraction?”

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