I grew up in a house that very often had a card table set up with an ongoing jigsaw puzzle on it. Today you’ll find that jigsaw puzzle on my dining room table. I find them mentally stimulating—but also very relaxing. It’s a paradox! So … I love a puzzle. Which is why I love what I do—because a manuscript is a puzzle I get to solve.
As you might guess, I also enjoy reading the mystery/suspense/thriller genre, from the Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie stories I devoured as a kid to the authors I read today: James Lee Burke, Harlan Coben, Tana French, Louise Penny, Ian Rankin, Alan Bradley, John le Carré, Gillian Flynn … to name only a few. And those, as you see, run the gamut from police procedurals and cozy mysteries to spy thrillers and suspense.
Though I’ve read a lot in the genre and worked on mysteries of various types, I make no claim to being an expert. (Seriously, have you seen how the real experts parse out these categories? Be sure you check the links in this post.) So when I got to work on a fast-paced suspense recently, I started by wondering if the elements I look for when I am editing hold true in this particular genre. I knew I needed to learn more, and started poking around on the Internet (sometimes that’s dangerous!) to see what might turn up.
First I read a little about the distinctions between mystery, thriller, and suspense. What I learned is everybody’s got a slightly different take. (Look here, here, or here and you’ll see what I mean.)
But these still didn’t answer my question, which is Are the elements of a mystery/suspense novel the same, in a general sense, as they are in any other novel? (To be clear, I’m not referring to tropes here. A trope is a device or theme a reader expects to see in a particular genre—in this mystery/thriller/suspense conversation, think red herrings, lonely detectives, mistaken identity, mastermind villains, and so on—though you shouldn’t confuse a trope with a cliché, either.)
No, no, I’m talking about the storytelling elements. I’ve developed a set of questions I ask myself as I’m editing; they help me pinpoint where any given manuscript might need attention. Remember these? I’ve refined them since you last saw them.
• Who is the protagonist?
• What is the inciting incident? (The thing that makes the protagonist know he has a problem …)
• What is the story-worthy problem? (The thing the protagonist will have to solve in order to put his world back to rights; put another way, what does he want and why can’t he have it?)
• What will the protagonist have to sacrifice (give up) in order to solve his problem/conflict? (Which will bring about personal growth; the inner journey …)
• What is his “dark night of the soul”? (The moment when he realizes he will have to sacrifice or change …)
• What is the subplot?
It seemed to me the mystery/thriller/suspense genre might have its own rules about how a plot develops and plays out. Like, maybe solving the mystery is enough. Particularly in a thriller where there is lots of action—is that action, that on-the-edge-of-your-seat feeling, enough? My instincts said no, no, no.
So I kept looking. First I stumbled on this, which I thought was interesting; though it wasn’t quite what I wanted, I was able to fit my elements into the list in the article:
1. Start with action, explain it later (this is, in theory, the inciting incident)
2. Make it tough for your protagonist
3. Plant it early, pay it off later; no cavalry to the rescue
4. Give the protagonist the initiative (this is the story-worthy problem)
5. Give the protagonist a personal stake (what will she sacrifice; what will cause personal growth)
… and so on (there’s more).
I googled again, and Writer’s Digest came through for me with “10 Basic Ingredients of a Successful Thriller”:
1. You need to have a good story
2. Write about the underdog
3. Multiple points of view can give you great range
4. Open your book with an action scene (again, our inciting incident)
5. Early on, make clear what your protagonist wants and what he fears (a-ha! the story-worthy problem that defines the inner journey)
6. Make your characters miserable (that is, give them something to overcome)
7. Your main characters have to change (a-ha again: the inner journey)
8. Pacing must be high; each scene should reveal a clue
9. Show—don’t tell
10. Teach us something
There’s some good information here. And I’ve learned something. I’m pretty comfortable that the questions I’m asking of my manuscripts are valid questions to ask even of spy thrillers. Or romantic suspense. Or police procedurals. Which means they’re probably valid with any ol’ story. Even yours!
UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”