Suspense vs. Mystery in Any Genre

Sherlock Holmes

Two Steps Ahead or Two Steps Behind?

by Amy Maida Wadsworth

Whether you want to write a bona fide mystery with all the genre conventions or are just looking to weave some nail-biting suspense or an air of mystery into your romance or sci-fi, the key to snagging your readers’ interest is in filling them with fear. How you imbue a reader with fear or deep concern requires several strategies, but we’re covering the two primary considerations below. Let’s start with an example:

As Sherlock approached 221B Baker Street, he saw splinters of wood where the lock had been jimmied open. He pushed open the door, slowly and silently, to let the dim afternoon light spill through the doorway. Cleaning supplies were strewn across the entryway floor. Someone had forced their way in—a man, who had scuffed his black-soled shoe along the wall on his way up the stairs. He had been dragging someone who snagged her sweater on a protruding nail—the woolen fibers, scratches across the steps where she had dragged the thick heels of her Mary Janes, and the level of fingernail marks along the wallpaper indicated she weighed approximately 120 pounds. Though everything was quiet upstairs, he knew someone held Mrs. Hudson there, likely at gunpoint, and they were waiting for Sherlock’s return. He stepped quietly up the stairs, a can of cleaning spray tucked in his pocket. At least the abductors were imbecilic.*

This is obviously a mystery sample, right? And who better to illustrate the example than Sherlock Holmes? I’ll admit I’m a huge fan. I’ve watched the television show, the documentaries (I recommend How Sherlock Changed the World), and the movies. I love Sherlock’s focus on detail and power of observation, his knowledge of apparent trivia, and his ability to induce and deduce the truth based on physical evidence. I even love his socially awkward, slightly autistic-savant demeanor. (It doesn’t hurt that Benedict Cumberbatch, in the BBC series, is adorable.) [Read more…]