When Mystery is Out of This World
by Claire Gem
Even in a world where people are suffocating under stress, many consciously and deliberately seek even more. Fans of mystery, thriller, and suspense novels not only want their reads to bring more tension into their lives, they demand it. Unless these books raise their blood pressure and deliver that rollercoaster ride of adrenalin, they will put them down, disappointed.
The difference, of course, is that the tension and anxiety, the stress and worry—none of it belongs to the reader, but to other people: characters in a world entirely apart from their own.
Ah, but there are different flavors of mystery, thriller, and suspense novels, each with its own nuance. I’d like to talk about the difference between these categories, as well as reader expectations for each. These expectations are the hurdles an author needs to pay particular attention to. Unless their stories fulfill these reader expectations, the book will not satisfy.
In a mystery, a crime has been committed. Reminiscent of Hasbro’s age-old board game, Clue (I’m dating myself here, but it’s still around), players (in this case, readers) are presented with a dead body, or a disappearance of a living body, or some other horrendous crime that is baffling and unexpected. An investigator, whether it be a police detective or simply a curious grandma (as in cozy mysteries) is determined to find out who did it and why. Then, just like the board game, clues begin to surface, and it’s up to the investigator (along with the reader) to figure out which clues are simply dead-ends, and which will lead to justice.
A mystery is a journey. The reader tags along with the protagonist to uncover a secret that isn’t revealed until the end.
A thriller novel differs from a mystery in that the tension we experience takes place largely inside the hero or heroine’s head. We become intensely emotionally invested in the protagonist from the first pages. They are in dire danger—the reader oftentimes knows even more about the threat than they do. Thriller novels combine elements of mystery and horror to immerse the reader inside a world of trouble, worry, and self-doubt. The themes? We live in a dangerous world. We are all vulnerable in some aspect. The unknown is the scariest threat of all.
A thriller differs from a mystery in that the danger—the bad guy or force—is usually known to the reader right from the start. Also, there is action. Twists and turns. Unlike the quiet, methodical journey of following clues in a mystery, the reader never knows what’s going to happen next.
So how do these genres differ from suspense? Aren’t they both suspenseful? Here’s where the lines become blurred. You can categorize your novel as a mystery/thriller, or as a mystery/suspense.
Once you throw the label “suspense” into the mix, you open up yet another realm, one where the danger or threat becomes all the more elusive. The pacing is also different. A suspense novel promises the reader an agonizingly slow build-up of tension. Not as much action. Clues are vague and not as obvious. As www.libraryjournal.com describes a psychological suspense, it’s not the inciting event, the “rock” or big splash (murder or other crime), but the “focus is on the ripples that rock makes.”
Now, all of these types of stories are titillating enough when they’re set in the real, normal world we live in. What happens when we throw in elements that are out of this world?
I’m not referring to the paranormal or fantasy genres. These are deliberately set in worlds entirely different from our own. Think Harry Potter, where wizards live at a magical place called Hogwarts. Or a world that looks like our familiar hometown until the guy with the fangs rises out of his coffin. Think Twilight, where falling in love with a vampire isn’t exactly a bad thing.
No, what I’m referring to is a story that takes place in the real world but carries definite elements of the supernatural.
And yes, before you ask, I do believe in ghosts. In poltergeist activity. In haunted houses. In psychic ability. If I didn’t believe in those things, I couldn’t possibly write stories about them with passion.
This raises the stakes, as well as reader expectations. What I write is supernatural suspense. The important difference, as I see it, between supernatural and realistic mystery/thriller/suspense is getting the reader to suspend disbelief.
It’s easy to get a reader to buy into a mystery. Watch the news lately? There are plenty of human villains, crimes committed, and the eternal quest for who did it and why. In a thriller, we know the threat to the protagonist from the start. We feel their fear, doubt, and confusion. We may not completely understand the danger, but we believe—we know—that it’s real.
In supernatural suspense, the challenge is more difficult. We need to get the reader to buy into the notion that psychics can see and communicate with dead people, or their lingering spirits. That ghosts may exist. That haunted houses can truly be haunted. Until we can get the reader (who may not believe in ghosts or psychics) to buy into our premise, we can’t possibly offer them the kind of thrill ride they seek.
How can an author accomplish this? Research is one way. I’m a stickler for historical accuracy, even if I’m describing a crumbling insane asylum. Bad stuff happened there, in that “mental hospital,” all those years ago. Torture, neglect, and psychological manipulation really were acceptable medical treatments for the insane, once upon a time. Remember One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?
When my ghost—a pathetic little girl—goes looking for her father in Spirits of the Heart, my readers get on board, emotionally. Daddy was once a patient in that terrible place (an asylum that actually existed in my hometown). Heaven only knows what horrors he faced while still alive. And why can’t she find him? Be reunited with him in the afterlife?
Once you grab a reader’s heart, you’ve got ‘em.
Another way to get a reader to suspend skepticism of the supernatural is to present them with a known legend. In Hearts Unloched, that’s exactly what I did. There really is a tiny town in upstate New York known as Loch Sheldrake. In its center, the “loch” is a small but extremely deep lake. Urban legend claims that back in the early twentieth century, the loch was a favorite dumping ground for the Mafia. Gangsters would make the two-hour drive from New York City to drop their victims into what was considered “a bottomless lake.”
Chained to an old jukebox or wearing cement overshoes.
The legend, although I first heard it from my husband who grew up in the area, has its basis in truth. The local museum in nearby Hurleyville has an entire file cabinet drawer filled with newspaper clippings…
If there is a documented urban legend about dead bodies disappearing into a tiny lake in the middle of nowhere, doesn’t the possibility exist that maybe some of those sunken souls are unsettled? Still trapped in their watery grave? Maybe a little ticked off and wanting vengeance?
By setting stories in the real world, with accurate detail and historical context, an author of supernatural suspense can plant his or her readers’ feet firmly on the ground—before presenting the stuff that might make them go “yeah, right. Uh huh.”
Here they are: actual historical facts and legends. In this way we lure them just a little closer to the edge of believing in something they might not ordinarily be willing to accept. But it takes one more element to get a reader to suspend disbelief.
Real people. Characters who are normal, everyday folks with problems, just like you and me. Characters we can identify with, who are struggling, lonely, flawed, who have physical or emotional scars.
Characters so real, they dive off the page and straight into the reader’s heart.
Supernatural suspense. Not thrillers: in these books the pace is slower, there is less action, and the tension builds slowly. They are not typical mysteries, since the dead bodies show up on their feet, with opinions and agendas of their own. They’ve been dead for dozens, if not hundreds of years. These spirits then become cast members—integral parts of the story.
Would it be easier to accommodate reader expectations of real-world mystery or thriller novels? Perhaps. But I’ve always loved a challenge. I believe in the supernatural. I believe in an afterlife. I want my readers to believe as well.
Claire Gem is an award winning-author of supernatural suspense, contemporary romance, and women’s fiction. She also writes Author Resource guide books and presents seminars on writing craft and marketing. Her supernatural suspense, Hearts Unloched, won the 2016 New York Book Festival, and was a finalist in the 2017 RONE Awards.
Claire loves exploring the paranormal and holds a certificate in Parapsychology from Duke University’s Rhine Research Center. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Lesley University.
A New York native, Claire now lives in Massachusetts with her husband of 40 years. When she’s not writing, she works for Tufts University in the field of scientific research. She is available for seminars and media interviews and loves to travel for book promotional events. Find Claire on her website http://www.clairegem.com/.