The Key to Unlocking Mystery and Suspense


Presented at ALAN,

November ‘06

For me, it’s all about the rat.  You know that rodent with the naked tail and the yellow teeth that carried the plague, is rumored to attack babies in their cribs.  The one in the cage over that guy’s face in the Orwell’s 1984.

Not the cute, plucky, Kate DeCamillo rat or any other of those picture book rodents.  My rats are dumpster rats, rats that are sinister, beady eyed and friends with the dark.  My rats are bad to the bone.  Their hearts are black, and their bones are even bad.

And when I start a mystery/suspense novel, I think the audience needs to see what’s at stake, needs to know there’s something to fear, needs to get a quick, but good look at that ugly rat, teeth bared, ready to launch himself at the reader’s face.

But he darts back into the shadows, and the reader learns why the rat is so dangerous to the main character.  From then on the suspense book is a play of light and dark.  Sometimes the main character is in control and comfortable in the light, figuring things out, but then he sees the tail of the rat as it dashes into the shadow. 

The main character will follow it there.  And the rat is in control now.  The main character is vulnerable in the dark.  He can’t see the rat, but the rat sees him.  He can’t think like the rat, but he can hear it’s claws scritching on the floor, coming near, circling.  And the rat may be able to hurt him by more than just a direct bite.  He could be harboring the fleas that carry plague.

The hero will outsmart the rat with a flame or a flashlight or a bucket of water (remember this is all metaphor) and returns to the light where the audience and the hero gets relief and time to plan again.

But back in the safety of the dark, the rat is manipulating and planning too.  There are at least two stories in every suspense novel--the man and the rat and each has something vital to lose.  And every chapter should end when the hero might be about to lose or get another look at the rat’s tail.

Suspense and mystery is all about fear.  And fear of what happens next keeps the reader turning those pages. We reader wants to know if the main character will be safe.  That means the readers will be safe if the author has done a good job and the reader identifies.

  Authors have to think and write to our own fears, but we have to make sure those fears are universal enough to capture an audience.  It is rumored that Billy Bob Thornton is truly afraid of antique furniture.  Deeply afraid.  But I can’t see writing a suspense book about that fear that would be successful.  Humor maybe.  A quirk about a character IN  a suspense book, but it couldn’t carry the book.

But then, if a character is rich or knows a valuable secret and his kidnappers know he’s afraid of antique furniture. . . moving him from a room with one Queen Anne chair, to a oom with four pieces of  antique furniture to a room with a dozen pieces,  to a room so crowded that he has no choice but to touch pieces--okay, I’m changing my mind here.  We react to his fear--not to the furniture.

I asked someone when I was starting WHAT HAPPENED TO CASS MCBRIDE?.  What would you do if someone buried you alive?  Believe me, I was writing to one of my greatest fears then.  He told me “I would go to sleep.  What else would there be to do.”  He said it so quickly, so even voiced, that I’’m sure he meant it.  Was such a low key person, I think he could even do it.  I stared at him like he had grown a small alligator from the middle of his forehead.

His rat and my rat are two different things.  But the feeling of fear--the reaction to fear--are the same--and probably pretty genuine.  It makes little difference if the fear is of something physical or emotional--of being alone, of being unloved, of feeling worthless--we react--we chase the tail of the rat.  Sometimes the rat wins.  Sometimes we do.

And in the end that’s what we want in a suspense book.  We want the chase and we want to know who wins.  We hope it’s our main character.

In my books, sometimes that’s hard to figure out.  I think the best mystery is the one that you unlock only to find another mystery inside.  Another glimpse of a rat’s tail scurrying off into the dark.