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Timing, Reveal, & Appeal: Genre Conventions in Mystery, Suspense, & Thrillers

Today’s guest post comes from Kimberly Hunt, freelance developmental editor with Revision Division.

Let’s set expectations from the start. I am NOT a writer. Through extensive reading, professional training, and my experience as a developmental editor, I’ve learned the essentials of genres. A novel can contain elements from multiple genres but three components distinguish mystery, horror, and suspense.

They are: Timing, Revealed clues,and the Appeal, of the story to the reader’s emotions.

Any novel needs structural elements with tension provided by formidable conflict and character growth, but when you’re ready to pass your manuscript to a beta-reader, knowing your genre will help you know how best to describe it. Use the following key components to quickly identify if you’ve written a mystery, horror, or suspense novel.

Mystery

  • It’s all about the chase. Drop the reader in after the crime and let the story unravel – revealing the why and who at a moderate pace.
  • The hook in the beginning should establish a question that must be answered by the end.
  • Solve the mystery in the end or there is no story. Even if the criminal gets away, you’re expected to solve the crime.
  • Along the way, your style of writing characters and plot should make demands of the reader’s brain to figure out the puzzle. To help them, leave subtle clues so that it all falls into place in the end. 
  • No cheating – waiting until the end to present a tidy wrap up is not satisfying for readers.

Horror

  • It’s all about fear.
  • Often, a horror story includes themes of bad people or actions (or both) and usually leans toward the morbid.
  • Shocking plot twists are great, but it should be believable. In fact, that’s what makes it so scary.
  • Character motivations are still important even if horror is usually more plot-driven than character-driven. In order to evoke a strong emotional response, the reader must strongly like or hate the character.
  • The sought after emotional response is intense whether it be from fear or shock. Readers should be screaming at the book as they see the evil plot unfold.
  • Many authors embrace disgust head-on without flinching, unafraid to turn your stomach with graphic depiction, but use grossness sparingly as this can be perceived as a lazy trick, much like leaning on coincidence to solve a mystery or fate to wrap up a romance.

Suspense

  • It’s all about tense uncertainty. Suspense involves a main character trying to prevent something from occurring.
  • A reader of suspense novels should feel tightly wound and worried about what may happen.
  • Some authors leverage time limits to increase tension and speed up the pace.
  • If Mystery is about what already happened, and horror is happening now, then suspense is danger about to happen.
  • Similar to Horror, the reader is aware of the danger, perhaps even more aware than the main character.
  • Use your biggest fears against your characters slowly and subtly, leaving a little to the reader’s imagination.

New authors often struggle to categorize their work, but these guidelines should help. A blend of genres is great as strict rules are nonexistent. However, it’s beneficial to know early in the publishing process what your target audience hopes you’re about to deliver. And it’s absolutely mandatory later for marketing effectively when you’re querying or self-publishing.

Kimberly Hunt is a freelance developmental editor with Revision Division, specializing in fiction for self-publishing authors. She’s happy to answer questions about writing and editing but beware as she can go on at length about her passions: reading, running, and volunteering.

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