5 Tips for Writing Mystery and Suspense by Tony Lee Moral

Having written three books on the film director Alfred Hitchcock, the famed Master of Suspense, I specialise in mystery and suspense writing. I used his principles when writing my new novel Ghost Maven, set in Monterey Bay, California. Nearly all stories do well with suspense, no matter the genre. Suspense has largely to do with the audience’s own desires or wishes, so getting it right is a very important part of the writing process. Here are some tips when writing mystery and suspense:

1. What’s the difference between Mystery and Suspense?

Many readers become confused by the two terms. Mystery is an intellectual process like a riddle or a whodunit. In a mystery, you don’t need to answer every question, it’s important to leave some questions unresolved, so that the audience will be thinking about them at the end of the book.

Suspense on the other hand, is an emotional process, rather like a rollercoaster ride, or a trip to the haunted fun house. All suspense comes out of giving the audience information. If you tell the reader that there’s a bomb in the room and that it’s going to go off in five minutes, that’s suspense.

2. Keep Your Plot Moving

In my mystery and suspense novel Ghost Maven, I dive straight into the action with a kayaking trip in jeopardy, which quickly puts the central character in peril. The sudden switches of location in a book are also very important to keep the reader entertained. The 39 Steps is one of Hitchcock’s favourite films because of the rapid and sudden switches in location. Once the train leaves the station, the story never stops moving. Halfway through, the lead character Hannay leaps out of a police station window with half a handcuff on, and immediately walks into a marching Salvation Army band. To escape the police, he marches with the band, then slips into a public hall, and ends up on oratory platform and is mistaken for a speaker. The rapid movement from one scene to another, and using one idea after another, keeps the viewer or reader hooked.

3. Use locations for dramatic effect

Never use a setting simply as background. Use it 100%. Hitchcock believed that if you are using a unique location, it should be used to its utmost. He was adamant that the backgrounds must be incorporated into the drama and made it a rule to exploit elements that are connected with a location. When writing my locations, I also thought how they could be used dramatically. In Ghost Maven, when Alice climbs the Point Pinos Lighthouse, it twice becomes the setting for her attempted murder. Heather, the high school prom queen’s disappearance becomes the MacGuffin, a plot device that Alfred Hitchcock often used, which is the engine of the story that drives the characters in the second half of the book.

4. Use props for dramatic effect

As well as locations, use your props dramatically. In Rear Window when Raymond Burr’s character, comes to James Stewart’s apartment, Stewart temporarily fends him off using strong flashbulbs from his camera. And Frenzy takes place against a backdrop of Covent Garden’s fruit market. When the villain Bob Rusk hides his latest victim in a potato truck, Hitchcock uses the milieu to the fullest and it even provides the clues to solving the murder. Thanks to the potato dust, the police discovered a trail that will lead them to the true criminal. So the market really functioned as a character in that film.

5. Avoid clichéd stereotypes

One central rule is to avoid writing clichéd characters and stereotypes. Hitchcock has given us some of the most memorable villains to grace the screen. That’s because he avoided the cliché through character and made his villains attractive. “All villains are not black, and all heroes are not white. There are grays everywhere. You can’t just walk down Fifth Avenue and say he’s a villain and he’s a hero. How do you know?” said Hitchcock. “In the old days, villains had moustaches and kicked the dog.” Very often you see the murderer in movies, made to be a very unattractive man. I’ve always contended that it’s a grave mistake, because how would he get near his victim unless he had some attraction?”

Ghost Maven

by Tony Lee Moral

Alice’s mother passes away and with her father and little sister, Sophie, she moves to Pacific Grove in California. Alice is deathly afraid of the water despite living in a community surrounded by it. In order to push through her phobia, she joins the Kayaking club in high school.

During a routine kayaking drill, a fog rolls in and Alice becomes disoriented, losing all sense of direction. A large wave turns the kayak over, dumping Alice into the icy-cold pacific. She nearly drowns when a young man dives in after her. . .Henry Raphael.

After Henry’s rescue, Alice gains more than her life. Henry is a beautiful seventeen-year-old or more accurately, one-hundred-seventeen years. The relationship between them takes Alice on a journey for which no one could prepare her.

Long distance relationships are difficult – how can Alice bridge a divide between planes? Henry died over a century ago but lives on in the fourth plane of existence waiting for an opportunity to atone for past deeds that caused the death of his ship’s entire crew. Their vengeance still hanging over his head, Henry and Alice learn their love will be tested by more than the passage of time and living in different dimensions.

About the Author

Scott Mullins is a freelance writer and digital content manager. When he’s not finding ways to distract himself from writing his novel he writes killer copy for companies all over the world. Connect with Scott on Twitter @ScottMullins86 or LinkedIn. He’s always looking to connect with other writers.