It's a Mystery!
I had the pleasure of speaking with author J. A. Gibbens (The Awen Chronicles) about the importance of mystery and suspense in novels, including novels that aren't part of mystery or suspense genres.
See our conversation on how mystery and suspense impact a writer's work.
As I drifted off to sleep last night, I was wondering who I might kill. I
wasn't planning a murder, not necessarily, just musing about who would
be the next to die. Why do you think it is that we gravitate to mysteries
and suspense, specifically those which involve death?
I like the first sentence because it creates questions. Why does she want
to kill somebody? Who is the victim? What did he or she do? We
gravitate to mystery and suspense novels because they create questions.
We can't put the book down until we get the answers to our questions. If
death is involved, it becomes even more urgent that we get answers.
I agree, yet questions in themselves can become merely annoying, as if
they’re holes in the fabric of information. Perhaps it’s curiosity—what
next? I think it’s curiosity which draws me through life, through the
darkest of times. And I think that there’s actually far more mystery and
suspense in our lives than we acknowledge. Most of us accumulate a
collection of such significant events: a sudden illness, a death, a loss to
fire or flood, fired from a job… and we ask: Why didn’t I see that
coming? What will I do now?
I agree that a murder becomes particularly interesting; the cessation of
life is likely a deep-seated concern for the vast majority of people. How
have you selected your victims? And why those specific characters? I’m
not asking about a specific story, but more generally.
As you say, there is far more mystery and suspense in our lives than we
acknowledge. If we pull from the ordinary and extraordinary of our
lives, we can create mystery and suspense for our characters.
Consider ending chapters in the following ways to keep readers turning
* have someone change his/her mind abruptly
* show a strange text message on a phone
* have an email from a stranger pop up on the screen
* show the police coming to the door
* have a doctor call with test results
* provide a chance encounter
* create a false alarm
* describe an ominous image (storm approaching)
* reveal something terrible is about to happen (brake fluid leaking)
* give a surprise announcement
* reveal a secret
Even something as innocuous as having someone pull an item from his/
her pocket can create What's Next.
Indeed, I agree that the fundamental element to mystery and suspense is
the creation of What’s Next. Those events you have listed trigger
curiosity in the reader, and their unravelling or elaboration persists for a
time, taking us deeper within the story.
Do you prefer the “Who done it?” style of writing wherein there’s a
death, a limited number of people available, and a reveal at the end that
justifies the writer’s assertion that character X is the perpetrator for the
following reasons… Or, do you prefer the interplay of many small
“mysteries” and suspenseful moments which appear to hinge on
elements found in some primary mystery?
I mention this because I gravitate more to the latter. There’s always a
reason to ask: What’s next? While I want to see resolution, I am also
accepting of the fact that new and unforeseen challenges may arise. It’s
as if we’ve passed one test, but we must now study for another—even
though it hasn’t as yet been scheduled.
Like you, I much prefer the interplay of many small mysteries and
suspenseful moments which appear to hinge on elements in the primary
mystery. This gives rise to subplots, the layering in a story that I love. If
the story is not rich and complex with a network of mysteries all linked
to the overall big message or resolution, I don't feel like turning the
I love the red herrings in a story that send the reader one way, expecting
the mystery to be solved, when the answer lies another way.
I agree; however, I don’t need the complexity to which you’ve referred
to be obviously directly related to the mystery. Sometimes, I like to get
to know the characters a bit more outside of the mystery. It’s a bit like
no matter how serious a matter might be in one’s life, you’ve still got to
eat and sleep, else you perish. Besides, I might just be lulled before
something big occurs; the quiet time acts as a counter-point to that. You,
of course, may disagree.
How do you feel about the protagonist in a mystery/suspense? It seems
to me that there is an abundance of seriously flawed protagonists and I
am not fond of those. I think my least favourite is the ex-cop who is
either battling alcohol or drugs (or both), and who has either retired from
or been drummed out of the police force. He has likely lost whatever
family he might have had and might be haunted by a personal tragedy to
boot! Despite a poor diet and lack of exercise, he nevertheless is either
(1) in tip-top shape, or (2) couldn’t defend himself against a wet noodle
The protagonist who stumbles along, yet resolves the mystery, fails to
secure my interest. Perhaps that sort is too much like me, stumbling and
bumbling through life—and I don’t need more of the same. I much
prefer someone who has more of their ducks in a row, someone I
can admire and trust to lead me through the morass in which the writer
has dropped me. I don’t expect them to be omniscient or prescient,
merely thoughtful and competent.
Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older, but I yearn for idealism and
goodness and it is my fervent hope that the real life expression of that is
possible. I’m not denying the existence of evil, but I am not so much the
pessimist nor the anarchist that I like to see our future depicted as one
that is apocalyptic, grey, dreary and simply ugly. I’ve sometimes said
that I write “bedtime stories for adults” —with poisoning, drowning,
The protagonist needs to have a flaw in order for the reader to see a
change in the character arc. Each powerful character needs a flaw
to overcome, for readers love to see the character overcome his/her
obstacles, either physical or emotional. However, the trite characters
with flaws that are overused become the characters whom we push aside.
In my current crime, my cop shows burnout—he probably has PTSD—
but he does not have an alcohol/drug problem. His job has affected his
relationships, so he is alone. He's affected this way in order for him to
have the struggle towards a better life and for readers to be pulling for
him along the way. Regardless, he must be someone who takes an active
role in solving his crime/problems—not the bumbling cop who gets an
answer through happenstance. Even if someone else provides those
answers, he must put himself/herself in the trajectory of solving the
Again, I am full agreement; the “flaws” exist and the character grows to
while attempting to over-come them. We agree that too many flaws and
bumbling to an answer is “over-used”. It is exaggerated well-beyond
anything remotely realistic.
My protagonist in The Awen Chronicles is rather subtly flawed. She
starts out with little confidence in social situations but her confidence
and ability to experience joy are increased over time. It’s all in overcoming
the psychological burdens of her past and discovering the depth
of her personal courage.
What brought you to the point of writing mystery/suspense? A general
love of the genre? A particular news article that grabbed your attention?
Or, something else?
Actually, perhaps we should leave that for a later time when we continue
our discussion of writing…
You can reach J. A. Gibbens at: