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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

the pages:

* 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,

suffocation, bludgeoning…


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:


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