Mystery vs. Suspense

I recently reexamined an old episode of Writing Excuses on the subject of suspense. They cite Alfred Hitchcock’s famous “bomb under the table” analogy to explain the difference between surprise and suspense. The former is a brief and powerful emotion experienced when an explosion shocks the unsuspecting audience. Suspense is a slower, more subtle beast. The audience is aware of the bomb. It  is about to go off. The characters at the table do not suspect and they cannot hear the audiences warnings. This too is  powerful.

This analogy does more than explain the difference between surprise and suspense. It also points out the tradeoff when a writer sacrifices mystery for suspense. Mystery depends on what the audience does not know, while a certain amount of knowledge is required for the audience to experience any suspense. They must be aware that the bomb is under the table.

So what is the right mix of mystery and suspense? What techniques do you use to blend these elements in your writing. What is the right amount to reveal so that your suspense  is suspenseful and your mystery is, well…mysterious?

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