March 8, 2012

Romantic Mystery vs. Romantic Suspense...Is there a difference?

A couple years ago my first book, a romantic suspense titled Not Without Risk, was reviewed by a popular review site. While the review was a good one – don’t get me wrong, I have no complaints – in one of the comments the reviewer said she preferred more ‘whodunit’ in her romantic suspense. Then a couple months ago my second book, a contemporary romance with a very minor element of suspense, was called a ‘mystery’ in a review. This comment did bother me because if you picked up the story based on the fact the reviewer called it a mystery, you would be disappointed, as After Midnight is most definitely NOT a mystery.

If you’ve read the ‘Meet Sarah’ section of this blog you’ll see that I don’t write romantic suspense exclusively. However, I can’t seem to write contemporary romance without adding at least some element of suspense, no matter how small. What I don’t write is romantic mystery.

Wait, you ask, there’s a difference between romantic mystery and romantic suspense? I’m glad you asked.

A lot of readers (and authors) look at romantic mystery and romantic suspense as being interchangeable. However, there’s a big difference between the two. At its simplest, a mystery is a puzzle that needs to be solved – an intellectual game of whodunit. In a mystery, the action is more mental than physical, and although there is danger, it usually – though not always – has already taken place before the book opens. But to me the biggest difference is that in a romantic mystery the hero or heroine is the ‘sleuth’, so the story is about what happens to someone else, not the main character, and how the main character solves the puzzle.

Suspense is about a threat or imminent danger that must be resolved. Something is coming and the reader is waiting for it to happen. The suspense story is typically about what happens to the main character and brings the question, will they survive? The action is an emotional roller coaster and the reader should identify with the hero or heroine and the danger they face – becoming a participant in the ride. A suspense story is about the characters’ journey through the book, and the ending therefore needs to be emotionally satisfying, where a mystery is to be intellectually satisfying.

Since I’m talking about ‘romantic’ mystery and suspense – there will always be an emotionally satisfying ending to the romance in both the mystery and suspense. Without it, the story wouldn’t be a romance. However, the solution to the puzzle needs to be an intellectual one. That means that in a romantic mystery, it is the writer’s job to keep the identity of the villain from the reader until the end. But for the emotional read, the suspense, it is okay for the reader to know the identity of the villain. After all, the threat from an unknown is not as emotionally engaging as the threat from someone you (or the hero/heroine) know(s).

There is some crossover in the genres as a lot of today’s mysteries contain suspense. Perhaps this is where a lot of the confusion stems. I’m really not sure. Some believe the labels don’t matter, that if you are familiar with an author’s work you know what to expect. However if you’re trying to sell a book, or attract new readers, I believe the label matters. And so this is me, tossing around labels…My name is Sarah Grimm, and I write romantic suspense.

18 comments:

Sloane Taylor said...

Spot on, Sarah! Your post explains the genres better than anyone.

Rachel Brimble said...

Do you know, you've got me in a quandary now, lo! You're absolutely right - from this, up until my current work in progress, I have written romantic mystery but market them as romantic suspense.

In Searching For Sophie & Reluctant Witness, the hero or heroine is the cop looking for the killer. In my currently book being 'shopped' the heroine is the cop looking for the killer. Hmm...

However, i'm currently working on a definite romantic suspense then...because we know the threat, we know the villain and we're waiting for him to strike. Wow, you learn something new every day - maybe I should be changing my website, lol!

Rachel x

Rebecca Leith said...

Thanks for that very clear and concise explanation. Now I know, and if asked, shall point people in your direction as I'd never be able to explain the differences as well as you do in this post.

Grace/Lu said...

Great explanation of the difference. Just like a thriller vs. a mystery. The RS I'm about to send out the door is definitely a suspense-we all know who the villain is.

Sarah Grimm said...

Thanks so much Sloane!

Sarah Grimm said...

ROFL, Rachel! Glad I could...confuse things? :-)

Sarah Grimm said...

Rebecca, in all honesty, it took me a while to put the post together so that it made sense. Then I sent it to two author friends to make sure it made sense to someone other than me. :0)

Sarah Grimm said...

Grace/Lu - yes, thriller vs. Mystery is another one where the lines are blurred for some people. Thanks for stopping in and commenting!

Karyn Good said...

It gets complicated doesn't it? To me there's a big difference between romantic mystery and romantic suspense. There's also a difference between a contemporary romance with a hint of suspense and a suspense with a hint of romance. But at least you know there's suspense. And romance.

I agree, labels are important, especially to debut and mid-list authors who don't have the huge brand/name recognition of a Nora Roberts or a J.R. Ward. It's important to make sure the reader is getting the book they're expecting

Great post!

Vonnie Davis said...

Great post, Sarah. Informative, yet understandable. Well done! I put elements of suspense in my stories and have written a romantic suspense series. My agent keeps after me to write a mystery, but so far I'm dragging my feet.

Sarah Grimm said...

Karyn,

I totally agree!

Sarah Grimm said...

Vonnie, thanks for visiting! I'm glad I was able to describe the differences in a way that made sense. Mystery...I would drag my feet, too. That just isn't a genre that would be easy for me.

Susan Macatee said...

Great explanation, Sarah! I used to read a lot of mysteries, but often they included fast paced suspense, so the definition can be confusing.

I primarily write historical romances, but my stories also include a lot of suspense and danger.

I think any amount of suspense makes for a fast paced, not able to put the book down, story.

Nancy Jardine said...

Fabulous post, Sarah-even if I'm still a little unsure of what I write. It can be a minefield deciding what to call your submission. I've locally been calling my Monogamy Twist a contemporary history mystery.(TWRP Champagne General)My soon to be released TWRP, TAKE ME NOW, was tossed back and forth for months. It had a mystery to solve but it also had 'crimson' elements. Eventually I had to decide which to go for. I sublimated the crimson elements and upped the mystery. My current WIP, almost ready to send 'out', is a second history mystery with just a hint of suspense.(I'm still calling it a mystery without any history!- TWRP maybe a Champagne General) Does any of this make sense?

Sarah Grimm said...

Susan, I agree with you that any amount of suspense makes for a fast-paced read. Let me also add that I love an added dash of suspense to any genre. *shocking, I know* :-)

Sarah Grimm said...

ROFL, Nancy! It actually does make sense.

Samantha Gentry said...

Hi, Sarah: I once read a definition that said mystery is not knowing whodonit with the story figuring out who he is and suspense is knowing whodonit with the story trying to catch/stop him.

According to that theory, Agatha Christie is mystery discovering whodonit. Columbo was suspense since we saw whodonit at the beginning of each episode and followed along as Columbo solved the murder.

As you said, they seem to fall into the categories of mystery as the intellectual pursuit and suspense as the emotional.

Brenda Whiteside said...

Sarah, great blog. I was uncertain about the book I'm writing and said - oh that's it. Until I got to the part about the villain. Hmmm...have to rethink this. But loved your explanations.