A good mystery is all about the question. If the protagonist is a criminal then the question is “how will they accomplish the difficult task”. If the protagonist is a detective then the question becomes “how did they do it”. In both cases the beginning establishes how difficult the task is or was, then spends the rest of the story gradually dropping hints and clues, giving audiences the chance to try and solve the mystery. The key is to carefully manage information so that audiences feel like they have a chance, but don’t solve the mystery before the end of the story. Many mysteries use comical side plots to break up what can be a dry main story.
Thriller & Horror
Thriller and horror both rely on a cycle of tension and release. First the story hints or establishes a threat, building up anticipation/tension, then the threat resolves, either with a loss or a narrow escape by the protagonist. Then there’s a pause or break before the process repeats. The fear comes from the uncertainty, waiting for the threat to resolve. Once the threat manifests, no matter how painful the loss, there’s also a sense of relief. “Now at least we know what’s going to happen. We can stop worrying and start trying to solve it.”
Part of any good suspense story is the location. Create a sense of something not quite right, an atmosphere of unease. Limit the audience’s perceptions. Common techniques include darkness, fog, or structures. Most bad things happen around corners or behind doors. Create a few subtle false scares; a sound, a light going out, a shadow, mirror, or shape that looks threatening at first glance. These help to keep audiences a little on edge, but don’t overuse them.
The difference between thriller & horror is that thriller focuses fear and uncertainty, while horror is all about despair. They both deal with the unknown, but in a thriller story characters grow stronger through knowledge. In horror, knowledge only brings pain.
In general there are three types of fear:
1. The gross and disgusting-a severed, mutilated, or rotting corpse.
2. The horror-something unnatural that should not exist, giant monsters, zombies, etc.
3. The terror-when the world ceases to make sense, a person walking through a wall, or a door that leads right back into the same room.
Science Fiction & Fantasy
Taken together, scifi and fantasy represent some of the most unrealistic stories in the world of fiction. Some are stories of impossible things happening in the real world, such as a dragon living in central park, or taking a character from the modern world into the otherworld, the way that the children stumble upon Narnia, or how the Doctor invites others to come along.
The main difference between the two is that science fiction relies on existing knowledge and theories when building its fictional world, while magic is free to create worlds with completely different rules. However, both genres still rely on rules. If the author invents a world where languages can be translated easily, they need to recognize the ramifications of that change.
Experimental fiction, by definition, is hard to define. There are no rules, no patterns, but that’s no excuse for bad writing. There’s a fine line between experimental writing and bad writing. Audiences still need to understand what the story is about. If you do experiment, limit yourself to a few aspects of the story, while keeping the others well within the realm of writing conventions. Examples of experimental fiction include House of Leaves, Naked Lunch, and Life: A User’s Manual.
Scene & Summary