Can you define the differences between Tension, Suspense and Mystery in fiction writing?

Some resources says tension is how much you care about a character but I cannot imagine how it is possible that there is a great suspense but you don't care about the characters. Besides, there can be a tension -in terms of emotions- even without a particular character, no?


7 Answers 7


According to the dictionary:

  1. anything kept secret, unexplained or unknown;
  2. a person or thing that arouses curiosity or wonder;
  3. the quality of being hidden, hard to understand, or puzzling:

When we talk about mystery fiction, it usually means the plot is focused on solving a problem, typically a crime. However, the problem may be simply an unexplained phenomenon, not a crime and maybe not even a problem, just an event that piques one's (reader and character's, hopefully) curiosity.

As for mystery within the story, just look at the dictionary definitions. Any plot or subplot point that pique's one's curiosity and requires some effort to understand. It can be a character's hidden backstory, a locked room in a house, a family event that everyone refuses to acknowledge, a downpour over the campfire while the rest of the field is dry (that's a real metereological phenomenon, by the way, but being both a wonder unknown to most people and puzzling even for those who study weather, it deserves to be counted as a mystery).

According to the dictionary:

  1. a state of mental anxiety and uncertainty, as in awaiting a decision or outcome.

Basically, it is an effect produced with a good plot and the right techniques. Mystery may help (in the sense of something unknown and unexplained) but only if there's a sense of danger related to it. Maybe a woman's newest boyfriend avoids talking about his past but, unless he has a fascination about knives, guns and excusing psychos, there's little reason to feel anxious. Unless you're the woman's parents, obviously, but that's 'parental anxiety' and has little bearing here.

According to the dictionary:

  1. emotional strain, esp. intense suspense, anxiety, or nervousness;
  2. a strained relationship between individuals, etc.

At first sight, seems almost the same as suspense, right?

Suspense and Tension:
This is mostly an empirical answer based on my personal experience as a writer, reader and student of literature (unfortunately, the classes didn't cover this particular topic).

Suspense must have tension, but tension doesn't necessarily imply suspense.

A strained relationship will have tension (whether it's sexual or not). There is an emotional distress or struggle, for example, there is a deep longing for something/someone that one doesn't know how to obtain so they anxiously hunt (or wait) for it. If the writer does their job right, the tale will capture the reader's attention and will sail the growing tension, eager to see where it will go. There's pleasure surfing that wave of growing tension and little fear; it's a leisurely read.

Still, it won't be suspense until a notion of danger sips in. Maybe the relationship is leading someone into the grip of a murderous stalker or maybe one of the partners risks losing job, house, even family. Now the reader is surfing a mixed sea of pleasure and fear: will it end in tragedy or in a happy ending? The reader doesn't just want to see where it's going, the reader wants to know what is going to happen next, and they want it NOW. To put down the book is to prolong the agony of not knowing who will die (literally or figuratively).

It seems I just keep over-looking second questions...

there can be a tension -in terms of emotions- even without a particular character, no?

If the readers don't care for the character who is under stressful situations, they'll be less likely to feel the tension as their own.

On the other hand, I can personally get gripped by suspense in a story even if I dislike the character. Of course I'm one of those who, if you can't guess how it'll end, then I'll want to know. And even if I hate a character, if everything else is well created, I'll be biting my fingernails to the bitter (or sweet) end.

For me, it's more about the plot capturing the reader rather than the character. Furthermore, if the plot is poorly crafted, there's no sympathy for the character that will make me carry on.

  • Gonna save myself the 5 minutes I was about to do and like your answer XD basically the same thing I was going to do but your's popped up half way typing. +1 for the difference on tension and suspension. Agree with that too.
    – ggiaquin16
    Feb 28, 2017 at 15:21
  • @ggiaquin Oops, sorry. Tension vs suspense is very 'personal opinion' so, feel free to add something if you feel it's appropriate. Feb 28, 2017 at 15:30
  • oh! no no don't worry, you said exactly as I wanted to say XD maybe a different situation used, but the meaning used was exactly as I see it!!
    – ggiaquin16
    Feb 28, 2017 at 15:31
  • @SaraCosta, Thanks for the clear and beautiful explanation. Now I am very clear about mystery, suspense and tension. However I am still thinking about the relationship between suspense and tension. Let me share my thoughts as an answer :)
    – pencilCake
    Feb 28, 2017 at 17:36

I want to say something about the Relationship between SUSPENSE and TENSION; as a subjective opinion:

I remember my parents watching the movie Changeling (1980) when I was in elementary school. I was so much curious about what was going on in that haunted house and who was that ghost called Joseph why he was trying to contact the lead character; and I really wanted to have an answer (to that MYSTERY)...

However the fear was too much for me as a small kid so I could not resist (the TENSION) and I had to hide out of the living room. But my curiosity was too much that I forgot about anything else and put my ear to the door to listen the sounds from the movie to figure out what will happen next (a good SUSPENSE). I was trapped in a sort of tunnel and I could not postpone to go somewhere else and ask my parents later to learn what happens in the end of the movie.

I assume, TENSION -if adjusted perfectly- reinforces the SUSPENSE to an extent where the emotional experience of the reader becomes so much satisfying that leads to get herself trapped voluntarily in a tunnel where all the channels are turned off to any other stimulus around but the story...

So (as of now) it seems to me that TENSION is one of the major BUILDING blocks of SUSPENSION.


Many good answers already, and I'm certainly not an expert on this, but yet I think I can still add something I haven't yet seen, or at least not recognized, in the other answers:

Tension and suspense are emotional, while mystery is intellectual.

I'd say tension is the basic reason why you read on. It is the emotional reaction you get from the expectation to learn or experience something you care about. You'll lose it if you either don't care (then you'll be bored), or no longer expect delivery (then you'll be disappointed).

Mystery is an intellectual puzzle. The tension is generated by your curiosity, your desire to find the solution. If you don't care about the solution, the mystery won't work for you. Otherwise, learning the solution is a pleasure, finding the solution yourself in advance doubly so. Of course, the reason why you care about the solution may well be emotional.

Suspense is effectively fear. You fear for the character in danger. The suspension is created by your desire to resolve this situation, either by experiencing how the character is saved from the danger, or by the feared event actually happening (in which case you'll usually get new tension as you'll want to know how the protagonist deals with the result).


I've been thinking about tension in particular. I think tension can be interpersonal, relational, but it can be about non-relational issues like defusing a bomb, too. Also, there are plenty of blogs about tension (along with every other writerly topic).

So, tension is something slippery for me to get my arms around and this answer is how I see it at the moment.

I had been viewing tension as tightness, like a string on a musical instrument. I think this is part of it. Tightening up the wordiness, correcting problematic word choice, and so on. Checking for strongest action verbs, and every other mechanical detail, can tighten the actual words on the page, helping to tighten that string and give a little more tension. (this is not sufficient, but I do see it as one helpful exercise to tune ... and tighten.)

There are lots of ways to imagine losing a reader through a lack of tension via a lack of tightness in the sequence of words. The sequence of words should be tight in one sense or another. (That does not mean brief. It means sharp. Tight.)

^ that's a vague hand-wavy set of thoughts about tension. I am going to segue that into the reader experience.

Part of tension is the reader experience - whether the reader wants to be in the fictional world you are using (be it Earth or elsewhere.)

If they don't, if they lose interest, put the book down, ... they don't care - it's because the tension isn't right. But it isn't that you need more suspense or mystery. It does not necessarily mean that your characters are unlikeable. It certainly does not mean that you need more explosions or other gratuitous tricks.

What it does mean is you need to look holistically to find what is missing in your work. Yours. Your work is missing something that you need, to make them want to turn another page.

I think (and I'm finding my way through this) you have numerous tools to help the reader want to turn the page.

  1. Suspense and mystery may be appropriate. It's your work. (Fireworks may or may not be appropriate.)

  2. Good competent writing is necessary but insufficient.

  3. Characters to care about is excellent in any case.

  4. Beautiful prose, while not usually associated with tension, I think should be - because it creates that same sense in the reader of wanting to 'be' within the book. I think this adds to tension in a way that we don't usually think about. A good way.

  5. A cohesive plot (this also feels good to the reader; good tension).

  6. Pacing of plot points.

  7. ...and so on.

I think all of these things benefit from attention. I think they can be mixed in a variety of ways. I think if a reader is enjoying being within the story, that this equates to adequate (good) tension (tightness, like the string on an instrument) but does not mean (and should not be misunderstood to mean) a tense (negative) experience.


Already some fine answers about the distinctions, and Sara made a good point about unlikeable characters. There's also a more abstract point about tension and suspense where the narrator (and, by extension, the reader) care in a more vague sense about The Bad Thing - possibly because of their own views about the sort of person they are, or possibly because of a general empathy with other people, including those they have never met (which, in a literary sense, would be those who are not defined characters - or in a film sense "extras").

There's an asteroid heading for New York. I don't know anyone in New York, and have only passed through there a couple of times, but I can still see this as A Bad Thing - there's still suspense and tension (and possibly mystery - where did it come from?). A meteor shower over Paris with great balls of fire raining down on the city? I'll still feel tension and suspense and wonder what's going to happen next (though I probably won't say "goodness gracious").

While mystery, tension and suspense will feel stronger when the events causing them relate directly to the main characters, those characters, the narrator and the reader will also feel curious, anxious and concerned about events that happen to other people, even when those other people are not defined characters themselves.



Mystery is a puzzle

Tension is an unmet expectation

Suspense is an excitement of emotion

  • 1
    Interesting start to an answer. Add to it and this could be very insightful
    – EDL
    Jun 30, 2021 at 4:15

I think suspense is related to timing. You can add tension to a guitar string quickly or slowly or a combination of both - a performer playfully tightening the string is suspending the moment when the expected outcome is realised - making the experience more intense when it arrives. One can think of other analogies ....

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