Robin Parrish

Robin Parrish is a journalist who's written about the intersection of faith and pop culture for more than a decade. He is the author of Bethany House Publishers' suspense/thrillers, The Dominion Trilogy: Relentless (2006), Fearless (2007), and Merciless (2008). His science fiction thriller, Offworld, came out in 2009. This summer debuts Nightmare, and he's working on another for 2011. Robin and his wife and children live in North Carolina. Visit Robin's Web site at


If you were to ask me, "How do you create suspense?" I'm not sure I could come up with a satisfactory answer. Dissecting it would take away some of its magic.

But I can tell you one of my favorite ingredients for suspense: mystery. There's nothing like a good mystery to add tension and excitement to a story. The questions posed by the power of mystery can add a whole new level of suspense to your work. And I firmly believe that no matter what genre you're writing in, from romance to western, from sci-fi to detective noir, mystery is always a vital component for upping the narrative ante.

Mystery changes the entire flavor of a story, drawing you in, making you ponder, and forcing you to invest in what's happening. For example, if the opening line of my story was: "Beth caught up with Roger on her way to the supermarket . . ." Face it: you're already yawning. If there's not some tension in the next sentence or two, I've already lost you.

What if, instead, my opening line is given an injection of mystery: "The tears that were streaming from her eyes dried up instantly when she spotted the cloaked man for the fourth time that day." Now you're pondering why this woman is crying, who the cloaked man is, why she's so thrown by his repeated appearances, and whether he's really following her around. An entire world of possibilities has opened up before you, and the very fact that you're spending time considering all this means that you're invested. In the course of a single sentence, your curiosity is piqued, your brain is engaged, and your heart rate may have even gone up a notch.

Sometimes mystery doesn't even have to be something your characters are trying to solve themselves. It can be equally provocative as something for the reader to figure out as the story unfolds. After all, your fiction isn't some random sequence of events that you're putting in front of your readers' eyes; there's history at work in this, there are characters with complicated lives that are already in motion when you bring the reader alongside them. Sometimes that history can be just as intriguing as what's happening right now. Why does the main character have a profound fear of water? Who is the bald man this family tries desperately to avoid in public? How was the antagonist's heart broken so severely that it caused her emotions to turn to ice?

The very act of surrounding your characters or your story with mystery causes tension to inevitably mount as the scars of the past must be confronted, some dark territory must be explored, and long-awaited answers come just within reach. But the power of mystery goes much deeper than merely posing questions and later answering them.

J. J. Abrams, modern television and film creator, likes to tell the story of a small box that was given to him as a boy by his grandfather. He still has this "mystery box," and to the astonishment of friends and family, he's never opened it. Not once. Thoughts of what could be in the box ignited his imagination so thoroughly, that he found pondering that mystery more alluring than finally seeing what's really inside it.

Abrams posits that mystery is so potent it's very nearly an end unto itself. As long as his mystery box remains closed, an entire world of possibilities exists inside it. The very act of posing a question or raising a mystery, he says, creates endless ideas within the mind that never before existed. And once he opens the box, the aforementioned "world of possibilities" is

destroyed—the reality of what is wiping away the gloriously exciting potential of what could be. (And very often as proof, in Abrams' creations at least, his questions are a lot more interesting than his answers.)

This is a philosophy I've taken to heart in my own writing—with a twist. I love the idea of big questions that open the mind and create infinitely wild possibilities. When I'm enjoying a good story, I love that feeling that you get when the full scope of a mystery is laid out before you, and you realize that the only possible answer is something mind-boggling, something really cool that you've never seen before.

But I've adapted Abrams' philosophy for my own uses. It's not enough to merely ask a question that expands the mind and widens one's view of what's possible. Mystery and suspense are both far more than that. Mystery is a promise from the writer to the reader, where the writer says, "Come along with me on this journey, and I'll make sure the destination is worth getting to." Suspense carries some of the same promises with it: "Let me take you by the hand, and guide you through this nail-biting, anxiety-inducing adventure. And when we come out on the other side, you'll find that it was worth it."

The resolution of the story you tell must be worth all of the big questions and terrible suspense that preceded it. I fully agree with Abrams that mystery is a powerful tool in the writer's arsenal that can pull readers into the story and the world that the writer has created. But instead of crafting a question that's more interesting than the answer, my goal is to make both equally important.

In other words, I want to answer my mysteries with revelations that are just as big and mind-boggling, that create just as many possibilities within the imagination. It's a difficult balance to strike, but if you can master it, if you can open up your fictional world with mysteries that boggle the mind, and then open it even further with answers that prove to be bigger than anything the reader was imagining on his own . . . you'll have a powerful new tool when it comes to crafting suspense.