I always rub my hands together when I’m given a wide berth on writing topic. Usually, the commentaries I write come from my recent activities as a writer and as an editor. This post is no different.
I am a huge mystery/thriller fan. Patterson, Grisham, Connelly, Cornwell, and Clark are just a few authors I read, and Mary Higgins Clark (and her book All around the Town) sparked me to write my first mystery, Death at the Double Inkwell. I talk about Clark and my move toward mystery writing on the blog, The Blood-Red Pencil (http://goo.gl/Oo0zN).
Writing a mystery is an intricate endeavor. Just like with any story, you have to deal with developing strong characters, well-paced plots with heightened tension, dialogue that reveals character, and the list goes on and on. However, when writing a mystery, there are a couple more things you need to include.
There are plenty of resources available that discuss the many facets of mystery writing (“How to Write a Great Mystery” on NPR http://goo.gl/xqCdB, “Writing Mysteries” by Sue Grafton http://goo.gl/sMg4q, “How to Write a Damn Good Mystery” by James N. Frey http://goo.gl/8rbS5, and “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel” by Hallie Ephron http://goo.gl/Knlhr). In this post, I want to talk about one important facet: giving your readers choices.
Choices of what?
Choices of suspects.
We all know that in any mystery a crime is committed…sometimes multiple crimes, and as readers, we dive into a mystery to figure out who did it. As writers, we have to be able to sustain the mystery in our story. Typically, we don’t want the reader to figure out too soon who the culprit is. We do this by offering choices, an array of characters that might have a motive for committing the crime.
My favorite television series of all time is Murder, She Wrote. I think things I’ve learned from watching this show can help to illustrate the importance of choices.
While watching Murder, She Wrote, I hardly ever figured out who the killer was before Jessica Fletcher did and often wondered, “How in the world did she do that?” But there were things that happened throughout the course of an episode that kept me from crying foul as a viewer. As Jessica illustrated how the killer committed the crime, tried to keep it under wraps, and ultimately failed to do so, I realized a few things:
1- As the story progressed, I could have figured out the mystery, and if I didn’t, the clues were there for me to do so. This kept me from arguing that as a reader, I have no opportunity to interact, take part in figuring out the mystery. Choices play a role here. If we are limited by the number of possible suspects, we run the risk of allowing the reader to figure things out way before the story ends…and then they may leave the page and stop reading the story. Sometimes, we are so concerned with making sure we plotted the story well that we have narrowed down the suspect list to only one person—way before the story concludes.
2- Not only was the story well-paced, but the pacing of new suspects and elimination of other suspects were well-plotted, too. This kept me always guessing. Readers of mysteries like to interact with the story. They like to learn about new characters, see their connection(s) to the main character(s), and try to see if there are motives for these characters to be suspects. Again, if we are limited by our choices, there is no guessing for the reader. There is no interaction.
3- The killer was always present in the story. This is an important one. It seems like “Well, duh,” but the fact is a reader will cry foul if s/he can’t do #1: read the clues and connect them to the culprit (whether during the story or once the culprit has been revealed). If the killer is never fully breathing, walking, talking, interacting with main characters, having a life in the story, then the revelation of this person being the culprit rings false.
If you’re working on a mystery right now, in the revision/rewriting stage(s), think about your suspects. Is there enough to keep the readers on their toes? Are the suspects actual parts of the story that readers get to see in motion? The more you think about these things in the writing and revision stages, the happier your readers will be when they jump into your story.
Dee here: I’d like to thank Shonell for making a guest appearance on Become A Successful Author. I truly appreciate it and her.
Shonell Bacon is an author, editor, and educator. She’ll be rereleasing her first mystery Death at the Double Inkwell in February 2012, a month before her new novel Into the Web is released under Eclectic Soul Publications’ mystery imprint, Crimson Whispers. She’s been an editor for over 11 years, helping writers to develop strong stories ready for publication. Shonell has also taught in the university since 2001, teaching composition, mass communication, and creative writing. Currently, she continues to write while pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University. You can learn more about Shonell at her website, http://shonellbacon.com.
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