Many sub-categories fit under the Mystery umbrella—from Police Procedurals to Amateur Sleuths, from Romantic Suspense to Historicals to Cozies and Noirs. All are Mysteries, with different specs of course, but all fall under this wide tent. So what tips cover them when you’re writing a Mystery novel?
No matter who pursues whom and how, some parameters stay the same in all.
Here are 6 of them.
The Murder/Crime Happens Quickly
This genre isn’t one where we lollygag to the inciting incident! No backstory up front. No setting the “real life” of the protagonist.
As a book editor, what I often see is the event occurring, or being found out, long into the first chapter. Or horrors, even after that!
Instead, the body needs to be found in the first few pages. As publishing-house editors and literary agents will tell you, they want to see it on page one. That gets the story going lickity split, and we’re off and running.
Now, in order to effect this, prologues are often used, which work great!
Our Hero Still Resists the Call
This occurs even if just that the hardened detective wishes he just didn’t have to pursue such a horrendous case. Or perhaps he was to retire tomorrow. Or an amateur can be tossed into an unknown world because his father was killed, Or . . . You get the picture.
And it’s during this time that we are introduced to our hero, along with some of his real life and background.
But be careful not to overdo the latter. Weave that in as you go.
The Pacing Is Pretty Darn Quick
Okay, honestly, the pacing in pretty much all genres is quick these days. It’s the trend—which may or may not pass. I blame John Grisham 🙂 But page-turning plots are now all the rage.
But, that doesn’t mean when writing a Mystery novel that we have no narration, no exposition, or no description. It just means that those are secondary to plot points, which move the story along.
In other words, they’re in use to movement via plot points.
As with all things writing, it’s a balance. Just one that’s shifted a good deal further in one direction rather than the other.
Find that balance. Read published authors who have.
Every Plot Point Relates to the Crime
All of the major plot points must, and most of the minor ones as well.
Even if you have something that occurs off-stage that greatly affects the protagonist (say, his father dies in the middle of the story action), this still needs to contain a seed of the mystery at hand.
Perhaps his father taught him to sleuth in the first place. And at the funeral he remembers an obscure thing his father used to tell him, which then relates to his thinking as he goes back to solve the crime.
But as with every genre, pretty much every word on the page needs to have a piece of the plot, and enhance the characters driving it.
Your Reader Wants to Solve the Crime
Yes, of course, your protagonist is the one doing so—on the pages. But your reader has saddled up with him to journey the course of this story.
And Mystery readers of all categories read them in order to solve things before the hero does.
But—they don’t want it to be easy. They don’t want the ending telegraphed, so that half way through they know the answer.
Your reader wants to solve things seconds before your protagonist does.
Twists and Turns and Surprise Endings Are Great!
But, they must “fit.”
As a book editor, what I so often see is a writer trying so hard to create a surprise, that the perp or the crime itself or a litany of other things doesn’t fit the rest of the book.
In other words, all the clues (not just some of them) pointed to someone or something else. It’s like the writer built an entire set of plot points and incidents and clues that are then just tossed by the wayside. And none of them relate to the whodunit.
The thing is, readers feel tricked by this. And once that happens, you may have gotten them to buy this book, but they won’t buy the next.
So find the balance. Yes—we want to be surprised. But in an ah-ha! way, not an oh-brother one.
Writing a great Mystery novel is tricky for sure. But as with other genres, this beast can be tamed.
Go master it!