10 Things You Need to Write a Killer (or not) Mystery

If you’re thinking of breaking into the mystery market, here’s 10 things (in somewhat order of importance) you need to have.

1. A CRIME: aka The Mystery, aka Whatever Your Sleuth Has to Solve crime

The Crime wins first place in order of appearance because without it, there would be no story. Sure, some of you may balk at the idea of basing your novel on plot rather than character, but if you don’t have a handle on the who, what, where, when, why and how of your mystery, then you really have no story.

Mysteries are all about misdirection, reversals, knowing what to reveal when, and keeping your reader (and your sleuth) guessing.

And though it’s a perennial favorite, not all mysteries have to revolve around murder. (I mean, I don’t recall Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo ever stumbling over a dead body on one of their cases.) And there are plenty of other options out there, especially if you’re writing for children or are just the non-violent type (which apparently, I am not).

A few ideas to get you started include: finding a missing item, a missing person; a mysterious person; uncovering the reasons behind a mysterious disappearance, a mysterious event from the past, a tragic accident; solving a burglary, a kidnapping, a poisoning; revealing a blackmail scheme, a crime ring, a crime spree, a drug ring, a drug spree; investigating a seemingly supernatural event, a not-so seemingly supernatural event, a stolen identity, a missing identity, a mistaken identity.

The options are endless, and you could just as easily use a dead body to uncover the real mystery or vice versa.

2. A VILLAIN:

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It goes without saying that every crime needs a villain to commit it. A real live, tangible person who gets what’s coming to him. And while it’s tempting to create a crazed psycho serial killer, it’d be much more interesting for the reader to meet, say, two elderly spinster ladies  who poison lonely old men out of charity.

Get fun and creative with your villain before you start writing. He may be as affable as Casper Gutman or as perverted as Antony Bruno, but either way he (or she) will need to be completely developed before ever hitting the page. Unlike, say, your sleuth who will necessarily become more complex and (hopefully) change in some way as the story progresses.

It may also be tempting to redeem your villain by the end of the story so that he or she feels remorse for whatever crimes were committed and/or possibly commit suicide before spending an eternity in jail, but that is not the point of a mystery. We read mysteries because we want people to get what they deserve. We’re tired of seeing real-world crimes go unsolved, real-world villains get away with murder, real-world victims go unrecognized. We’re just tired. We want justice.

3. A VICTIM

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Just as with villains, every crime needs a victim. When we think of victims, we think of poor, innocent people whose lives are irrevocably changed (or terminated) because of the dastardly deeds of some unscrupulous bastard. And while it does help the case against your villain to nick off a defenseless old lady, not all victims are blameless or defenseless. Sometimes bad things happen to bad people. So if your sleuth is a stand-up gal, she will still feel compelled to solve the crime in the name of truth, justice, and the American way. Or because she just likes a good puzzle.

So remember, victims don’t all have to be puppy dogs and lollipop-licking kids, high school seniors, senior citizens, or battered housewives. In fact, think about the moral dilemmas your sleuth (and your readers) will have if the victim is more villain than not. Do we still want justice? You betcha. (And you can probably throw in a little poetic justice for the victim as well.)

4. A SLEUTH

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Were you wondering when I was going to get to the detective? Well, the possibilities for character, here too, are endless. Really, anyone with keener-than-the-average-person’s observation skills and the desire to solve a puzzle can become the sleuth in your mystery. (For that matter, you could also make a bumbling French detective work.)

There are of course professionals who have extensive resources such as police detectives, private investigators, insurance recovery specialists, lawyers, medical examiners, bounty hunters, FBI agents, MI-6 operatives, etc. These characters will have an easier time of it because 1) it’s their job and 2) they’ll have more practice, so that means you will also have to make the crime harder to solve, the villain harder to identify.

Of course you could always go the route of average Joe turns amateur sleuth, the basis of most cozies. Some tried and true options include: archaeology professors, art historians, clairvoyants, librarians, mystery writers, old ladies, old ladies who are mystery writers, shopkeepers, schoolteachers, postal workers, old men, village vicars, old men who are village vicars, teenage girls, teenage boys, talking dogs, talking cats. Heck, you can even relocate your NYC police detective to Cabot Cove, Maine; or your Cabot Cove, Maine sheriff to New York City.

More often than not, the amateur detectives will have to rely on their ingenuity, analytical skills, women’s intuition, or penchant for gossip rather than forensics and crime databases.

Really, anyone and anything can be a detective. What sets yours apart is what sets millions of characters apart in millions of books: it’s all in how you write them.

5. A DISTINCT NARRATIVE VOICE 

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Speaking of how you write your characters, at some point you’ll have to consider the narrative voice of your story. Many writers confuse voice with point of view. In fact, I read an entire article in Writer’s Digest called, “Amplify Your Narrative Voice,” which was basically three pages describing the difference between first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient perspective. And it had little to do with how what was being said was being said.

Think of it this way, point of view (and the verb tense you use to tell your story) is like a vehicle. It’s a mode of transportation that you control (and can smoke in, if you so desire). Narrative voice is the choice of vehicle you make. It shows off your personality, your preferences, your style. It’s an extension of yourself and your character. It’s the difference between, “Wazzupp?” and “May I inquire how you are doing this evening?” It’s the difference between a shiny, red Maserati and stuffy old man Buick.

6. A KNOWLEDGE OF SUB-GENRE CONVENTIONS

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It goes without saying that your story may fall either completely or mostly in one sub-category of mystery fiction or another, and knowing in which category you’re writing will effectively help you make choices. One of those being narrative voice. So the sooner you realize what type of mystery you want to write, the easier it will be to get your story out.

For instance, if you are writing a noir mystery a la The Maltese Falcon, the tone of your story will be dark, gritty; the world of your story will be steeped in shadows; your characters will be hiding more than they’re revealing, even your sleuth. Especially your sleuth. The narrative voice will be harder, meaner. Descriptions stark and sparse.

Sub-genre conventions will also help you decide what kind of sleuth is appropriate (police procedurals will have, well, police detectives) and lend themselves to specific types of crimes (capers/heists mainly focus on stealing heavily guarded items). Conventions will also inform how technical or descriptive information is given (in cozies, the murder usually happens off-screen and is particularly bloodless in description; in legal thrillers, expect to rely heavily on laws and judicial procedures.)

Of course this goes without saying, there are exceptions to every rule, and if you can pull off a hard-boiled mystery set in the bucolic Scottish countryside, then more power to you. Perhaps this would be a good time to introduce a talking sheep amateur private eye who falls in love with a double-crossing wolf while searching for the Balkan Diamond.

7. AN APPROPRIATE SETTING

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This would also be a good time to talk about setting. As seen in the example above, setting will play a huge role in the nature of the crime, villain, victim, and detective. I’m sure you won’t find many private dicks peeping about people’s windows in a sleepy English hamlet, although if you’ve seen Midsomer Murders, there probably should be.

You’d also be hard-pressed to find Interpol looking into the death of a Russian spy (do they even still have these?) during the Cold War at the Sonic Burger on Route 66.

Or: suppose your story takes place on a Texas cattle ranch where the nearest neighbor is miles away. There’s likely not going to be a lot of witnesses; therefore, your detective will have to rely more on forensic evidence than on interviewing suspects. You also probably won’t find the local sheriff investigating the theft of the T virus on the ranch, although I suppose if it was being injected into cows, you might.

In general, setting will be intrinsically linked to sub-genre conventions and narrative voice.

8. MOTIVE

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Which brings me around to motive. You better have a damn good reason why your villain does what he does and one not so easily figured out if you want to keep your readers guessing. And please don’t use the “crazy psychopath serial killer kills indiscriminately just because he can” or because “the victims all remind him of his abusive mother” motives. I’m sure they can be used in an original story, but it’s not one I want to read.

Oh, there are the old standbys: revenge, greed, lust, even a crime to cover up another crime, but giving your villain, as well as all your other suspects, multiple motives for committing a crime will make your detective’s job that much harder.

For example, an art thief named Falco murders a museum security guard while pulling off a heist, not out of greed or malice, not because the guard could identify him. Instead, he kills the guard because he is the last man standing between Falco and the art smuggler who hired him, who is also holding Falco’s daughter captive until his debts are paid off.

Who is the real villain in this story and what is the real crime? Whom do we want to see brought to justice?

If your motive merely stopped at “the guard was killed because he could identify Falco,” the real crime, the real villain would never be discovered. And you’d probably have a much shorter story.

9. PLOT POINTS, PIVOT POINTS, AND REVERSALS

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If point of view is like the vehicle driving you toward the end of your story, plot points, pivot points, and reversals are like the road signs along the way. They help you figure out where you’re going, how to get there, and if you’re taking too long.

Plot points give your journey structure and move you along. They are like mile markers on a highway telling you that by mile 39 you need to do something so you (and your passenger) don’t fall asleep.

Generally, when your main character makes a decision or takes some form of action, a plot point is born. For instance, your sleuth’s decision to solve the mystery is a plot point because it moves the story forward (and if he doesn’t, the story effectively ends right there). Before this point, your sleuth may have been only mildly interested in the case or even refused to take it, but something forced his hand and now he’s in with both barrels. Likewise, when a new lead or suspect is presented, a new line of interrogation opens up, the story propels forward.

Pivot points, however, are more like exit signs because if you follow one, your journey takes off in a new direction. Think scenic byway instead of straight-shot highway. A bend in the road, a switchback trail. These are the twists and turns that make mysteries exciting. We follow your detective right off the road even if it turns out to be a dead-end because driving on a highway for an extended period of time gets monotonous–the speed, the scenery, the same old CDs. Not to mention sometimes you just need to pee.

Pivot points might include the introduction of a new character or following the thread of a subplot. They provide suspense and excitement. They don’t change the destination just the course of the journey. Buffy finding out Angel is a vampire is a plot twist. Did it change her Vampire Slayer destiny? No, it just took it in a new direction because now they’re fighting evil side-by-side. And kind of killing off his own race.

Reversals are just what they seem: they turn the journey around completely. It’s like the reader thought they were going to a cabin in the woods with you but found out you were heading to the beach instead, and they kind of like the beach better. These are moments of heightened danger and unexpected threats. It’s when the reader says, “Ooh!” because she didn’t see that coming. It’s the moment Buffy finds out Angel turned into Angelus after having sex with him and now he’s the enemy. But don’t worry, you can always turn it around again. And again. And again.

The trick with plot points, pivot points, and reversals is to not make them obvious to the reader. Be sneaky.

10. FALSE LEADS AND RED HERRINGS

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Last but not least, some of the above twists, turns, and reversals can be created by supplying your sleuth with some false leads and red herrings, clues that are too good to be true. Suspects that are too good to be real. The more suspects you have with either motive or opportunity for committing said crime, the more side trips you get to take your reader on. It’s fun to mislead and distract. Nobody wants to figure out the mystery by page 50 of 250. And quite frankly, the art of mystery writing centers on knowing what and when to reveal to keep your reader guessing.

By keeping these 10 things in mind, you’ll be crafting killer mysteries with the best of them.

What would you add to the list? What would you take away?

Stay tuned for posts on many of these necessities with further explanations and examples.

 

 

 

 

 

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