Friday, January 20, 2012

How to Improve Mysteries

by Vivian Zabel  

          I take and read several writing magazines: The Writer, WRITERS' Journal, and Writer's Digest. All of them give me ideas and advice that helps me be a better writer. As I read some of the current issues, I realized that some of the articles included suggestions that definitely apply to writing mysteries, thrillers, crime, and/or suspense novels and/or stories.

          In my reading, and from my experiences over the years, I found some writing tips that definitely apply to writing mysteries and sub-genres.

          Some of the suggestions apply to any writing; some perhaps more to the mystery genres. However, all are usable to us. At the end of this article, I'll give the sources for the information I'm using, besides my own expertise. I highly recommend that everyone read all the articles.

          Create believable and distinctive characters. Have you ever read more than one book where at least one character could be dropped into more than one story, even if the names aren't the same, and no one could notice? I mean other than in a series or a sequel that contains the same characters.

          Ways to make characters believable and distinctive are several, but a few include 1) to have characters not be predictable, 2) to make them three-dimensional rather than stereotypical or all good or all bad, 3) to "show" their personalities and characters rather than "tell" the reader what kind of person they are. An antagonist shouldn't be a "flat" all bad, evil person. A protagonist shouldn't be all good without any faults or short comings.

          Include the four elements. Every well-written novel or story needs to have 1) a strong hook at the beginning to grab the readers attention and keep it.

          2) Conflict is necessary to have a plot, a story. Of course without conflict, we would have only a narrative, and we wouldn't have anything to interest a reader.

          Conflict leads to a 3) struggle, according to Diane E. Robertson, both internal and external. The ups and downs of the struggle make the plot move forward to the 4) resolution, the end of the story. Authors need to be sure that that end is not a false finish. The end must make sense and satisfy the reader. A surprise ending should still be credible.

          Make sure the plot is plausible to the reader. Often, coincidences are thrown in to surprise a reader, but if credibility is stretched too far, the reader won't accept it. Hallie Ephron states, "... never, ever, ever make a coincident integral to the solution."

          Don't conceal clues from the reader. The reader should know all the clues as soon as the mystery solver or detective does.

         I gave a few of the many tips found in three articles and a bit of my own knowledge mixed in.

Sources, besides the information I've accumulated over the years:

The Writer, Hallie Ephron,October 2008 page 26-29; Paola Carso, December 2008 page 28-29.
WRITERS' Journal, Diane E. Robertson, January/February 2009 page 46-47.

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  1. Vivian,

    Although I am not a mystery writer, I think these tips apply to most fiction writing. Thank you for sharing so many good pointers. After reading your post, I decided to see if I could locate your reference articles. I searched for the first one listed using the public library databases and found it. Thanks for citing your sources. Now, I can refer to them too.

  2. Linda, so much of my material is taken from my notes from teaching, but if I have noted sources I try to list them.

  3. Great post, Vivian. I don't write mystery, but I've enjoyed reading it in the past. I think one of the most important things to do is make it believable, but that goes without saying for any genre.

  4. Actually, most all the tips can/do apply to any type of writing.

    I think you would probably do a good job writing mysteries, Rena.