Scenes are the building blocks of your story. Each scene moves the story forward. As you build your story alternate between action and reaction. Before you write a scene
you need to know the basic structure of the type of scene that comes next in your mystery.
After you’ve written your scene use checklists to make sure your scene meets story requirements.
Two Types of Scenes
You’ll use two types of scenes—action and reaction—to build your mystery. Alternate between Proactive and Reactive to build your story in increments.
First, your protagonist sleuth does something. That’s the action. Then your sleuth has to deal with the consequences of taking action. That’s the reaction.
Both types of scenes incorporate conflict. But, the conflict is different depending on the type of scene. Let’s take a
look at the difference.
The Proactive Scene
Challenge your protagonist. I call these trigger scenes. They move the story forward by involving your sleuth in a problem.
By the end of the scene, the protagonist has not only failed to reach his goal but has a setback that leaves him worse off than at the beginning.
Checklist for the Proactive Scene
Put your hero or heroine in the worst possible situations as they seek what seems like an obtainable goal at the beginning of the scene.
The Reactive Scene
Now that your protagonist is thwarted, it’s time to give him some space. This scene is where your heroine makes a decision about what to do next.
Checklist for the Reactive Scene
These are the basic elements to include in the Reactive scene when your protagonist makes a decision:
Reactive scenes provide a way for your character to make really bad decisions which will create even greater conflict later on. She may be blind to the motivations of another character. He may find that getting into the boardroom isn’t a slam dunk. Reactive scenes are your opportunity to build conflict and tension because the following action scene may be based on a very wrong decision that seemed right at the time for the character.
Why This Scene Structure Helps
Alternating of scenes may seem forced. I know, I was a beginning writer and thought the same way. But my stories went nowhere and lacked tension. Readers want and expect your characters to have problems and overcome obstacles. Unless you are very compulsive, you don’t need to write these lists down. Just know which type of scene you are writing, create the obstacles either to action or decision making, and write the scene.
Conflict physical, psychological, or mental in each scene will keep readers engaged and move your story.
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The Puzzle Creation Challenge
Mystery readers have an expectation to be challenged. Unlike most reading most novels where readers follow along with the story, mystery readers like the challenge of trying to guess who the villain is.
Along with regular story construction in order for a mystery to satisfy a reader, they want a story where they keep trying to guess the killer until the final reveal. Planning helps you keep the suspension until the end.
Steps to Keep the Puzzle Puzzling
A bit of work before writing, will help you plan and sustain the puzzle as you write. Three main planning areas will help you keep the puzzle going.
As you develop your characters, give each suspect reasons to hide secrets from your sleuth. The secret may have nothing to do with the murder, but the suspect has a personal reason to keep information from your sleuth.
Your sleuth must untangle the misrepresentations and lies of all the suspects including the villain. Give your sleuth and your reader opportunities to overlook details or focus on misleading statements.
Use suspect replies to provide a variety of details. Your sleuth and your reader must sort through all the information. Make your sleuth sort through the details and evaluate the reliability of each suspect. Create questions in your sleuth’s mind. These create questions for your reader to consider.
Plot twists in mysteries help keep your reader guessing. Just when a suspect seems the most likely, create a minor reveal that demonstrates that one character could not be the villain. Or, make that suspect the next victim.
Relationships between and among various suspects create opportunities for reversals. One character may reveal the least likely suspect to have powerful motivation.
Use setting to thwart your sleuth. Simple setting details create obstacles that prevent your sleuth from getting to the right place at the right time. Missed opportunities keep your reader in suspense.
Use evidence, clues, and red herrings to create questions around the murder and the suspects. While evidence is factual, not all evidence points to the killer. Clues can be physical items, statements from suspects, and even a change in the weather.
Scatter clues throughout the story. Hide them among other details.
Your aim is to provide information for your sleuth and the reader and yet keep them guessing as to the importance of any one detail.
Keep Your Reader in Mind
As you work on your story keep your reader in mind. While building character background consider what points you will keep from your reader and which points can be red herrings. In the same way, plan twists to surprise your reader to send them in a new direction of thinking. As you plan your clues, consider where you will place them in the story to intrigue readers.
If you plan and write with the reader in mind, your mystery will keep them guessing until the end.
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The Victim is The Center of Your Mystery
The victim in your mystery is more than just a dead body. The victim is the fulcrum for your entire mystery.
Without your victim, your sleuth has no mystery to solve, no clues, no suspects to interview, and no killer. Everything in your novel pivots around the victim.
When you create your Character Bible add the victim to your characters. If your story evolves to more than one victim, make sure the other victims are in your character list.
What to Know About Your Victim
Like any other character, you want to know both basic details and background information.
The victim’s social and emotional ties impact all your suspects.
How to Use Victim Details
In a traditional mystery, the puzzle pieces the sleuth uncovers are based on the relationship between the victim and the villain. As you construct your story, you reveal the layers of the victim’s life as your sleuth learns more and more about the victim’s world.
The first time your sleuth and your reader encounter the victim is often at the crime scene. The sleuth notices not just the physical details, but the place and anything around the victim. Basic details like clothing, height, weight, sex, and even hair color are details that bring the victim into the reader’s world for the first time.
What the reader learns through the sleuth’s eyes is their introduction to the victim and the puzzle that must be solved.
You need background to fill out each suspect’s impressions of the victim. As your sleuth interviews the suspects he tries to put each piece of information from the various suspects into place to form a picture of the victim. How they related to other people on and off the job, how they occupied their time, usual hang out places set against a one-time visit. All of this information is ample background to filling in a picture of the victim through other people’s eyes.
Sometimes a suspect’s description corroborates what others say, and sometimes a variance in description—a quirk, an angry outburst and the reason, a specific time. Somewhere in all of these pieces of information clues point toward the villain.
The villain, as one of the suspects, presents their own set of information. The more you know about the victim, the easier it is to wrap lies with truth as the villain tries to hide guilt.
Knowing your victim’s background enables you to write about the victim’s world, especially if it is a world unfamiliar to the sleuth. It doesn’t matter what the world is—bicycle racing, military boot camp, seedy underworld. In every case, what you know about how the victim lived in that world supplies you with clues and the secrets and lies suspects use
to defend their personal life.
Aim for Rich Victim Background
The character background work you do on the victim will help you flesh out your novel as you move through the scenes. Suspect alliances will feel realistic. Clues relating to the victim and the villain will be hidden
among details. You’ll end up with deep relationships that ultimately point to the villain.
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Set the Stage with Setting
Setting is a novel element that grounds your reader. Without it, your characters are floating in space. It acts like another character in your mystery, providing physical clues. But it also creates atmosphere, reveals character personal traits, and gives your reader a sense of place.
Filmmakers know how important setting is. They scout for the right location for each scene in the film. You can do the same thing for your story.
Every scene in your story takes place somewhere—a busy street in the afternoon, a dark and empty street at night, the protagonist’s kitchen, a suspect’s office.
When you plan out the action of a scene, don’t forget to plan the location.
Author P.D. James believed setting was the spark for a novel.
Something always sparks off a novel, of course. With me, it’s always the setting. I think I have a strong response to what I think of as the ‘spirit of a place.’
You may not start with setting, but you need it every scene.
How to Scout Your Locations
Filmmakers hire people to find the perfect location for story scenes. You can do your own footwork.
If your setting is local, get out with your camera and start collecting images for settings in your story. If friends have the perfect bedroom or kitchen for a scene, be brave with your writing life, ask if you can take photos.
Ask friends, both in real life and online like social media, for location ideas. Independent filmmakers do this with regularity. It works for authors, too.
You may not have physical access to a location, but you can search online for images.
The Story and the Scenes
Once you have a good idea of the overall setting for your story and know the location of each scene, use details to make your settings part of the story.
Rather than long descriptive passages focus on details.
Details bring the scene alive for your readers. They will empathize with the physical and emotional responses your characters experience. Your focus on the details enriches your reader’s sense of place. The details bring them into the story.
Long descriptive passages take readers out of the story. Practice breaking up a long paragraph and, instead, scatter those details throughout the scene. Your reader has a sense of being there, in the scene. Your setting will have a stronger impact than a long description.
Setting Research Pays Off In Your Story
The research you do for settings adds verisimilitude to your story. The details emphasize the unique place—not just any kitchen, but this character’s kitchen.
Setting pulls your reader into the story. The details make each scene come alive. Take the time to locate your settings and add specific details. Your readers will appreciate your work
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When Characters Try to Take Over The Story
Every writer has the experience of characters acting and speaking in unexpected ways. With the most detailed story outline, once you begin writing a scene, characters do something that you hadn’t planned in your outline.
When the protagonist or the antagonist speaks pithy words or acts in a surprising way, you are on the way to enriching your story and deepening your character. But sometimes a supporting character will grab the baton and try to run with the story.
Like a stage actor stepping in front of the lead to gain the upstage position, while you are writing, a character takes the center stage away from your sleuth.
Then your story gets derailed.
How to Put A Character Back on Track
You question your story, your character choice, and wonder how to get control of your character.
You don’t have to go back and rewrite the first part of your novel.
You don’t need to switch character roles to give the character a more prominent place.
You do need to notice the character’s scene grab and consider your next action.
Balance Intuition and Rationale
Take action before you write more. Your intuition created your character’s action. If what the character does overpowers the scene, trim the action to keep balance in your scene. Add another action for your main character to give your protagonist the main thrust in the scene. Then continue on with your story.
Your story is the guideline to making every scene work. And it is the reason all your characters are there. They are the agents that move your story. Let them do and say what comes into your head as you write. Just make sure they are acting within the story construct.
Whether you are a pantser or make detailed outlines, expect your characters to do the unexpected. Then fashion those actions to fit within your story.
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Join The 3% That Finish Their Mystery
It’s a long journey from a story idea to writing The End of a novel. One story idea needs to grow with setting, characters, and plot to reach a satisfactory conclusion.
Because a mystery novel is a large writing process, most writers who start a novel in any genre do not finish. Just three per cent
of writers finish the novel they thought started with a great story idea.
A mystery needs certain components to satisfy mystery reader expectations.
A sound process will help you turn your story idea into a full-fledged novel. Let’s look at how the process works.
A naked dead body in an Amsterdam hotel. A quirky creator of handmade soap. A newly promoted police detective on her first case. You could start with a name, a place, or a situation but then you need to create a story that intrigues readers.
You’ll need to build on that idea to create a basic story situation which you can write in one sentence.
This story sentence has three parts:
This is the acorn from which you build the great oak of your story. All the conflicts, characters, and scenes you create relate to this story core.
Populate Your Mystery
Characters create the interaction, tension, and puzzle in your mystery. Your story needs characters to tell the story through action and dialogue.
Create a background for each character. The sleuth, the victim. the villain, suspects. And you may have subplots that require a sidekick, a mentor, a love interest. The more you know about your major characters, the better you can create realistic scenes.
Your mystery happens in a place and time. The setting is like another character in your mystery that adds both realism and drama to your story. Use setting to ground your reader and create conflict in your story. From a wiped brow on a hot day to a cliff for the final confrontation, you’ll need to use setting details in your mystery to create realism.
The Story Structure
A structure builds your story scene-by-scene. Basic structure keeps your story from wandering and builds tension to a climax when your sleuth reveals the killer. Along the way, your sleuth becomes committed to solving the murder, discovers clues, interviews suspects, and finally pierces through the killer’s screen to reveal their misdeed.
Structure helps you write 60, 80 or even 100 thousand words or more to create a complete mystery novel.
Writing Your Mystery
Once you know your story, populate it with characters, base it in a specific setting, and have a basic idea of the structure, you’ll spend hours writing your story one scene at a time.
The story doesn’t write itself, you need dedication and discipline to create the flow that sends you through writing scene after scene.
The Big Mystery Picture
A mystery is a puzzle that your sleuth solves. Your readers follow along with the sleuth checking evidence, questioning suspects, to organize the puzzle pieces into a complete picture. You want to keep the puzzle challenging for your readers so they don’t guess before your sleuth.
First-time writers can struggle with all the pieces that compose writing a mystery. Now you have a solution. Write A Killer Mystery is a course designed to walk you through the steps. to lead you from your story idea to writing The End and beyond.
I based the course on years of helping writers struggle with completing a story and fixing stuck places. If you are ready to write your first mystery or have one that got stalled, This course will help you get to The End.
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What Came Before
Every character arrives in your story with backstory. Backstory is what came before in their lives before the story begins. Long ago or maybe just last week, something happened that impacted your character.
In a mystery, you need to know the backstory of your sleuth and each of the suspects, including the perpetrator. If you have additional characters like a sidekick, a mentor, or a love interest, you’ll want backstory for them, too.
All of that backstory goes in your character bible. Most of it stays there.
Backstory helps you, the author, understand your character’s fears and motivations, but you don’t need to tell your reader most of the backstory information. In the same way that only 20 per cent of your research ends up in your story, only a small percentage of backstory shows up in your mystery.
Why You Want Backstory for Your Mystery
A mystery is a puzzle. Your readers are there to try to guess whodunit before your sleuth. You need backstory to create the puzzle. You need to know each of your suspects and what their relationship to the victim was.
Giving your sleuth a backstory deepens the relationship with the reader. Old wounds affect how your sleuth responds to present events in your mystery. Events in the sleuth’s backstory can color his responses to information, causing him to overlook important clues.
The backstories of the suspects (and the villain) are the layers that your sleuth peels back as she ventures into the victim’s world and encounters each of the suspects. Suspects have relationships with each other as well as their individual backstory that can hide or reveal.
Backstory is the foundation of the secrets suspects want to hide and the lies they tell to keep those secrets hidden. Backstory for suspects makes an intriguing mystery as the layers are revealed.
Why You Need to Leave Backstory Out of Your Mystery
Backstory slows down the story. But, backstory colors your character actions. You keep your readers engaged by moving the story forward.
So, how do you get backstory into your mystery?
You may have a suspect who is shy and reticent because her father and all her subsequent boyfriends used emotional bullying. When your sleuth attempts to question her, you describe her actions and her hesitant dialogue. You don’t need to go into a long explanation about her childhood wound. However, if that suspect is the killer because she couldn’t take any more abuse, then you can hint at the backstory as the sleuth gets close to the revelation.
Your main characters—sleuth, sidekick, mentor—bing everything that happened before with them, but you only need to share pertinent backstory as it impacts the story. A good rule of thumb is to wait with backstory until you are about 25 percent into the story.
Even then, backstory comes out the way it does in real life—in bits and pieces. Refrain for dumping long paragraphs of explanation. A sidekick or mentor may mention a point from backstory as it relates to a moment in the story. Or your sleuth may briefly mention a backstory event to build rapport with another character, like a suspect.
You Need Backstory More Than Your Mystery Does
Backstory helps you understand your characters better. What you know adds dimension to the actions and dialogue of your characters. Your main job is to move the story forward. Backstory holds back your story.
When in doubt, leave out backstory.
This will keep your story focused on solving the mystery.
Reach out to Readers
As a new author, you can take advantage of social media to get your writing out in the world and find new fans.
Social media are websites and applications where users create and share content and participate
in social networking. These platforms are a great place for readers to discover you. You can share your author life, your progress on your book, and other “authorly” tidbits about writing and the challenges you face.
You are probably on one or more social networks now as an individual. As an author or soon to be author, your focus is business. Your author shares on social media are about writing and you as an author. Your best strategy is to have separate accounts for your writing life. That way you can continue your personal shares but focus your professional shares on your writing.
Social Media Platforms
Each social media platform has a unique audience and a different way of sharing. You’ll need to experiment to find which platform gives you the most traction.
An author page is the place to focus on your works and anything about your genre. This is a Facebook business page and tends to be the choice for most writers.
Later on, when your book is published, your author page gives you control over marketing and using Facebook to promote your email newsletter list and your book through advertising.
In addition, your page allows you to create a group for your fans where they can meet and chat with you and other fans.
The twitter feed moves fast. Tweets are short. Use hashtags to target readers interested in your genre. Twitter posts do best with an image, so stock up on your images.
Twitter is also a great place to meet other authors and editors.
Instagram is imaged based. And, you can use multiple hashtags to garner new followers.
If you have a Facebook author page, you can connect your Instagram account and your page. You’ll give both an added boost.
Instagram attracts young people. If your book is targeted
toward younger readers, it’s a great social platform.
Instagram is a mobile app, you’ll be posting and responding on a mobile device like your phone or tablet.
Yes, YouTube is a social platform. If you like making videos or going live to chat with your readers, YouTube is the second largest search engine. You can connect with readers with tags for every video and share information in the video description.
These four social media platforms are the most productive for authors. Other choices include Goodreads as an author and Pinterest.
How to Choose A Social Media Platform
If you are already on one or more social platforms, you have an idea of how comfortable you are working with posting and responding on those platforms. You also know that social media can be a time suck. You could spend all day on any one social media platform.
Starting your author social media life can feel overwhelming if you spread yourself over several social media platforms. The best way to begin is to choose one and focus your writer promotion there. Remember that you are promoting your business. Have fun, but keep the focus professional.
Consider how you are most comfortable. If you like
sharing text Facebook is your best social medium. If you love sharing images, you may want to focus on Instagram or Pinterest. If you love video and connecting with viewers, YouTube or going live on your Facebook page may be your preference.
As a writer, you want to spend your time writing. Social media takes time. Use discernment and discretion to steward your time. Yes, marketing is part of being an author, but don’t get caught in a social media
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Connect with Your Readers
While you are writing your mystery novel, your work on your author platform improves the success of your book launch once the story is finished. Your website gives readers a place to discover you and your work. An email list gives you a way to communicate with these readers and build enthusiasm.
When you send an email to a reader, it’s a personal note from you to that particular reader. You want to bring them in on the story of your book success.
There are quite a few steps to setting up a successful email connection with your readers. Take them step-by-step. You don’t have to do them all in one day.
Create A Giveaway
Create a giveaway for readers who join your email list. This is your gift to them for connecting with you. You give the reader a free gift for signing up for your email newsletter. You want to make it something related to your mystery. You will build interest in your story, before it is completed.
Make your giveaway as a first-time author simple. The main objective is to build a stronger connection with you and your story.
Format your giveaway to make it easy to send as an email attachment. For short pieces use a PDF. If you wrote a novella, use BookFunnel to distribute the story in the reader’s preferred format. BookFunnel distributes your book in .mobi, .epub and PDF files according to the reader’s choice.
Set Up Your Email Provider
An email provider does the heavy lifting of sending emails to subscribers. Using an autoresponder, the email provider automatically sends a sequence of emails and delivers your giveaway. This saves you the time of responding to each reader individually.
When you start out there are email providers that are
free for small lists. Many authors use MailerLite which is free for up to 1000 subscribers.
Set up your email list. Add yourself to the list to check that all your emails go out. Write a sequence of welcoming emails for your autoresponder.
Create your invitation to join the list (landing page). Most email service providers also offer a landing page. Entice people to join with your free giveaway. Send people to your landing page from your website and social media.
Create a sequence of emails to go to people who join your list. Write a sequence of welcoming emails for your autoresponder (MailerLite, MailChimp, Aweber, etc.). Here are prompts for creating your sequence and the timing to send out.
Write to One Person
Always compose your email message as if the reader is the only person receiving the message. The more personal you are, the better your email reader feels about your message. You care about your readers. Let your email messages show you care about the person who is reading the message.
Decide on a Communication Schedule
Once you have created your autoresponder introductory messages, you want to keep in touch with your subscribers on a regular basis. Consistency is critical. It’s better to write one message per month every month than promise weekly updates and skip a couple of weeks.
Timing is up to your personal choice. Every day is too often. Readers will feel overwhelmed and unsubscribe to stop receiving your messages. Consider all the time you have and make a commitment to including your regular messages.
What To Include in Your Email Newsletter
Keep your regular newsletter friendly and informative. Share your something of yourself as a person as well as writing progress.
Your message doesn’t need to be long. Readers are busy. Always ask a question at the end, like what books are you reading? Or who is your favorite detective? Encourage engagement and communication with you.
Most authors agree that getting responses from readers is exciting. Reply to each communication you receive. Build rapport and trust with just a simple reply.
Your Treasure Trove of Readers
People who subscribe to your email list, want to hear from you. They care about your writing journey.
Your email list belongs to you. Email is the best way to stay in touch with readers and build your fan base.
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You As An Author
It’s never too early to start your transition from writer to author. Once you start writing your mystery, spend some time establishing your presence as an author. You’ll be building your author platform where you tell readers about your book. Once your novel is published, you’ll have your author platform well in hand.
You’ll want basic marketing materials with information about you and your books to share in as many ways as possible. When you start early you’ll give yourself time to create a solid professional message about you and your books.
The Business Mindset
Business mindset differs from your creative writing mindset. You’ll be learning about creating your author identity, marketing strategies, collecting and managing information (data) about your readers and sales, and other business details.
Learn from other businesses, including other authors. Set aside time in your schedule to focus on the business side of your author life. Be willing to start and willing to learn. Authors who embrace the business side create success. The basic principles of an author business mindset will get you started on your author business journey.
With a business mindset, you don’t give up creativity. Instead, you use it in a different way
Create Your Marketing Platform
Your marketing platform is essential to your author business. Whether you are traditionally published or self-published, you need that platform. Creating your author platform takes time. Don’t try to do it all at once. Take a methodical, step-by-step approach to get the details right.
Agents want to see your platform before they represent your book. Many agents will not accept a book unless you have a platform designed and in place. A good reason to start early.
You will co-promote with a traditional publisher. The reason the agent wants to see your author platform is that publishers want to know you put energy into promoting your book(s).
If you are self-publishing, you will spend time weekly if not daily promoting your work.
How to Start Your Author Platform
Creating your author platform takes time. Don’t try to do everything at once. Give yourself a month to set up your author platform activities. Setting these things up now teaches you a very useful skill for authors: dividing your time between writing and marketing. If you are serious about your author career, you need to learn this time management skill.
Before you establish your platform you need to prepare some basic materials. Keep these on hand for guest blog posts, podcast invitations, and media like print, television, and radio.
1. Write a description of your book. You will probably revise this many times but write one. Pretend you are writing the blurb for the back cover.
2. Write an author bio for yourself. You will need several. A short one, 25-30 words, to post at the end of articles or on social media that does not allow for a long description, like Twitter. Then write at least two more, a 100-word bio and a 300-word bio. If you hire a publicist or decide to do your own publicity, you may want a 1000-word biography as well. You will probably rewrite these many times but start with something now.
3. Create a formal portrait of yourself both color and black and white. You can do this yourself with a plain background or hire a professional photographer.
4. Create a cover image for your book. You’ll want this for your website and any promotions you may do.
Once you’ve created the content for your platform, you are ready to build your platform where future readers can learn about you and your books. Start with an author website.
Create Your Author Website
Your own author website is the foundation of your author platform. It’s your author base camp. Any sharing you do later on social media or with email campaigns will direct readers to your website.
You can use free website services like WordPress.com or Wix to get started. If you have time and resources, you can become more involved and intricate with a self-hosted website using WordPress.org. You will need to monitor and update the self-hosted website for updates or hire someone to manage the site for you. If you have a large budget, you can hire a website designer to create a site for you. If you do, make sure you have access to add and change the content.
Basic Pages for Your Website
Your website will have several pages. You can add more, but here are the basic pages you’ll need to get started.
As you can see, there’s a lot of work in creating an author platform. But, there’s more. Next week, in Part 2, I’ll talk about connecting with readers with email. And, in Part 3, we’ll look at social media.
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Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middle Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.