Don’t Forget to Tell A Story
Mystery readers love a good story. So when you are constructing your mystery, hiding clues, planting red herrings, or making a suspect look suspicious don’t forget the story comes first. The strongest stories have well-developed themes, engaging plots, suitable structure, memorable characters, well-chosen settings, and attractive style. For best results, build strength in all areas.
Have you ever read a mystery where all the elements seemed to be there but the story fell flat? You felt dissatisfied at the end and couldn’t put your finger on the reason? The writer may be clever at constructing the mystery but didn’t tell a good story.
When you are writing on your notebook or typing in your word processor, it’s easy to forget the reader who wants a good story first. You can keep your storytelling alive as you write by imagining you are telling the story to one person. I tell my stories to my daughter who likes mysteries and Roman history.
Your story comes alive through multiple avenues. Use all the elements to round out your story and keep readers engaged until they arrive at a satisfying conclusion.
Style and Tone
The style and tone are the voice of your story. This is where imagining telling your story to that one reader helps. Think of yourself sitting by the campfire, or in the kitchen, or in the car on a long road trip - any place where the two of you are together with time to tell the story.
Match your style and tone to your mystery subgenre. Is it fast paced action? A police procedural? A cozy? Tell your police procedural in a more clipped and straightforward style than a cozy where it is OK to be relaxed and comfy.
Your style and tone sets the mood for your story. Readers know from the first page how the story will feel. Keep it consistent with your story from beginning to end. Changing style and tone in your story confuses the reader. The beginning sets expectations. If you don’t meet those expectations, they may stop reading.
The plot centers on the obstacles and conflicts your sleuth encounters as he struggles to find the solution. These are the reversals, twists, and threats that surprise readers and keep them engaged.
Twist - a change that takes the reader in an unexpected direction.
Reversal - a reversal takes the story in the opposite direction to what the reader expects.
Threat - a moment of heightened danger either physical or emotional.
Speed up the pace with more conflict, slow it down with fewer conflicts. Use these obstacles in both your main story and in any subplots.
Structure your story with a beginning, middle, and end. Get your reader involved in the story as quickly as possible. The first page is the best place to bring in your reader. Introduce your sleuth and the murder then set the sleuth on her discovery path. The first half of your middle is all about discovering suspects and clues. The second half of the middle is about eliminating the false clues and suspects one by one. In the conclusion, your sleuth pinpoints the killer and confronts them. Then tie up any loose ends.
Know your characters, especially your sleuth. Balancing character strengths and weaknesses are key to the difficulties of the conflicts your create. Give each suspect something they want to hide to heighten suspicion. When you have a solid foundational understanding of each character, they respond to each story situation according to their personality.
You’ll find the more you know about a character the easier you’ll be able to create those twists, reversals, and threats.
Ground every scene in a specific place. Don’t expect your readers to know. Make your characters interact with the surroundings even if it is something as simple as getting out of the rain or suffering from heat. Know your setting as well as you know your characters. The setting will function as another “character” in your mystery.
Story Elements Keep Your Reader Reading
The rich details of your story build the sense of place and the feeling that the reader knows the characters. As a storyteller, your job is to engage the reader and lead them on to the next scene. Do this scene by scene so the story builds on what happened before. Use all the story elements to lead your reader into each scene while leading them to want to know what happens next. Story is the magic that keeps readers turning pages.
Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash
Discovery and Your Sleuth
Once a crime is discovered and your sleuth takes on finding the killer, his next step is to unearth possible suspects. As he visits close friends, work colleagues, the coffee shop owner where the victim went each morning, your sleuth begins to
create a picture of the victim’s world.
The picture your sleuth develops is like the blind men and the elephant. Each person he interviews has their own version of who the victim was and how the victim operated in the world. As a writer, you lead your reader through a maze of conflicting perceptions about the victim.
In a mystery novel, the discovery process occurs in the first half of the middle up to the midpoint. Your sleuth collects evidence and attempts to sort out the victim’s life through interviews with the people attached to the victim, the suspects.
The main way your sleuth interacts with those suspects is through dialogue. This is your opportunity to play.
Dialogue in Discovery
Your sleuth learns about the suspects through their demeanor, dress, and actions. But, dialogue is the most direct way you can set up your mystery. Every suspect has their personal secrets. As your sleuth asks questions, the suspect works to keep the secret a secret. The secret may or may not bear on the victim’s death.
Your sleuth, and your readers, must interpret what each suspect says to discover the truth. Your job as a writer is to make each suspect as suspicious as possible. What they say and how they act toward the sleuth creates the suspicion.
You have several avenues to use in dialogue to heighten the suspicion.
Enhance your suspect’s dialogue by giving each suspect a unique voice. Social position, craft or occupation, family heritage, and personality influence how they speak. Color the dialogue with the suspect’s unique attributes. Doing so, you will minimize your need to add dialogue tags. The reader will know who is speaking.
A Middle Without A Sag
The discovery process in a mystery sets out the puzzle pieces. In this section of your mystery novel, the sleuth is gathering information, collecting the pieces. He is nowhere near solving the mystery, and neither is your reader.
Each scene with a new suspect is a chance to plant doubt in your reader’s mind. Dialogue with each suspect reveals more of the victim’s world as your sleuth tries to understand the victim and why they were killed
. As you raise questions in the reader’s mind, you build conflict for the sleuth and keep readers turning pages.
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Do You Know Your Subgenre?
If you don’t know your subgenre, you won’t reach the right audience. The mystery genre contains a variety of subgenres. When you are clear about subgenre, you’re prepared to write a story that appeals to the right readers. Someone who loves a cozy mystery may have no interest in your cop thriller or noir detective.
A subgenre is a subcategory within a genre. Within the mystery and crime genre a variety of subgenres.
How you label your story will help you reach the right editor and categorize your book to self-publish on digital platforms like Amazon. Author Tammi Lebreque says readers are subgenre loyal, so take that as a cue. Know your subgenre.
First, understand the fiction mystery genre where a detective, or other professional or non-professional, solves a crime. The backbone of the story is solving the crime.
The mystery genre is filled with a variety of diverse subgenres. Let’s look at basic categories to help you identify yours.
A legacy from the 19th Century when Edgar Allan Poe started, the traditional mystery sets the sleuth on the trail of the killer. Brains and are the sleuths primary tools for unraveling the threads that lead to discovery.
Set in a comfortable social setting, - a small town, an academic institution - a private citizen becomes an amateur detective to discover the killer. This subgenre has mild language, no violence, and ensures the safety of children and animals.
The hard-boiled detective is at odds with himself and society. He deals with corruption from his own moral code, usually at odds with society. Violence and strong language are not only acceptable but expected. Noir is darker than hard-boiled. Stories are gritty, dark, and the brutality is far from cozy.
A detective or department is the protagonist. The story emphasizes investigative procedure in solving the crime. Know your law enforcement details. Today’s law enforcement includes use of science and computers.
It’s personal. The protagonist takes on investigating the death, usually of a friend, and often because he or she feels the police have either ignored or bungled the solution.
The private detective is not a law enforcement officer, but works as a paid professional to solve crime. In real life, private detective’s rarely are involved in murder cases, but readers love this genre.
Historical mysteries are set in a time other than the present. These stories require extensive background research. The setting is like another character in the story, enriching the details. And, in the realm of world building, mysteries occur in future worlds as well.
This genre focuses on an amateur detective who is a professional It’s a popular genre but you need extensive background knowledge. These stories are frequently written
by someone who is a professional.
What About Thrillers and Suspense?
Writers often confuse thrillers and suspense with the mystery genre, but these are separate genres. Amazon clumps mystery, thriller, and suspense into one broad category, but the essence of the three are different.
Thrillers are action novels. The protagonist is often chasing or being chased by the antagonist. And, the clock is ticking. The protagonist must save the world or the President’s daughter before the antagonist can complete their evil plot. Think chase.
Suspense stories reverse the story so the antagonist chases or imprisons the protagonist. The protagonist must escape the villain through their wits. The clock ticks in these stories too. The hero or heroine must escape before they lose their life. Think trap.
Your Subgenre is A Reader Magnet
Readers know what they like. When you focus on your subgenre within the mystery category readers know what to expect. A clear definition of your subgenre attracts readers who like it. Also, readers who don’t enjoy your subgenre won’t read expecting something else and then leave poor reviews.
When you market your book, stating your subgenre tells readers they have found a book they will like. Don’t forget to mention it in your book blurb. For example: If you like cozy mysteries you’ll love Your Title.
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.