The Counterintuitive Show
Clues make up small details in your mystery that point the detective and the reader toward the villain.
Detective, crime writer and mystery writing adviser, and Murder.con host Lee Lofland says,
Tiny clues are often the ones that bring a case to a close.
You want to plant those clues in your story without bringing attention to them. Keep your reader guessing. One of the best ways to hide those clues is with one of the best storytelling methods - show don’t tell.
Show Versus Tell
As you write your mystery, show what is happening through character responses. These responses can be physical actions or dialogue. Telling is just that. Let’s look at some examples.
Tell: The temperature fell.
Show: Her nose stung, and she squinted against the sunlight on the snow.
Tell: He smelled garlic.
Show: He hugged her tight and said, “Oh, the garlic special pizza.”
Tell: It was high summer.
Show: The sand burned under her feet as she made her way to the ocean.
Telling is not always a bad technique. Use it for covering a time lapse between scenes or covering a sequence of mundane events. You don’t need to show everything. If your sleuth needs to travel to another town to follow up a suspect, you don’t need to show her packing, getting to the airport, going through security, getting on the plane, finding a taxi, etc. You’ll bore your reader. Sum it up with, Kelly booked the first flight to Memphis to talk to Watson.
The Door to Reader Attention
While your reader is concentrating on your story in the actions and dialogue of characters, you display your clue right in the middle of that showing. Surrounding a clue with action or dialogue minimizes its importance at the time.
Instead of telling your clue, hide it while you are showing what your character is doing.
Using the same examples plus the clue see how the clue gets lost in the showing.
Tell: The temperature fell.
Clue tell: The suspect’s footprints led to the woods.
Show: Her nose stung, and she squinted against the sunlight reflected on the snow beyond a trail of footprints.
Tell: He smelled garlic.
Clue tell: A notebook on the counter lay open with the victim’s name.
Show: He hugged her tight and said, “Oh, the garlic special pizza,” as he saw over her shoulder [victim’s name] in an open notebook on the counter.
Tell: It was high summer.
Clue tell: The killer lost his beanie in the struggle.
Show: The sand burned under her feet as she made her way to the ocean. She stepped on an old beanie to cool her soles for a moment.
These examples are simplistic, but highlight how you can combine action and clues to show your reader the story point.
Readers Are In For The Ride, Give Them Action
Mysteries are puzzles. Readers want to solve the puzzles along with your sleuth. Unless they are reading a thriller (not a mystery), they are disappointed when they guess the villain before the sleuth.
Hiding your clue in the midst of showing helps downplay the clue until the moment your sleuth reveals the killer.
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A Scene is a Revelation
A story is a sequence of small moments. The first moment is make or break for getting your reader involved.
Writing advice for beginning novelists can be confusing, like to start with a hook or show the hero’s everyday world. It’s easy to go way off track by starting with a sex scene to “grab” reader attention and then go on to something else that proves that first scene is extraneous. Or, in the everyday world the hero wakes up, looks in the mirror in the bathroom complete with a physical description, and then goes to the kitchen to make breakfast.
Neither of these devices gets your reader into the story. That’s your job at the beginning. Reassure readers that the story you promised feels like the genre they want, gets your protagonist in action right away, and delivers a dilemma that keeps them reading for more.
What Readers Want in the First Chapter
Readers want to know your mystery is worth their time and emotional involvement. Deliver the goods up front.
Once you know what needs to be at the beginning, you can start your opening scene.
The Opening Scene
So, how do you go from a hook to the protagonist’s ordinary world in a mystery? The best way to navigate that opening scene is through emotional states. Starting with physical details can lead a beginning writer in the wrong direction. Jump right in to how your detective feels. Every scene needs an emotional turn, so starting with a feeling gets your reader onboard emotionally.
Start with your sleuth in the middle of something in his everyday world. Give him a want. It can be small - returning spoiled cabbage to the grocery store, attempting to reach a partner/friend/girlfriend. Show his emotions - disgust, anger, eager to connect for tonight’s dinner/bowling night/ date. Show his emotions.
Something impedes your sleuth’s progress. Aim to make this happen on the first page. A stranger/opposition/friend asks for help/tells him to drop tonight’s date/pushes him down as they flee (your choice). The stranger can be a key suspect as the mystery unfolds or the murder victim or your sleuth left his weapon at home or lost a phone connection or… Show your sleuth’s emotional response to this interruption.
The key is to cause a disturbance, something prickly, in the protagonist’s world. Now you are bringing your reader into the story. Your sleuth and your reader will experience an emotional change from the beginning to the end of the scene.
Each emotional response ties your reader to your hero in ways just telling action will not do. Focus on the emotional world of your protagonist. Represent the emotions through action and dialogue. When the protagonist’s emotion change you bring the reader into the story.
You Don’t Have to Get it Right, Just Get It
Experienced authors may go back to edit, rewrite, or even change the first scene. On your first round, if you focus on the emotional tenor and the change your sleuth experiences, you’ll be well on your way to bringing your reader into the story.
Meet reader expectations right away with genre, tone, main character and a weakness and a strength while constructing a scene based on an emotional shift.
The purpose of story is to give the reader an emotional interpretation of the world. Focus your opening scene on that interpretation. Disturb your character in their world. Give him a prickle.
Photo by Joao Ferreira Gomes on Unsplash
Discoveries I Made While Researching The Peach Widow Background
Every story presents new research challenges when writing an historical mystery. For The Peach Widow I needed background on farm dogs, inheritance law, and natural poisons.
My first challenge was looking for background on inheritance law concerning a second wife and children by a previous marriage. After all the wonderful and informative responses from scholars about the time of Theodoric in Italy, I was frustratedto discover that Roman Law attorneys have no such enthusiasm for writers. Each one I approached did not respond.
When Murder Was Not A Crime
That drove me to more online research. I made a story-changing discovery as I dug deeper. Murder was not a crime.
That means a public crime. No police. No trial. Each family had to deal with the consequences once the murderer was revealed. That gave me a whole new layer for Argolicus as he makes his way discovering a killer. He also had to help the family come to terms with what they could and could not do for recompense.
The Big Farm Dog
The farm dog, Pup, plays a crucial role in the story. I read about Roman farm dogs and discovered the Pup most closely resembles the modern Dogo Argentino, a big dog breed that originated in Argentina.
To arrive at that conclusion I looked at a number of illustrations of both Greek and Roman dogs, read descriptions from the time, and then looked for a modern equivalent.
The Natural Poison
Another challenge was to find a natural poison source that would be readily available to a poor murderer who did not travel far. I needed a substance that grew locally. After researching natural poisons and plants that grow in southern Italy, I identified oleander. I could plant clues early on and bring the poison to light later in the story.
The Hidden Backstory of a Mystery
The villain and the victim are star characters in your mystery. As the story unfolds for the reader the focus is on your sleuth, but the relationship of these supporting characters are the crux of the resolution.
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.
At various places in your story, you set up clues for the sleuth that reveal the connection between the victim and the villain. Part of the fun of writing your mystery is hiding those clues to baffle your sleuth and keep your reader guessing.
The Relationship Web
The background work you do in character development builds the relationship between the villain and the victim. The more you know about these main mystery characters, the richer your story details will be.
Make no mistake, the victim is a character in your story, not just a dead body.
In order for your sleuth to discover the villain, he must understand the victim. Your sleuth explores the victim’s world to find clues and suspects related to the victim’s death. Once the murder is discovered
- usually near the beginning of your mystery - your work as a storyteller is to reveal the victim’s character through the eyes of others and the clues.
As you develop the character background for your victim, know their relationship with all the suspects, but focus on the relationship with the villain. Create at least two and up to four secrets about the victim. Then reveal them through the story through physical clues and dialogue from other characters.
Some secrets may be red herrings that make another character look guilty and at least one will reveal the villain’s identity.
Throughout most of your mystery, the villain is one of several suspects. Create a rich background. You’ll give yourself a variety of puzzle pieces to drop into your story. Go beyond the villain as a character role. Give her a name, a background with relationships, a physical fallibility, and emotional weakness.
In your background, focus on the relationship between the villain and the victim. Their relationship is the basis for the murder and the sleuth’s involvement. Think of ways the two connected, then the ways things went wrong, and finally the one incident that tipped the villain to murder.
Like any story research, you may use only 20% of the relationship you create. Experienced writers know that rich background allows for opportunities to use details as they are writing. Even, you, the writer, may not know which details you will use in your mystery until you are writing. That is why the deeper the relationship background you build between the villain and the victim, the more you have to use at the right moment in your story.
The Two Key Characters
The relationship between the villain and the victim is germane to creating a strong mystery. Without their relationship, there would be no murder. A rich background of their relationship arms you with a variety of ways to hide the villain as a suspect. The more you know about the villain, the more you have to hide in your story. Those hidden clues challenge your reader to solve the puzzle.
Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash
The Best Sleuths Have Character
Beginning mystery writers work hard to get their clues lined up, create suspicious characters, and overall construct a puzzle for the sleuth and readers to solve. It’s easy to forget that readers fall in love with characters.
The most important character in your mystery is your sleuth. You want your readers to empathize and sympathize with the dilemmas your sleuth faces. And some of these are of her own making or through no fault of his own. Just because you create a situation does not mean your reader loves your character.
If you have your story elements balanced, your one shining star in your story is your sleuth. So, how do you get your readers to love your sleuth?
Set Up Your Sleuth to be Loved
Your sleuth doesn’t need to be nice to be loved by readers. In fact, a sleuth without flaws is...well...boring. Your reader doesn’t have a way to identify with a perfect hero. Perfection isn’t human.
And, your sleuth needs to interact with the environment and other characters. The flaw (s) you give your sleuth can get him into trouble or predispose another character to react.
Frailty is human. Give your character ways for your reader to sympathize.
Author Chris Fox reviewed these elements that get your readers to love your character.
Readers root for an underdog. Give your sleuth a political, economic, or social weak spot. Do poor suspects shun your wealthy sleuth? Is she from the wrong side of the tracks? Does the local power group exclude him keeping him from learning important information? Your sleuth can’t change where he was born, his current economic circumstances, or his anti-corruption stance.
Don’t confuse the disadvantage with a flaw. Unlike a flaw like an addiction or a short temper, your sleuth’s disadvantage is a given. She can’t overcome the disadvantage. He can’t hide his disadvantage. Other characters will respond according to their personal prejudices.
Because the disadvantage is a given, your sleuth will suffer the consequences. Get the reader to cheer on your sleuth. The more your sleuth suffers from the disadvantage the greater the reader empathy.
Your reader makes a value judgment about your sleuth by how he compares to other characters in the story. If your sleuth is smart, pit her against someone smarter. If he is strong, another character is stronger. Give him a moment of hesitation when a quick-tongued suspect outmaneuvers him. Your reader will adjust their perception and root for your sleuth.
The more you challenge your sleuth’s abilities with other characters, your reader will sympathize and want your character to prevail.
Show your sleuth’s weakness in a believable way. Let your tough guy cry when a plastic toy reminds him of his child who died. Or her best friend’s bout with cancer. The surest way to get a reader to love your sleuth is to show her frailty. You only need one instance in your story, but make your sleuth vulnerable. Show your reader that he’s not on top of it all the time.
Dig Deep into Your Character
The best place to create the disadvantage, vulnerability, and strengths that show up in context is the background work you do in character development. Make your sleuth as human as possible. Yes, she has strengths that make her a good detective, but make sure you create those human characteristics that make her vulnerable.
When the elements of strength, disadvantage, and vulnerability are integral to your character, your reader knows your character and sympathizes. If you try to tack on a vulnerability, your reader will notice, not sympathize, and stop reading. Avoid those reader
Aw, come on moments by creating a rich character background.
You’ll have a believable character that your reader will love.
Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash
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.