Work With Details
As a novelist, you have the ability to use details to create the mystery in your story. Skilful use of details can hide clues, mask suspect responses, and create impactful settings. Details give you the power to guide your reader through the story.
Add details to your mystery as you write. Planning gives you broad strokes, but the writing process is the place to add details.
Because you build your story scene by scene, you have ample opportunity to use details to create the tone, hint at suspect culpability, and add clues and red herrings as your novel progresses.
For mystery writers, strategic use of details amplifies the mystery around each of the details.
The Small Bits that Build Your Story
When you begin your mystery, the concept of using details can seem overwhelming. In the planning stage, break down your story into manageable sections like chapters and scenes. As you write each scene add details. Whether you plant clues, reveal red herrings, create suspicion about a suspect, or foreshadow a thrilling climax details keep your reader interested in the page they are reading now.
Broad strokes work as you are planning, but when you write, details enrich the reader’s experience of the story page-by-page.
Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash
Be Good to Your Reader
Choosing suspects for your mystery novel begins when you flesh out your story idea in the planning stages. As you create your character bible adding suspects to your mystery novel you aim for a balance between enough characters to challenge your sleuth and your reader and too few suspects.
If your mystery has only two or three suspects your reader won’t feel challenged. You will be challenged creating material to flesh out a novel of 65,000 to 85,000 words. If you have ten or more suspects you’ll confuse your reader. They’ll find it hard to keep all the suspects clear in their head. Which one was George? Was he the tailor or the neighbor? When was he introduced?
Whenever you stop a reader in your story you run the risk of them being unsatisfied or putting down your book and not returning. For an average length mystery (65,000 to 80,000 words) choose between five and eight suspects.
Introduce Your Suspects
Introduce each suspects so your reader has a clear idea of their identity and their context in the story. Each character forms an impression with your reader so they recognize that character as they appear throughout the story.
You won’t go wrong by starting with the context for each suspect and then working out the details. You can always change red hair to blond, or change a character's name. The context helps your reader understand that suspect’s role in the story.
Photo by Hannah Lim on Unsplash
Why Tension? Isn’t A Mystery a Puzzle?
A mystery is a story. A good story of any genre needs tension. Tension is what keeps readers reading. Without tension your story can feel episodic with no push for the reader to continue.
What is tension in a story? It’s the state of being stretched tight. In a story, tension applies to a character’s mental and emotional state. In order for readers to feel tension, they must care about the character. When a reader empathizes with the character and the character is confronted with an obstacle, the reader feels the tension.
Escalate the Tension
You create the story by writing scene by scene. Each scene has some type of tension. Build story suspense by increasing the difficulty of the challenges to your protagonist, the sleuth.
Planning your mystery helps with ever-increasing difficult challenges. Start with small ones and build to the final confrontation.
How To Build Tension in Your Mystery
Use a variety of techniques to keep your reader reading by challenging your sleuth in many ways. Don’t forget that the mental and emotional state of your sleuth are the keys to getting your reader involved.
Vary your use of tension-building devices. A conflict similar to the one your hero faced before lessens the tension. Think conflict variety.
Aim to escalate the the conflict as you build tension. Otherwise, your mystery will feel episodic with one sequence following another but without raising the stakes.
Pace Your Moments of Tension
In a mystery, the major tension is solving the puzzle of who killed the victim(s). Each additional moment of tension holds reader interest. Pace your tension building moments at major story points. Escalate the stakes along the way. Keep your revelation to the end of the mystery, so your reader guesses along with your sleuth.
You’ll keep your puzzle agreement with your mystery reader and maintain their involvement by telling a great story filled with conflict.
Photo by Norbert Tóth on Unsplash
How To Start the First Chapter of Your Mystery
Writing a mystery is a long run to the finish. Your first chapter brings the reader into the world of the story and introduces your sleuth.
As a writer, you are in for a marathon of writing. You’ll introduce suspects, plant clues and red herrings and misdirect your sleuth and your reader. When a reader starts your mystery, they feel they have an unspoken agreement with you to give them a good puzzle and an intriguing and sympathetic sleuth.
Your job in the first chapter is to bring the reader into your story.
Basic Elements of The First Chapter of a Mystery
You define the course of the story in the opening sequences. This is your story’s first impression. The beginning starts the reader on a course to the conclusion and you want to plant the first seeds so they can grow as the story progresses.
An opening line should have a distinctive voice, a point of view, a rudimentary plot and some hint of characterization. Jacob M. Appel
Your first requirement is to bring the reader into the story. Introduce the world, your sleuth and add a conflict that challenges your sleuth.
First Chapter Mistakes
Keep your first chapter lean and stay with the story. First-time novelists often tell too much in the first chapter. You have an entire novel to add details. Avoid these beginner mistakes to keep focused on your story moving forward.
Keep your first chapter focus on the story and you will avoid these mistakes.
Focus on the Story
Your best guideline is your story. If you’ve done your planning, you know who is in the first chapter, what actions occur, and what the (minor) conflict is.
You have an entire novel to spread out with details, narrative description, and backstory. The first chapter is your reader’s first impression of your mystery. Make a good first impression and then work hard to keep them reading.
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.