How to Bring Action to Your Mystery
Mystery tropes like - the corpse, evidence hunt, sweating the perp, summation - comprise elements of the mystery novel readers expect. Action scenes will help build tension and, a well-written action scene pulls your reader into the story.
Don’t overlook action scenes to add dimension and empathy to your story. Action scenes have a place in the various mystery sub-genres. Just because you’re not writing a police procedural don’t overlook adding action to your mystery. An action scene is not necessarily a fight scene. Enhance even the coziest cozy with your heroine eavesdropping behind the commemorative statue in the town square.
Action Scene Basics
You may be used to thinking of action scenes as car chases, fight scenes, escaping the villain in the London Tube and the like, but action scenes are any time your sleuth has a physical moment. Just like the cozy heroine hiding behind the statue.
Action scenes can be written in a variety of styles. Read authors who write great action scenes to get a feel for how they are written and in differing styles. The Write Life suggests a few:
Mario Puzo, Lee Child, Karin Slaughter, John Connolly, Deon Meyer, Patricia Cornwell, Elmore Leonard, Louis L’Amour, Larry McMurtry and Robert B. Parker have all written novels chock full of bad characters doing very bad things.
Action Scene Basic 1 - Tone
Write in the style of your story. Avoid changing the tone because you’ve read Elmore Leonard and want to imitate his style. The scene should feel like an integral part of your story. If you write action in another style, it will jar your reader out of the story instead of being pulled into the tense moment.
Action Scene Basic 2 - Pace
Slow down and speed up. Slow down the pace to guide your reader through the action. Don’t just describe the blows, tell the reader how your protagonist sleuth responds. A straight blow by blow of punches and counter blocks isn’t enough. Describe your sleuth’s physical reactions. Describing the fight in this way makes it immediate to your reader and gives the feeling of speeding the action.
Action Scene Basic 3 - Minimize Feelings
If you’ve ever been in a fight or attacked, you know feelings don’t play a part in action. They come later. At the time of the action, the sleuth’s priority is winning the fight, catching the bad guy, getting to the next bend in the road without trashing the vehicle, etc. She’s not thinking about how her friend Norman is doing right now.
Action Scene Basic 4 - Move the Story Forward
Like any scene in your novel, the action scene must move the story forward. Your sleuth either gets closer to the perp or loses the round. The action scene must fit into the story leading your reader to wonder what comes next. An action scene just to have action bogs down your story. You reader will wonder why it is happening. Any time a reader stops being in the story to wonder or think you’ve lost them. The action scene must advance the story.
Action Scene Basic 5 - Be Realistic
A heroine who has no training will not win a fight with three trained assassins. Do your research. If your hero is in a car chase, watch simulations or play video games to get a feel of how quickly you must react in a fast-moving car. Things can spin out of control very quickly. Learn some basic fighting movements like the difference between a thrust and an undercut. Learn how a sidekick differs from a knee to the groin. Do the moves. It’s research. The more you understand the movements, the better you can make them come alive for your reader.
Enliven Your Mystery
Creating clues and suspects is part of the puzzle of writing a mystery. You can enliven your story with well-placed action scenes. Keep the basics in mind. You may find action scenes are fun to write. And, best of all, they keep your reader turning pages.
Challenge Your Sleuth With Mysterious Suspects
Suspects are the lifeblood of your mystery. Without them your mystery sleuth would have no challenges and solve the mystery in an instant. While evidence, clues, and red herrings help your reader keep guessing, the suspects provide personal interaction with your sleuth. That interaction is the story world that keeps your reader turning pages.
Your challenge as a mystery writer is to create characters that challenge your sleuth. Your detective must track down, examine, and determine each suspect’s relationship to the victim. Each interaction with a suspect drives your sleuth - and your reader - toward the final solution.
Four Steps to Create a Suspicious Character
Each suspect had a relationship with the victim. Use that relationship to provide insight into the victim’s world. But, each suspect also has a private life. That private life is what drives the interaction with your sleuth.
Start your suspect by building a rich background.
Go way beyond The Thug as a character. Give the thug a name, a background with relationships, a physical fallibility, and emotional weakness. Adrian McKinty creates a memorable layered hitman, Markov, in his novel Falling Glass in a relationship with his girlfriend which up the stakes of his assignment.
Authors like Ruth Rendell, Ann Cleeves, and Elizabeth George build their mysteries on deep psychological character portrayals. Even if you are not writing a “psychological” mystery, you’ll build reader engagement by delving into your characters.
The Suspense Secret
The more readers see your characters hiding secrets the more they engage in solving the mystery. Your sleuth works hard to uncover the secrets suspects hide. Your readers will work just as hard as suspects throw up screens and hide personal secrets.
The secrets your suspects harbor do not need to be related to the murder. A suspect can appear suspicious by hiding a personal secret that doesn’t relate to the victim or the murder. The very act of attempting to hide a secret creates tension in your story. Tension keeps readers turning pages.
Rich supporting characters give your readers an engaging reading experience. The obstacles they create for your sleuth are obstacles for readers who are trying to solve the mystery.
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.