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
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.
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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.
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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.
Need more help with your mystery? Coaching can help you get to The End. http://bit.ly/MysteryWritingCoach
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.
The Hidden Treasures in Your Setting
When I first wrote mysteries, I was in awe of writers who could create clues out of the setting. I read Pompeii by Robert Harris and was astonished at how the clues in the story were directly related to volcanic action, mystifying the young aqueduct engineer.
The best way to discover clues in your setting is to go into the story. See what your protagonist sees. It’s easy to focus on dialogue and action and miss the ways setting can enhance your mystery. The details of the setting add breadth to your story and are the best place to plant clues.
Key places to add clues from setting.
While you are painting the big picture of your story, zoom in on details. The create a realism in your story and are a rich source of clues.
Focus on sensory details. What does your sleuth see, taste, hear, touch, or smell.
Go On A Treasure Hunt for Your Clues
Once you paint the broad strokes of your setting, the details bring the setting alive and are the perfect source for clues. Whether your story is set long ago and far away or in your hometown, spend time looking for details.
As you go through all the images, focus on details. Because 80 per cent of research is background, know that not everything you see will end up in your story. Be on the lookout for unusual details. Those are the details your sleuth notices.
Take it further. Does your perpetrator use a special scent? Get a sample so you can describe the scent in your own words.
Unique Clues Enrich Your Story
At the beginning, your search may seem overwhelming. But, as you practice looking - Yes, this! No, doesn’t work - you will get better at finding intriguing details to serve as clues in your mystery.
Create Awesome Suspects to Delight Your Readers
Mystery readers love to be tantalized. The clues, red herrings, and evidence you plant in your story lead them to guessing while your sleuth tries to reason out the possibilities. Your suspects weave the rich tapestry that keeps readers guessing.
I recently read A Murder of Crows by Ian Skewis. The psychology behind each character is deep and every character, including the detective, is flawed. Skewis reveals characters by peeling back those proverbial onion skins. Readers get deeper and deeper into what makes a character tick.
You may not be writing a mystery that tends toward psychological thriller, but revealing your characters’ personality draws readers into the story.
Why Readers Love Suspects
Your suspects are the meat of your mystery. Eventually your sleuth has to unearth which of the suspects is guilty. Give your sleuth, and your reader, possibilities.
Clues and evidence are hooks to get readers attention. Well-created characters keep readers turning pages. Those suspects have secrets and tell lies. They also have personal antagonisms, likes and dislikes. You build suspense when the detective must puzzle out those lies, get beyond the antagonisms, and discern which likes and dislikes are pertinent to solving the mystery.
The reason readers love suspects is because they present possibilities.
5 Ways to Make Your Suspects Intriguing
Know the understructure of your characters. Add details, backstory, and motivations in your Character Bible and weave them into your mystery. Write dialogue snippets. Describe their body language. The more layers you create, the more your reader wants to know more.
To know about your character, dig into the under layers and past experiences.
When you give each suspect foibles, something to hide, and defense mechanisms to throw at your sleuth, you’ll keep your reader wondering.
A Practice Exercise
Use the image above as a starting point for three characters. Each one looks a bit shady. Now differentiate those characters.
If you can work through the character differentiation for these three, you can do it for the suspects in your mystery.
When you know the understructure of your suspects, you’ll find casting suspicion on each one easier as they misbehave, tell small and big lies, and confound your sleuth and your readers. The character work you do for each suspect rewards you with details to use in your mystery.
The End That Satisfies
A mystery novel is all about a puzzle. As the story unfolds you put more and more pieces in place that lead your sleuth toward discovering the killer. Once the sleuth reveals the killer, the puzzle is complete.
As far as your reader is concerned, you have solved the puzzle. Your ending needs to come soon after that last puzzle piece is complete. Your reader has the final piece. Any delay in getting to the end of your story can leave your reader dissatisfied. Wrap up everything as neatly as possible. An unsatisfied reader will not want to read more of your books and leave less positive reviews.
3 Tips for Getting to The End in a Mystery
Mystery writers face a challenge of getting to the end of a story as quickly as possible after the killer is revealed. To give your reader the best satisfaction with your mystery help them get to the conclusion.
Reward Your Reader
Your reader follows your detective through the suspects, clues, red herrings, and evidence to discover the perpetrator. You can reward your reader by giving them a quick path to the end of your novel after the sleuth reveals the killer. You’ve solved the puzzle.
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.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middoe Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.