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.
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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.
Get Past The Stuck Place
Sometimes your story seems to throw up a big wall and you don’t know how to fix it. You’re stuck. It happens to all writers. Don’t despair.
With all the character development and story planning you’ve done, your story seems stuck and you don’t know where to go next or what to write.
Take action to root out the problem so you can continue writing if you know what to do.
The first thing to do is not consider your story a failure, or worse, that you as a writer are a failure. It’s only a process glitch.
Tips to Revive The Story Thread
Approach your stop point depending on the root cause. Use these tips to kick your story forward.
The tips are aimed at helping you identify why you are stalled
with the story. The resolution to getting unstuck is often in the story structure or in your cast of characters.
Positive Moves Get Results
Taking action is the quickest way to get past your story impediment. Positive motivation to make the story the best it can be will get your story moving. And, a positive outlook that this is just an obstacle for you the writer to overcome kicks you out of negative thinking.
Every writer has moments when the story doesn’t feel right. Remember that writing a mystery novel is a process. When you work to get past a stuck place, you improve the process. Find your “man with a gun in his hand” and keep writing.
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Stay In The Flow
To maximize your writing time, follow two guidelines for writing your mystery.
Go into the story.
Stay in the flow.
When you go into the story, you visualize the scene - who is there, what they say and do, and the surroundings. Your work is to translate what you visualize into words.
A focus on writing keeps you in the flow. Any distractions that stop the flow slow you down.
Each writer writes at their own pace. You can write faster whatever your pace by avoiding roadblocks that stop your writing.
Preparation gives you the background - characters, story world, setting. The more you know the faster you will write.
8 Tips to Keep Writing
When you are ready to write your story, set up your writing space with few distractions. Stay focused on writing. Distractions come in many forms, so to avoid a break in your flow, keep your writing time distraction-free.
You may discover your own personal writing blockers. Recognize them and keep writing.
Train Your Brain
Commit to your writing time. The biggest obstacle to blocking your writing flow is you. Your mind will come up with reasons to stop writing. I’ll just take this one phone call or answer this one email. Ignore those temptations.
When you honor your writing time, you strengthen your commitment. And, the more you write, the better you’ll feel about the rewards of progressing toward the end of your mystery.
Some writers create the first draft on paper. They perform their first edit and catch up on those research questions as they enter it on the computer.
Others, write in the morning and edit in the afternoon or evening.
Others, edit what they wrote the day before to get into the story to continue with their writing time for the day. Some do a shortcut to this by ending mid-sentence and picking up at that point in the next writing session.
Experiment with different methods to find the one that works for you.
Each writing session gets you closer to finishing your mystery. The better the flow, the sooner you get to The End.
No Mystery Without a Puzzle
Mystery readers love a puzzle. More than
one is more enticing. While your developed detective leads the reader on discovery search, the puzzle is the draw of a mystery.
All the work you do in developing your characters, creating suspects, and planting clues has one aim to create a mystery. Giving away too much at the beginning spoils the tension. Readers will tolerate backstory, a love interest subplot, and even descriptive setting passages, but without the puzzle, there’s no mystery.
The Set Up
Your sleuth is the reader’s guide through the story. Creating a detective with quirks and strengths invites your reader into the story. The reader expects the detective to solve the mystery at the end, but not until the end. A solid introduction to how your sleuth works initiates reader trust that their guide has what it takes to collect the puzzle pieces and put them in place.
The murder victim is the key to the mystery. As the detective learns more about the victim and the victim’s world the reader follows along anxious to see how things develop. They are eager for clues and suspects to confound them and your sleuth.
The last part of the setup is when your sleuth takes on solving the mystery to uncover the villainous murderer.
Once your sleuth takes on the case, you set the puzzle pieces in place. What evidence and clues are at the scene? How was the victim killed?
Then, your sleuth enters the victim’s world. He uncovers the victim’s friends, loved ones, and enemies. Each of these characters sheds new light on the victim’s life. The reader learns from each of the suspects a bit more about the victim. The victim’s likes and dislikes, their shortcomings, and their secrets are revealed as suspects contribute to painting a picture for the sleuth and your reader.
The sleuth and your reader begin to form an opinion of the victim and possible reasons the victim brought on their own death.
Toward the middle of your mystery your sleuth and your reader discover that they didn’t have a full picture. A midpoint event illustrates how wrong those first assessments were.
On The Hunt
Everything seemed to go along in the discovery until the big obstacle pointed out the sleuth did not have all the facts, was headed in the wrong direction, and needed to rethink everything.
Once your sleuth reconsiders all the facts, evidence, and statements, she must find a new direction to unveil the killer. Without reversals and twists your reader will feel your story is episodic and is not creating the puzzle they crave.
This is the point where a beginning writer often lose the puzzle thread. They know the villain and the suspects and want to lead the sleuth and the reader to the revelation. But it’s much too soon in the story sequence. And it’s the reason both writers and readers complain about a sagging middle. But mystery writers have no reason to sag.
Whether you call it the last part of Act II or Act III, in a mystery the hunt section is the place where tension builds, your sleuth is overrun
with false starts and obstacles, and the villain confounds your sleuth’s search.
Before you get to the revelation, give the antagonist one challenging twist. Your reader knows they are coming to the end, create more mystery with one last big challenge for your sleuth.
Tie up any loose ends or subplots, then the final reveal. All mystery leads to this moment.
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What’s A Red Herring?
In logic, a read herring is a fallacy of distraction bringing up another point to distract the argument. In the financial world, a red herring is a prospectus of an upcoming business that is not complete but indicates the future stock.
In a mystery, a red herring is a false clue that leads the sleuth away from the villain. The red herring distracts the reader from knowing the true culprit.
The origin of the term is vague and entomology scholars debate the source. Some people believe it originated in a news story by English journalist William Cobbett. He claimed that he used a red herring, cured and salted, not fresh, to mislead hounds following a trail. At the time of publication the term served as a metaphor for false news accounts.
How to Use Red Herrings in a Mystery
Red herrings create mystery in your story by testing your sleuth’s abilities and decision-making skills. Each false trail creates another obstacle for your sleuth keeping them from discovering the true villain.
Use red herrings as a device in the middle section of your story to build tension. When you’ve built a strong protagonist, the reader will believe, as the protagonist does, that a true clue is at the root of the discovery path.
Here are some examples of using red herrings and build suspense for your reader.
The essence of the red herrings you use is diverting attention from the real clues and the right suspect.
Limit Red Herrings in Your Story
Although red herrings are fun to create for a writer, adding too many in your story will frustrate your reader. Aim to keep a balance between real evidence and clues and the false ones. Have no more than three red herrings in your mystery.
Readers love a puzzle but they don’t want to be tricked. Make sure the red herrings you create integrate with the overall theme and mystery, otherwise they will feel “added” to pad the story. The same holds true for too many false starts. Your reader will feel they are being cheated from solving the crime. You need to balance frustrating your sleuth and losing your reader.
Readers Expect Red Herrings
Red herrings are a standard trope in mystery novels. Readers love to follow your hero’s challenges. They enjoy rooting for your sleuth and discovering how he meets each challenge to solve the crime. Keep your readers guessing with well-placed false clues inherent to your storyline.
Make Your Sleuth Reach for a Solution
Creating a great mystery for readers depends on page turning events in your story. Create tension with challenges to your sleuth. Each time you create a challenge your reader keeps reading to see how your sleuth gets past a stopping point. That point may be a small as a suspect hesitant to answer questions to a life-threatening event with the opponent.
The events may vary in intensity depending on the sub-genre of your mystery, but every story needs challenges to the protagonist. Your challenge as a writer is to create hurdles in your storyline. The more the better. Make your sleuth work for the final resolution.
Complications, Roadblocks, and Reversals
Three plot devices for giving your sleuth a tough time are complications, roadblocks, and reversals. In your story-crafting process brainstorm as many ways as you can to frustrate your sleuth.
A complication is an event or factor that slows your detective’s progress. As your sleuth attempts to discover the villain things get in the way.
These complications are often daily events that happen at an inconvenient time, but the result is you’ve delayed the sleuth’s progress..
Roadblocks are just that, they stop your sleuth. Roadblocks are impediments to your sleuth’s progress. These are points in your story where your sleuth has to change direction. They occur at major plot points in the story.
Once your sleuth encounters the roadblock, you take your reader in a new direction.
A reversal alters your sleuth’s course into the opposite direction. If she is gaining traction, a new circumstance shows she needs to rethink everything. A reversal increases the stakes and sends the story in a completely new direction.
Emotional reversals create a clash between the protagonist’s inner goal and the outer goal in a disastrous way.
Your Obstacle Course as a Mystery Writer
Your aim in creating an intriguing mystery is to create obstacles for your sleuth. As your story moves forward, create obstacles that increase in difficulty and challenge for your protagonist.
Complications, roadblocks, and reversals create story tension. That tension complicates the mystery solving puzzle
. There’s no set order of how to use your obstacles. At each stage of your story think of the worst outcome your sleuth could have for their current course and set the challenge. Your readers will thank you.
PRO TIP: Each scene is a mini-story that requires an obstacle. For example, if you have a chapter with three scenes, each of those scenes will present a hurdle for your sleuth. By the end of the chapter, you’ve created three different obstacles. Keep them coming.
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What is Foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a literary device which is an advance hint of something that will happen later in the story. Foreshadowing creates an atmosphere of suspense as the reader continues on with expectations over later events.
Foreshadow upcoming events with character dialogue, plot events, and changes in setting. Each method supplies a way to hint to the reader of what is coming. And each instance builds suspense for the reader who wants to know how that dialogue, event, or setting change will lead toward discovery
of the killer.
Clues as Foreshadowing Events
Each clue your sleuth discovers in a mystery foreshadows the final revelation. But, the mystery writer has a challenge, how to plant the clues without giving away the villain before the end. You want to foreshadow, without foreshadowing.
In the mystery novel, you want to tantalize your reader without calling emphasis to the clues that point toward the final discovery. The device works like a secret foreshadowing to keep your reader guessing.
Ten Ways to Tantalize Your Reader
Invite your reader into the puzzle without giving away the secret of who the villain is.
Sequence Diversion –
Put the real clue right before the false one. Readers and your sleuth often focus on the last clue presented. If you’re getting started with mystery writing, this tactic is a great place to start. Mention or show the clue first and then immediately focus on a different clue or red herring.
Secret Emphasis –
Emphasize the unimportant, but de-emphasize the clue. The reader sees the clue but doesn’t see what’s important about it. For example, your sleuth may see the value of a company report and the statistical details but doesn’t look at the man who researched and wrote the report.
Before It Counts –
Early on, plant the clue before it has any context. Your sleuth may walk by a man cleaning his yacht with chemicals before a business partner dies of toxic chemical poisoning. Carolyn Graham uses this tactic in her Inspector Barnaby mysteries.
Missed It –
Your sleuth misinterprets the meaning of a clue. The murder took place in a room with open windows. Your detective believes that’s how the murderer escaped. But the windows were open to let in the evening breeze and the murderer escaped through the door and out the back staircase. This is a great tool to use with a flawed sleuth whose flaw keeps her from seeing the real meaning.
The Not a Clue –
The clue is what isn’t there. Although the sleuth deduces
certain actions happened, the real clue is absent. A classic clue that isn’t there is when Sherlock Holmes realizes the dog didn’t bark in “Silver Blaze.” There was no intruder.
Piece by Piece –
A time-release method to scatter pieces of the clue in different places through the story. Then mix up the logical order. Your sleuth finds an empty aquarium, water but no fish in a suspect’s room. Later on she finds six fish bodies tossed out a window. She has an “epiphany” when she remembers the empty aquarium.
In Plain Sight –
Create a cluster of clues and squeeze the real clue in with all the others. Hide the clue in plain sight. This technique works well in a story with multiple suspects from Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express to John D. MacDonald’s hard boiled Travis McGee (pick one).
Draw your reader’s attention away from the clue. The sleuth and the reader follow a false trail. What seem like the most evident clues are not the real trail to the suspect. In Adrian McKinty’s The Cold, Cold Ground the clues seem to lead toward a serial killer who targets homosexuals. Not the case at all.
Time Seed –
Create a time problem. A suspect has an alibi for the time of the murder. Later it turns out that the murder was earlier and the alibi does not work. Or the suspect claims a time as an alibi but could get away during the time covered by the alibi.
Camouflage with Action –
Camouflage a clue with action. Just as your sleuth glances at a scrap of paper on the floor, he’s hit from behind. In the ensuing action and consequences—trip to the hospital, a missed appointment because of time in the hospital, etc.—your sleuth overlooks the clue. Jo Nesbø uses action camouflage in his Harry Høle series.
Satisfy Your Reader
Foreshadowing with clues is a challenge for mystery writers. Building suspense in other genres with foreshadowing leads to events later in the story, but the reader keeps those foreshadowing moments in mind. The mystery writer needs to subdue the foreshadowing by hiding the clues. At the end, your reader may realize all the clues were there, but while reading you want to keep those clues hidden.
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Your Villain Right and Wrong
The true pleasure of mystery readers is trying to discover who the killer is before your detective does. It’s the big puzzle and the draw of the genre. The challenge for you as a mystery writer is to create a villain who is understandable, relatable, and yet hidden until the last moment of your mystery.
The best approach to understanding your villain is to look at their world view. In the villain’s eyes, their beliefs and actions are justified. The villain may feel unjustly harmed by the victim. Or his killing may feel, to him, like justifiable revenge. Or, her cold-blooded calculation is rational in her belief system.
However you conceive the villain’s motivation, throughout the story they will remain firm that their world is correct, and the killing justified. So, your villain is right in their world while wrong in the world of your story.
The Villain Portrait in the Mystery
The villain can be a smooth talker, a buffoon, or a monosyllabic thug to the rest of the world and the other characters in your story, but you need to present the villain as he sees himself as you write your story. When he speaks with other characters, especially your sleuth, the villain sees himself as the good guy. He will portray himself that way in the story.
You can reveal the villain layer by layer as he moves through the story.
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.
The Open Good and Hidden Bad
Writing a believable and concealed villain for a mystery requires consideration of how you present and reveal their beliefs and actions. You may feel that all the clues you plant are obvious because you know who committed the murder, but if you balance the villain’s view of himself and his actions as good, you can save the hidden reality until the final reveal. You sleuth and your readers will appreciate your skill.
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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.
Join the Killer Writer list for more about writing your mystery from start to finish.
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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.