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.
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.
Inside The Sleuth’s Head
First-person point of view the narrator tells the story directly to the reader. The character speaks about himself or herself and share what they are experiencing.
Create a deep connection with your readers when your sleuth tells the story. You create an intimate portrayal of thoughts and emotions.
Traditionally, first person POV stories are told from one point of view. Some writers use multiple characters, each telling the story from a personal point of view. Multiple first person points of view allows you to expand the views for readers.
Advantages of First-Person Point of View
First-person puts the reader inside the narrator’s head immediately. You have the advantage of portraying intimate thoughts and emotions. Each moment the narrator feels, your reader feels. You deliver all the narrator’s senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
Because your reader is inside the narrator’s head, they experience the emotions - their hopes, despair, love - with maximum emotional impact.
You create a strong sense of empathy in the reader through the narrator’s reactions to situations and other characters. Readers understand the character’s motivations behind actions and whether the narrator’s logic is right or not, the actions make sense to the reader.
The first-person voice gives the story a clear identity. You submerge your reader far into the world you create.
You can hide exposition in the narrator’s thoughts. The narrator’s thoughts about situations like class structure or social inequalities are integral to the narration. As a writer, you are spared the narrative trap of info dump to familiarize readers with the narrator’s milieu.
First-person narrators don’t have to be reliable. The story is told from the narrator’s point of view. The narrator can lie or misdirect the reader in a way that third-person narrative cannot do. Although an unreliable narrator doesn’t work well in a mystery, an unreliable narrator can tell a great crime story drawing the reader into a personal view of circumstances.
The narrator doesn’t have to be the protagonist but can be the one viewpoint that tells the story happening around them.
Drawbacks of First-Person POV
The major drawback of writing entirely from one person’s point of view is that it is limited. Because the reader experiences the world only through that character’s eyes, as a writer, you cannot share other characters’ thoughts and feelings.
Although you can describe the physical appearance of other characters through the narrator’s point of view, you can’t describe your main character. Don’t think about having them look in the mirror. The closest you can get is to have other characters periodically respond to a physical attribute.
By nature, first-person point of view is limited. As a writer, you will be challenged to present the big picture. You can’t give that character too much knowledge. Especially in a mystery you want to avoid giving away that big picture by giving your narrator too much knowledge.
The Personal Sleuth
Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther is a great example of first-person narrative. Set in Nazi Germany, Bernie offers his opinions and deals with consequences of his outspoken interaction while solving crime as a private detective.
If you decide to tell your mystery in first-person, know that you will work with limitations. On the other hand, you have the opportunity to build a strong emotional bond with your reader.
A View from the Edge - Third Person POV
How you tell your mystery makes a difference. Point of View (POV) is the voice that tells the mystery to your readers. Third person point of view allows readers to know what the narrator thinks and experiences without going directly into their head. You limit the perspective to one person’s perspective.
Ursula K. LeGuin gives a great description of third person limited point of view in her writing manual, Steering the Craft.
Only what the viewpoint character knows, feels, perceives, thinks, guesses, hopes, remembers, etc., can be told. The reader can infer what other people feel and think only from what the viewpoint character observes of their behaviour.
Connect with Your Readers
Third person limited point of view creates an intimacy between readers and the characters. Even though the story is not in first person, as a writer you can reveal thoughts and responses that allow readers to sense and feel what the character does.
Using different scenes, you can tell the story from the point of view of characters other than your protagonist. Many mystery and suspense writers alternate between the protagonist and the antagonist.
Create Mystery with Uncertainty
Because the story is told from a limited point of view, the emotions, secrets, and backstory of secondary characters - especially suspects - remain uncertain.
You challenge your sleuth to dig deeper to discover motivations and actions these characters keep hidden. Your sleuth’s challenge is to peel back the layers of understanding to solve the puzzle.
When the character has limited knowledge, so does your reader. Your reader is trapped in the head of the character. As you keep secrets from the character, you build tension for the reader. Page-turning is the key to keeping readers involved.
As your protagonist encounters challenges, your reader follows along expectant for the next discovery. Good mystery writing involves keeping your character, and your reader, in suspense.
Reader Comprehension Evolves
As the mystery progresses, your reader’s perspective on characters and situations evolves. This evolution of understanding is exactly what mystery readers want. Because they see only what the character sees, they are tied to the discovery path of your mystery.
Writer Challenge for Third Person Limited POV
The most common challenge, for beginning writers, to third person limited point of view is the temptation to head hop. That means changing character heads within a scene. Don’t do it.
If you go outside the view of your protagonist, use separate scenes to illuminate another character’s point of view.
Limit the number of characters you use to narrate your mystery. Besides the protagonist and the antagonist, choose wisely if you want to let your reader inside another character. The point of your mystery is to create a puzzle for your reader. Too many viewpoints muddies the waters of your story. You are more likely to confuse the reader rather than enlighten them.
Choose the point of view before you begin your mystery. If you have doubts, try writing the beginning in first person and third person to see which flows better. I tried this a few years ago thinking I wanted to be inside the protagonist’s head in first person. As I thought about how the story would unfold, I realized that third person limited would work better for the mystery.
Alternating between third person and first person is a device some writers use: third person for the protagonist and first person for the antagonist. In the hands of a skilled writer, this technique can work.
Your Choice for Storytelling
Third person limited point of view is the standard storytelling device in popular fiction. Use this point of view to your advantage as you create a mystery trail for your sleuth.
Eye on the Mystery Prize
Reading other authors in your genre is a sound practice. not just for emulating story strategy but for caution on what not to do in your story.
I just finished reading a mystery by an established mystery writer. As a reader, I was disappointed. As a writer, I thought about why I was disappointed. I reviewed the mystery writing elements and discovered the reason.
I liked the sleuth, a police inspector, and his team. But everytime the villain appeared he was snarky and overdone with throw-away lines. The villain intruded on the story rather than moving it forward. I kept thinking, “OK, let’s get back to the story.”
When readers, like me, get distracted they can and will stop reading. The only reason I kept reading was to see how it fit together because my interest as a reader was gone.
Organize Your Story
To keep the mystery in your mystery, all the the components must move the story forward. It’s challenging to keep the balance. Read other writers to know what to do and what not to do. Learn from their mistakes.
Keep these tips in mind as you build your story.
A disappointed reader, will not come back to give you a second chance. Focus on creating a sleuth your readers like. Make her character deep and empathic. Your sleuth’s reaction to other characters has a greater chance of keeping your reader involved than creating complicated interrelationships in other characters.
Take a look a popular mystery TV series. You’ll see that the emphasis is on the sleuth and the sleuth solving the mystery. Make sure your subplots don’t overshadow the mystery.
It doesn’t matter if you are a pantser or organize every scene of your story. A pantser may do the organization in the rewrite/editing phase. Planners can eliminate story clutter by creating a storyline and sticking with it.
Focus on the mystery.
Not the Villain, The Obstacle Maker
Enrich your mystery with an opponent who gives your detective problems. The opponent has a role quite different from the villain’s role. The villain in a mystery is the one who committed the murder. From Agatha Christie's Chief Inspector Japp and Hercule Poirot to the neighbor Grannen in the Swedish television series Beck.
The opponent is a character who causes trouble for your hero, the detective. They may be a rival, or a love or ex-spouse, or a neighbor… But somehow, villainous or bumbling, they are connected to the detective and oppose your central character.
Just like the sidekick, the opponent can be any age or sex. Their main role in the story is to cause problems and throw up obstacles for the detective. These obstacles force your detective to show qualities and personality characteristics that deepen your reader’s understanding of the central character.
The opponent creates obstacles that personally affect the detective and often hinder the murder investigation.
It’s up to your writer imagination to come up with ways to thwart your detective.
Sleuth Character Expansion
Depending on the opponent’s character and role in the mystery, each obstacle creates and opportunity for the mystery writer to expand your reader’s knowledge of the sleuth.
Because the opponent is outside the sleuth’s investigation, the interactions between the two characters are personal. These interactions reveal character traits the sleuth may not use in the pursuit of a murder inquiry.
Again, your writer imagination is the key to creating situations that emphasize your sleuth’s traits by interacting with the opponent.
The Free Character for Mystery Writers
The opponent complicates the sleuth’s life but not the mystery. The opponent can be a fun addition to your mystery because they don’t have to be part of the solution. As a novelist, you have a free hand in creating the sleuth’s opponent. Make the opponent as likeable or unlikable as you want and then insert them into the story to reveal your sleuth’s character traits. Readers will relate to your character and the misadventures created by the opponent.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writers Write A Killer Mystery is coming soon. Get on the notification list.
Skills to the Fore as Your Sleuth Apprehends the Killer
In the first act of the mystery, you laid out all your detective’s skills one by one as new situations arose. In the middle, you frustrated all those skills by exposing your sleuth’s weaknesses. Now at the end, you can bring back those skills and strengths as your detective confronts the killer.
Your detective has learned from his mistakes in the middle. Now, as she confronts the killer all her skills come into play to reveal the killer. She knows how and why the killer attacked the victim. She must do one last task - get the killer to confess. Or, if the killer doesn’t confess, your sleuth must make it clear that the killer is the one who committed the murder.
14:54 Q: I’m confused. I’ve heard about Aristotle’s three-act structure, but you talk about four acts. Why is that?
Pull Out All the Stops
Finally, you can reveal your protagonist’s skills. Whether it’s deductive reasoning, observation, determination or a combination of skills, get your reader to see how all the frustrations and setbacks naturally led to the final revelation.
You are about to write The End.
36 The war of attrition begins as the antagonist’s forces fight harder and your protagonist is isolated from the allies and resources he was counting on. The antagonist’s minion or resource that was neutralized is brought back into play or replaced by someone/thing even more powerful.
Your detective can’t make contact with any of her allies and has to go after the killer alone. The killer now seems to have an ironclad alibi or escapes an approach by your detective. She’s got to take this on by herself and the killer is just beyond her grasp.
You’re in the plot structure climax, stage four: war of attrition
37 Your protagonist steps forward to battle the antagonist mano a mano. The true extent of the antagonist’s power (and the depths of his evil) become clear, and the antagonist gains the upper hand. (Twist here?)
Your detective finally finds the killer. But the killer has a surprise for the detective. Your detective may have made a false assumption or misread the killer’s intent. The killer pulls out one last trump card, one the detective didn’t expect. Whether it’s a battle of wits or hand to hand fighting, the killer plays that one last card.
You are head to head in the plot structure climax, stage five: mano a mano.
38 Your protagonist realizes how he can strike the decisive blow and defeat the antagonist—and he does. (This is the last place in your story for a twist.)
The detective looks the killer in the eye and gets the confession. In the battle of wits, he pulls out the piece of evidence that condemns the killer. In a physical fight, he wins. Twist this up by having the opponent inadvertently supply that one last piece. The killer may hem and haw but finally admits to the crime.
In plot structure, you are there! Climax, stage six: from the ashes of disaster.
39 Your protagonist reacts to the defeat of the antagonist who is or has been disposed of, and out-of commission allies might be recovered or revived. (Subplot A) (Subplot B)
In the aftermath of victory, your detective surrounds himself with supporters. The opponent gives up, for the moment, in the wake of the detective’s victory. The love interest may appear one last time. Any loose threads from anywhere in the story get tied up here.
Plot structure: resolution, stage one: sweeping up.
40 Your protagonist and any surviving allies may celebrate their victory and console each other on their losses as they tie up all remaining loose ends (including a romance subplot, if there was one). Your story ends with your protagonist reaffirming how he’s changed and how he’s remained the same as a result of his ordeal (through both his words and his actions).
The detective celebrates either at a party or home alone. The love interest may join him. One last pithy thought on fighting crime from your detective.
Mysteries often combine 39 and 40. You’ll need to use your discretion. If you are tied to 40 chapters, add another chapter earlier, with a complication, of course.
You are done! This is resolution, stage two: reconnection in plot structure.
You Did it! You Wrote The End!
All the planning and brainstorming paid off. The conclusion reveals your sleuth as the hero your readers will love. Celebrate all the frustrations and setbacks you dreamed up. Revel in your creation of a sleuth worthy of your reader’s attention from start to finish.
Now, put the manuscript aside for at least a week. Don’t even peak. Work on your next story. Take a vacation. Give your family your full attention. Just let the manuscript simmer. It’s OK to write possible changes - you’ll think of some - but don’t look at the manuscript. Give it a break. That way you’ll be able to enter the editing process with fresh eyes.
You can understand how the work you did on your character background at the very beginning and any additions you made as you wrote, help deepen your character, their skills, and reader involvement.
Congratulations! You finished your mystery.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writers Write A Killer Mystery is coming soon. Get on the notification list.
Photo by niu niu on Unsplash
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.