How to Add Empathy to Your Fiction Detective
Every fictional detective has skills. Which skills and how they are used are up to you, the author. These skills help your reader admire your detective especially whey he meets confrontations and obstacles. But, your detective’s flaws are the intersection where readers empathize.
Readers empathize with shortcomings. Your detective’s skills impress the reader, his flaws make readers care. Flaws give you opportunities to create obstacles in your story. And, small flaws are just as powerful as the big ones. Flaws don’t necessarily need to cause extreme angst. A scatterbrained sleuth in a cozy mystery can leave her keys, forget to add salt to the cake, or forget where she saw the important clue. Your readers understand these setbacks.
A set of smaller flaws adds dimension to your character in a way that one large one cannot. In addition, you have more ways to set more obstacles in your story.
Defects for Your Detective
Most mystery writers are familiar with the detective who struggles with an addiction to alcohol. You may choose to hop on the train or create distinct flaws for your character.
When you give your protagonist reasons for doubt and guilt
the emotions affect decisions and actions. Your sleuth will want to hide these flaws. Each time one comes to light your protagonist has an emotional response. The defects and the protagonist’s responses create a believable human character. Embarrassment, guilt, and shame are powerful emotions that help your reader form an emotional connection with your sleuth.
Balance Positive and Negative Traits
Balance traits like intelligence, attractive looks, and positive qualities like generosity, kindness, and good humor with defects that create an engaging character.
Instead of one large flaw, give your protagonist breadth with a collection of flaws. Every time you create conflict for your sleuth, you invite reader empathy. As an author, you create more ways to frustrate your sleuth as he heads toward discovering the killer. Obstacles create tension. Tension keeps readers turning pages.
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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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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.
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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.
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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.
Build Your Story Around the Main Events
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.