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.
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.