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.
Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash
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.