I’ve read a lot of lists of rules for mystery writers. Everyone wants to tell us what to do, but I’ve discovered by reading through these lists that large swathes of them are either misguided or simply false. So this is my set of casual guidelines for mystery writing—to steer you in the right direction but also to remind you to think for yourself.
The plot is not everything in mysteries, as so many of these lists of rules say. Just having a lot of action or clues and red herrings doesn’t make a good crime novel. The best plots rise out of character. Dive deep into your major characters and discover their motivations and their secrets. Your best plot with all its twists and turns will come from the fears, desires, and manipulations of your characters and how many of them are at cross-purposes with each other.
Introduce both the protagonist and the antagonist early on. This is important—for any novel. The reader needs to know with whom to identify and who is threatening whatever that protagonist with whom he identifies is trying to achieve.
The crime needs to be a major crime, preferably murder, but there have been successful mysteries written around art heists, con schemes, and other crimes. In Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers even wrote one of the classic novels in which only anonymous letters and vandalism occur. You must simply be able to make it of absolute importance to the protagonist and to the reader. Murder is not required—it’s just easier.
The crime and its solution should seem believable. The reader must be able to believe that the antagonist could commit whatever heinous crime you’ve given him and that the protagonist could solve it and overcome him. Physically, intellectually, and emotionally, the crime must seem possible to the reader without giving either the villain or the hero superpowers.
And as a corollary to this—you must motivate your villain. Because he or she is pure evil or stark raving mad is not a good reason to break major societal taboos and put himself or herself in danger of life in prison or the death penalty. As much as you motivate your other characters to make them believable, so much must you motivate your antagonist to make a credible threat. The more complex and motivated the villain, the more memorable and fascinating.
One of these rule lists sets as an adamant, must-obey rule that your narrator or detective must never commit the crime. Hello? Does anyone remember a little-known writer like Agatha Christie who violated that rule in three different, very successful books? If you want to make your narrator or detective commit the crime, you will have to be fiendishly clever to pull it off, but if you are and can, go for it!
One of the rules in almost every list that I will agree with is the admonition to do your research. I know a writer who came from another genre to mystery and doesn’t like research so he makes things up. That will come back to haunt you in mysteries. Mystery readers expect and demand good research so that they can stay in the fictive dream. They will chastise you in a minute (and rightly so) if they catch you in a factual error—and there is always someone, and usually more than one, who will catch you. On the other hand, they reward those who research and use it well with great loyalty. So, do your research and learn how to use it so it doesn’t stop or slow the story.
So, these are my casual guidelines for mystery writers. Nothing is written in stone. Every writer is a different situation. Some may even be able to introduce protagonist and/or antagonist over halfway through the book. I know I couldn’t, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. It’s just much easier to keep your reader’s interest, however, if you introduce them both in the first few chapters. Every other guideline I’ve given is the same. Perhaps you are so brilliant at making things up that no one will ever question your lack of research. I wouldn’t count on it, but it’s always possible. Use these as guidelines for your own judgment. Ultimately, it’s your book. You are the creator and need to do it your own way. Just make sure that your readers will follow you along your book path.
What do you think, as readers and writers, are important “rules” of mystery-writing?
The most important "rule" for me is that the facts add up to the murder. When the murderer is revealed, if the timing isn't right, the motivation seems "off," or characters who have been portrayed as honest lied to cover for the killer, then I feel cheated. To me, that's the most important element.
One beef that I'll mention--I read a book recently that erred because not enough backstory was given. I know editors go nuts on redlining backstory, but I think that they have gone too far. The book was a page-turner, and yet when I finished I felt unsatisfied. I glanced off the book rather than sunk into it--all because the author didn't draw the reader in with the depth of backstory. Extremes aren't good. Writers have to stop listening to editors sometimes and listen to their story, feel their story and focus on it rather than--will this sell a million copies?
Good blog, Linda. I agree with you.
It brought to mind what happened at our latest local writers meeting in which someone totally new to our group that day, criticized a very short piece brought in by someone who joined us for the first time the month before. This woman picks up greeting cards that interest her and writes a flash short about it. In this case, the picture was of a cowboy - only the legs, arms and hands holding a rope showing. We all thought her piece was interesting and nicely done, but the new person, who'd showed up that day, chastised her for writing "strong headed." According to her, it should have been strong minded or bull headed, she insisted. Several of us said that would be a bit of a cliche, but she insisted a new writer would never get a agent or publisher if she wrote something like strong headed. Obviously, this new person who showed up, clings to all the rules you mentioned, but not the ones you feel are the important ones.
The only rule is to make sure your writing works in the way you intended--everything else is at best a guideline and at worst a hindrance.
Of course if you break all the "rules" you may have an audience of one; but you at least should be satisfied.
EB, I think your rule is the bottom line for mysteries. Things have to add up, especially motivation.
Oh, Gloria, isn't that always a problem that can show up in writing groups--the new person who wants to hold everyone to a bunch of writing "rules" in their own head? And so often, they turn out not to be very good writers, in large part because they're so rigid.
Jim, you're right. Look at Dan Brown. He breaks all the rules of writing--and syntax and grammar. BUT he has millions of satisfied readers.
Don't know that I want to go the Dan Brown route, but I'd love to channel some of his storytelling ability.
The month before when the criticized woman showed up, she was so enthusiastic and read from the beginning of her romantic historical. It was supposed to be for a Christian audience, and when she got to the girl in the brothel and the tall incredibly handsome man, who paid to be with her and they started up the stairs, we all starting laughing. One of our writers, clapped her hands over her ears and said, "I don't want to hear any six scenes," but it was all done in such fun, and any comments made were not to hurt her. She joined for lunch and came back just as eager to be a part of our group. The newest woman talked loud with seeming authority. Rather daunting, in fact.
Gloria, that kind of person (the new one who is so sure she's an authority) can be destructive to a writing group. Usually, they're more interested in showing off and dominating the group than in learning how to make their writing better.
Christie herself had something to say about the importance of research, spoken through her alter ego, Ariadane Oliver (in Cards on the Table):
“I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favourite Labrador, Bob, good-bye, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the do was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing, I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic, and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more. What really matters is plenty of bodies! If the thing’s getting a little dull, some more blood cheers it up."
Thank you for the excellent writing guidelines and the reminder that nothing is set in stone, Linda. One rule I’m undecided about is whether there should be a twist or double-twist at the end of a mystery. I've read good books that became nbelievable do to the forced twist(s) at the end. On the other hand, I love it when I’m surprised by a clever and unexpected ending. Perhaps a better “rule” is to write a twist only if it enhances the story.
Oh, I so agree, Linda. What a wonderful post. I believe in flushing out my characters. Plots have been done...and done. Characters haven't, and that, for me, makes or breaks a novel. I want my characters interesting and complicated.
I did fudge a fact in my psychic suspense series. Unlike other cities, New Orleans separates their divisions. Homicide, for instance, is in the main police station, but I wanted my lieutenant to be in the French Quarter. I made that fact clear at the beginning, claiming creative license. Now no one can chew me out for getting my facts wrong. At least I hope not.
Following rules make for a lot of books that sound alike. Don't be afraid to crack some eggs.
Okay, this is the fourth time with capture code. Very frustrating.
Well, Bill, I do think Dame Agatha had her tongue firmly in cheek when she was saying all that. ;-)
Kara, I think a twist is lovely--if it works seamlessly without seeming forced. Better no twist at all than one that is visibly forced and distorts the story to make it come round right. So I think your "rule" is a good one.
Polly, I'm with you all the way. In my newest book, Every Broken Trust, I had to fudge the architecture of the federal courthouse in Kansas City slightly. Now, I try to be very accurate about the Kansas City parts of my books, but I told the reader up front that I had taken artistic liberties with the courthouse for the sake of the story.
Great post, Linda! I especially love your reminder that "the best plots rise out of character." Without characters, there can't be a plot. There can be an incident, but where would it go and why?
Thanks, Elaine. Yes, character and the motivations that are a part of character are the real key to plot. Sometimes I read a thriller that's bang-bang-bang with action, but you never care about the characters because you never get to really know them or why they're doing what they're doing. Big fail.
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