Friday, June 24, 2011

How to Write the Perfect Mystery

How to Write the Perfect Mystery
Presented by Heather Haven in Three Parts
Part I

So you love to read a good mystery? Now you want to write one yourself? Ah, but how to get started, how to make it work. Like most things, it's not quite as easy as it looks. Relax. There are parameters you need to work within, mostly technical, and I can give you some tips on these.
Like anything else, writing a good mystery is a practiced art. If you play tennis five hours every day, you're going to get pretty good at it. Same with writing a mystery. We'll answer some questions, such as:

What kind of a mystery do I want to write?
And do I really have to have the murder happen by the end of chapter one?
How do I find a plot?
How do I set up the murder?
How do I plant clues without giving away the culprit?
How do I keep it interesting?

Remember, a good mystery is a well-written novel that just happens to have a dead body in it, done in by an unknown assailant. There is no substitute for writing well. But you knew that already, didn't you? No mystery there.
Let’s be honest, there isn’t a perfect anything, not even the perfect mystery. I just said that to be provocative. I have a lot of fat nerve thinking I can impart knowledge about something I struggle with every day myself. Maybe today’s blog will give you food for thought on the subject, should you decide your next novel will be a mystery. If so, then my day is well spent. Let’s get to it.

What kind of a mystery do I want to write?

First of all, here’s the difference between mystery, suspense, and thriller:
A mystery – It is a puzzle of person, place or thing, a ‘whodunit.’ The reader is given clues but has no idea, along with the protagonist, what the outcome will be. If the protagonist is in danger, it’s only when s/he is getting closer to the truth. Mysteries are more of the mind. Will the protagonist solve the mystery?
A suspense – A ticking time bomb that must be resolved. It has danger but not necessarily action. The reader is often aware of the clues sooner than the protagonist, who must work against time. Suspense plays more on the readers’ emotions. Will the protagonist stop the culprit in time?
A thriller – From the onset, the protagonist is in jeopardy and knows it. The protagonist and the reader share the same information at the same time. The thriller has lots of action and keeps the reader on the edge of the seat. No time for thinking or feeling. Will the protagonist survive?

Often elements of all three are worked into a novel. There are variables and hybrids, but the writer usually has a definite leaning. Today we have decided to write a pure mystery; Agatha Christie, stand aside. Historical, contemporary, funny, serious, dark, light, gritty, or charming, the mystery usually falls into one of two categories: Cozy or Professional.
The Cozy Mystery is solved by an amateur, often someone who just ‘happens’ to be around at the moment or ‘happens’ to become involved (no matter how many books are in the series). This person does something else for a living, even if it’s sheering sheep or being a medical examiner, but is always bright and committed. The plus side for this type of mystery is the writer ‘merely’ needs to come up with a good story and run with it, no special knowledge is necessary. The protagonist often doesn’t know much more than the reader from the onset of the story. The protagonist learns as s/he goes along, often helped out by a spouse or friend, who tends to have ‘insider info’ that’s missing from our hero. Well, someone has to help advance the plot!
The Professional or Detective Mystery revolves around a private investigator or law officer, someone who does this for a living. The plus side of this kind of mystery is the writer can dig deeper, go into more detail, reveal maximum facts to the reader, often getting into scenes and places otherwise not available to the average Joe Schmoe. This protagonist is usually more committed to the cause - for whatever reason - than anyone else around. Find that reason and you’ve got the heart of your story.

Speaking of protagonists, it is essential to have an interesting protagonist, not necessarily likeable, but one with redeeming characteristics. This protagonist should be intelligent and different, someone who knows the rules, but breaks them, and has something to overcome, i.e. yearning to be better or suffering because s/he can’t be. They should also want something, even if it’s a glass of water. Nothing propels a character forward like wanting something.
When you read mysteries containing successful protagonists, from Miss Marple to Nero Wolf, Sam Spade to Hamish Macbeth, Sherlock Holmes to V.I. Warshawski, you’ll find they all have one thing in common. They are unique. It is essential your protagonist is someone you would spend time with at a dinner party, even if once you get home, you say, “Wow! What an oddball. I’m glad I don’t have to live with her/him.” Being normal and ordinary just isn’t part of the package. Save that for your youthful love interests.
HINT: After you’ve created your protagonist, do an essay or interview with her/him in order to flesh the character out. Ask questions, such as: What do they cherish? What do they abhor? How are they under pressure? What would they fight to the death for? Where is their point of mercy? Do they believe in right or justice above all else? Would they, themselves, take a life? You’ll soon begin to see your protagonist as a very real person dealing with the problems you’ve created for them.

Part II coming up soon!!


Terri main said...

Excellent distinction between mysteries, thrillers and suspense.

Lisa Blackwood said...

I rarely stray from sci-fi and fantasy, but a lot of urban fantasies have some element of mystery about them. So I suppose I do like a bit of mystery. LOL. Anyways, your post has me thinking about giving mystery a go.

Thanks for sharing, I found your post intersting.

Heather Haven said...

High praise, coming from you, Terri. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Lisa. I love writing them, myself.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Very good points. Thanks.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Love the clear explanation of the differences between them, Heather.

Heather Haven said...

Rosemary, it took me awhile to get the difference, but then I can be slow. Alfred Hitchcock hated mysteries but loved suspense and thrillers. North by Northwest is probably the most famous of his thrillers. We almost lost Cary Grant numerous times.

Roseanne Dowell said...

I love, love, love mysteries. I've tried my hand at a couple (romance mysteries of course). I always thought a cozy mystery was one where the murder happened off the scene. It already happened when we enter the story. Great descriptions otherwise. When I started writing, I wanted to write nothing but mysteries. My first story started out that way, but enter the good looking, sexy detective and it turned into a romance with mystery elements. I admire people who can write mysteries and you do it well, especially with humor.

Heather Haven said...

Roseanne, thanks for the praise! Just a thought, a cozy death doesn't necessarily happen off-scene, but that is more often the case. There are a few where the murder is upclose and personal, especially if the story is in 3rd person. To name one, Joanne Fluke will occasionally have a quick murder on scene. The cozy is less likely to be hardboiled due to it being investigated by an amateur, but I've read a few that are pretty dark. Not Fluke, of course, but she cooks up a good tale!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing the differences between mysteries, suspense and thrillers. Look forward to reading part II.

J.Q. Rose said...

Your post is very clear on the differences and especially timely for me since I am struggling with my mystery. I have read that a mystery is one of the easier styles to write because it has a distinctive beginning, middle, and end. Anxious for Part II.