Sunday, August 16, 2009
Yes, You Can Write a Mystery!
As the president of Sisters in Crime (http://www.sistersincrime.org) I am privileged to be part of a small team of people who travel annually to visit publishers, agents, distributors, booksellers, and many others in the publishing industry. We sit down with them and ask questions about what they see in our crazy writing business. One of the things I’ve learned is that there are not enough good mysteries out there for young people. If mystery authors want kids to love mysteries, we have to give them something to read!
Perhaps you haven’t written a mystery before but would like to take a stab at it. Don’t let the idea intimidate you! Whether you are a young person writing your first story or an adult trying a new genre, the main ideas of writing a mystery are the same, and if you break them down, they’re not as overwhelming as you might think. We all have our own slant on how we want our characters to act, look, and solve a mystery, but we share the basics of the genre, no matter who or what we are writing about. If you have these things you can be writing about teen-agers, wizards, or dogs, (or a teen-aged wizard’s dog!) and you will have a mystery.
One of the main things to remember when writing a mystery is that readers are smart – often smarter than writers give them credit for. They’re going to notice things, even small things, so you don’t have to hit them over the head with descriptions, clues, or solutions. Make things clear, of course, but be careful not to over-explain or you’ll find yourself giving away the ending in chapter one! As in many things in life, this is one more example of “Less is More!”
So, take a look at these mystery standards, and if you have them, you’ll know that what you’ve written is, in fact, a mystery.
1. Characters. In order to write a good mystery, you need to provide the reader with characters who are both believable and interesting. Think about what your character has that will catch a reader’s interest. Is she really smart? Is he a good skateboarder? Is she happiest when in the company of her collie? Think of something that will set your character apart, and make the reader care about him.
2. Setting. This is where your story takes place. Is it in a school? On a farm? In the city or a small town? In a moving truck? Or a treehouse? Once you know where your story happens, think about the details that will make your setting come alive. What does it smell like? Are there sounds? Is it hot or cold? What colors are around? You want your reader to feel like she’s right there, with your characters.
3. Conflict/Problem. There has to be something gone wrong to make a mystery. Has your character’s homework been stolen? Did your character’s best friend lie about something important? Are your character’s parents or teachers acting strangely? Did your character get in trouble for something he didn’t do – but he knows who did? A mystery needs a central problem your character needs to figure out.
4. Plot. The plot is how your character solves the problem. How will she discover the solution and what will get in the way so the answer isn’t too easy? What obstacles can you put in your character’s way? Let your character find some answers, then throw another problem in his path. Your story needs to be a puzzle, with twists and turns, not just a straight shot to the answer.
5. Clues. Any good mystery has to have clues. In fact, clues are one of the main things that set a mystery apart from other kinds of fiction. Your reader will want to be able to go back through the story when you’ve revealed the solution and see that the clues were all there – this is called “playing fair with the reader.” If you introduce someone in the second to last chapter, and he ends up being the killer, the reader is going to feel cheated, and you will have a hard time getting her to pick up another one of your books. The trick -- and it’s one you have to experiment with – is in giving clues without giving away the ending. How can you slip in information without being too obvious? This goes back to what I mentioned in the introduction: Readers are smart. You don’t have to mention more than once that the killer has had a gym membership at the same facility for ten years. When something happens at that gym later on in your story, the reader will make the connection. And even if she doesn’t at that very moment, she can go back and find it in the text. In fact, she will expect to find it in the text. If it’s not there, you’ll hear about it. The planting of non-obvious clues takes practice, but with some time and work you’ll get the hang of it.
6. Suspense. This is another huge part of mysteries – you need to keep your reader turning the page. It’s all about unanswered questions – and they don’t have to be big ones: Will your character be home in time for dinner so his parents don’t ask questions? Will your character’s big sister find out that your character used her computer? Why did your character’s best friend act so strangely in science class? Without suspense your mystery has no meaning – there must be obstacles and questions which arrive in the course of investigation that keep your character working toward a solution, and must also keep the reader wanting to read “just one more chapter.” If there is no suspense, you might as well tell your reader the solution in Chapter Two. Suspense is the fun part of the mystery’s journey!
7. Solution. Of course you must solve the mystery for your readers. No one wants to be left hanging at the end of a book. Give your reader something that is believable and interesting, and is the result of the clues you planted earlier, and they’ll come back to read your next story!
Judy Clemens is the author of Embrace the Grim Reaper and the Anthony and Agatha nominated Stella Crown 5-book mystery series. She is the president of Sisters in Crime and is lucky to be one of Jill’s authors. You can visit her at http://www.judyclemens.com.