by Jenny Milchman
Mysteries are the most challenging genre of all.
I can already hear the indignant responses from romance writers (how do you keep boy-meets-girl fresh), the historical writers (all that research!), and the horror ones as well (hey, it’s grisly in there). Not to mention the literary authors. Writing a story that doesn’t rely on plot to pull the reader along is no easy task.
So, all right, perhaps each kind of book has its own unique challenges.
I’d like to go over a few that I’ve found in writing mysteries.
- Knowing when to resist formula and when to make use of it. Should a body appear in the first chapter? A dead one, I mean—presumably most novels have people in them. And should the rest of the novel go on to unravel how the dead body got there? If you don’t keep to this rubric, but your novel is fast-paced and dangerous, is it still a mystery, or some other beast? Suspense, maybe, or thriller? Defining what you’ve written is hard and getting harder all the time, given the new sub-genres out there. Yet agents and editors will want to know your definition.
- Knowing what to reveal to your reader and when. As author, you know everything, at least by the time your book is in publishable form. But if you lay out your cards too soon, you’ll have a boring book that isn’t very mysterious. Too late and your solution will be either anticlimactic or a deus ex machina—a solution delivered from above without the appropriate groundwork being laid. Navigating between these two extremes takes an ability to climb into your reader’s mind—and out of your own.
- Related to the above is the challenge of obscuring the facts throughout your mystery. They have to be there, or else you haven’t played fair with your reader. But you don’t want readers to figure out clues or see plot twists coming like a Mack truck on a narrow road. Instead what you want to do is create a highway…populated by many vehicles…driving on a misty night. Those other lanes are your subplots and dead ends. The different vehicles are your red herrings, your distractions, and characters that fill out a story and make it feel fully realized. While the mist is there for atmosphere and to obscure the one truck barreling down the road…and into your victim’s life.
How do you rise to the above challenges? I imagine that every writer has his or her own tried-and-true methods. Here are three I’ve tried, which may turn out to be true for you:
- Don’t worry about any of the above while writing your first draft. Let the danger and excitement of the situation your character has gotten himself into carry you along. Because if you’re carried along, it’s a good bet your reader will be, too. Fine-tuning details that are too obvious or too obscure, layering in red herrings, and making sure the solution is fully satisfying are for drafts two, three, and…thirteen.
- No? Does the thought of writing thirteen drafts scare you like your heroine is scared by the killer? Then consider the five-point structure, brought to you courtesy of film-writing guru Robert McKee, with a few tweaks by me for mystery writers: Know the beginning, middle, and end of your story. By this I mean a key scene or two you can envision. If necessary, write up background material for these, or rough versions of the scenes before you begin. Sketch out their high points, conflict, and who stands to lose or learn what. Then do the same thing for two turning points in your story—one at the 1/3 mark, between the beginning and the middle, and the second at the 2/3 mark between the middle and the end. You now have a road laid out, and should be able to see from point one to five without getting too lost.
- See your novel as a movie and write down exactly what you’re watching at any point where you feel stuck, or even at the beginning of the process. By visualizing the scenes, you make them that much realer in your mind. Later when you’re writing, you can come back to scenes you’ve already experienced.
The biggest mystery of all to be unraveled may be how a mystery is created. I hope that in this post I’ve given you a few clues.
Jenny Milchman is a suspense novelist from New Jersey whose short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Adirondack Mysteries II, and an e-published volume called Lunch Reads. Her first novel, Cover of Snow, was released by Ballantine this January.