I’m handing the reins over to David Bishop today. He’s here to tell you all about writing mysteries. I hope you enjoy his words of wisdom.
By: David Bishop
Writing a mystery novel is like going on vacation. You don’t load up the car and pull away from the curb until you know your destination. To do otherwise, opens you up to many wrong turns and lost miles, even ending up somewhere you never intended to be. What does this have to do with writing mysteries? It means I first decide the crime, the perpetrator (in a most general sense) and my destination, the solution of the mystery. Now I can load up the story and pull away from the euphemistic curb to begin the journey that will bring my protagonist and the reader to the intended destination.
First, I must create at least one character the reader will care about, or can relate to. These characters for caring may be Hannibal Lector or Clarice Starling, or, in my novel The Beholder, they may be Maddie Richards or the serial killer, or both. Whether these characters are good or evil is not the key. The key is that the reader cares what happens to them. Will they solve the crime? Will they be seduced or slain? Perhaps get married. If, within the first not-too-many pages, the reader consciously or subconsciously thinks, I don’t care what happens to any of these people, the reader is going to turn that book into a wall banger and pick up another.
The first third of a novel sets up the plot and shapes the primary characters. The last third brings the story home. The evil is stopped and justice is found if the author believes the story should end with some form of retribution. What about the middle third? This is where the writer proves his worth by keeping the story moving and interesting. The middle should be crowded with tension and traps that must be navigated as the story unfolds. The middle is often where subplots are developed or expanded. Well-crafted subplots humanize the primary characters, allow romance to blossom, and otherwise engages and entertains the reader. The middle is the second most difficult area for a writer. The opening third must create characters that capture the reader’s interest. The magic of the middle third is about avoiding boredom. When we listen to readers talk about novels they have read, we often hear things like, “It was all right, I guess. But the middle dragged.” The novelist cannot allow this to happen. The books about which readers say, “That was a great book,” are always stories with engaging middles.
While it often goes unnoticed, mysteries contain two simultaneous contests. The first and obvious one is the contest between the protagonist and the villain. The second challenge goes on behind the scenes, between the protagonist and the reader. Will the reader be able to solve the crime before the hero does? This part of the novel must be played fairly. The clues the hero will use to solve the mystery must be presented to allow the reader a chance to beat the hero to the solution. These clues can be as large as a log or as tiny as a bump thereon, as prominent as a woman’s dropped purse or as insignificant as something which spills out. There should be false clues that make the reader believe the “butler did it,” when the houseman is innocent. Readers don’t mind being wrong about the butler being guilty, but they resent learning at the end that the hero used clues the reader had never been told. Sherlock Holmes often used these, shall we say, private clues, but when writing mysteries today this is considered inappropriate. The modern perspective is to give the reader and the hero the same vista.
The above paragraphs primarily refer to the traditional whodunit mystery, but there are also howdunits and whydunits. In some mysteries we are immediately told the identity of the villain. In the Columbo TV series the viewers commonly knew the identity of the killer within the first few minutes. Then the story became the tug of war between the wit and wisdom of Columbo and the conniving and cunning of the criminal. This is also the juxtaposed style used in stories like The Day of the Jackal and In the Line of Fire, in which we spend as much time tagging along with the villains as we did with the heroes. To some degree, I used this style in my novel, The Beholder, which is told through the struggles of Maddie Richards, a female homicide detective handling a serial killer case. The story also includes some scenes and vignettes from the killer’s point of view. This is done without disclosing the killer’s identity for The Beholder is primarily a whodunit. Maddie, who raises a young son with help from her live-in mother, is a crackerjack detective who, like many of us, struggles to handle her family and love life as well as she handles her professional life.
All mystery styles are wonderful when told well through the eyes of characters about whom we care.
I’d like to add an additional comment to everyone reading this article. The last several years I have been writing well enough to allow me to say: My stories are good. Take a journey with me. Laugh. Hold your breath. Cheer. Boo. The characters are rich, and the plots are grabbers. I promise most of you that you will be very glad you came along. I’d promise all of you, but nothing is liked by everyone. Some people don’t like golf, or chocolate, or apple pie, or even a hearty laugh. But I’ll bet you like some of that stuff and I’ll bet you’ll like my mysteries.
— Yours Very Truly, David Bishop