How to Write the Perfect Mystery
Presented by Heather Haven
How to plant clues without giving away the culprit!
Most of the time, the writer knows who the killer is going to be, so it’s human nature to let part of the cat out of the bag, even if it’s only one paw (sorry, Tugger). None of us likes to keep a secret too long. On occasion, writers have either not known the killer’s identity at the novel’s onset or changed their minds midway. This happens more than you think. With a dark, noir mystery I’m in the final throes of writing and not one of the Alvarez series, I switched culprits as I came to the end. Sometimes these characters just get full of themselves and the poor writer has to do their bidding.
However, most of the time, I know upfront and personal. Consequently, as I’m writing scenes or dialog between characters, I often find a spot to throw in a clue. Here’s a secret -- but don’t let this get around the neighborhood -- it’s no big deal when you add the clues, because you can go back and insert them into the novel after you’ve finished. It’s like setting the table for a dinner party. Stand back, see how it looks, and start laying down plates..ah…clues.
About the clues, there are two kinds: real and red herrings (false clues). Red herrings, the clues that lead nowhere, are best kept to a minimum. One or two at most. Too many and the reader feels jerked around. I try not to use them, myself, but once in a while, something which starts out as a real clue but peters out for whatever reason, might get left in because it somehow fits. There aren’t a set number of clues to plant, sad to say, but I try not to go over 3 or 4. Nobody’s really stupid out there. Honest.
I often ask people I trust to read the book before my final edits to make sure there are a sufficient number of clues leading to the guilty party. Did everyone suspect who the killer might be? Sufficient clues. Did everybody know who the killer was? Yikes! Too many clues. On the flip side, did they have no idea at all, thought I’d left out too much information, and were frustrated at the outcome? Not enough clues. Try again, smarty pants. Remember, you want your reader to go “Ahhh! Yes, I get it! Of course!” rather than “Huh? Where did that come from?” Your reader should be satisfied.
HINT: Vague but concrete clues, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, seem to work best. For instance, if the killer used a now missing mantle clock to do our victim in, have your protagonist ask what time it is, or rest a hand on the spot where the clock used to sit. Don’t have her/him notice the empty spot on the mantle or the new vase in its place unless you are moving in for the coup de grâce.
How do I keep it interesting?
Good luck to all of us on this one. I would say pacing is one of the keys to a well-written mystery, but then, that’s true for any novel. Overall, you need your reader to care about the characters and their outcome, while still maintaining the mystery. Have as many roller coaster rides as you want but unless we care about who’s on the ride, it doesn’t matter.
Do your research and only play around with facts so much. True, you are writing a novel so you have a certain amount of latitude but once you lose the reader’s trust you are done for. The mystery reader is one sharp cookie. If you write about a mythical tavern on the west side of New York City facing the river, you’d better call that river Hudson or you will be getting letters of reprimand hurled at you. Nothing irks a reader more than having inaccurate information in a book. It totally takes us out of the story. And it’s not necessary. Do your homework and you will be rewarded 10-fold. For the latest book of the Alvarez Series, I actually did the 12K footrace the characters ran in the book to make sure it could be done (okay, I used the car but I still did it). This footrace CAN be run and I am secure in the knowledge. So you can’t go wrong with research. Also, back to truth is stranger than fiction, you never know what tidbit you are going to trip over that might lead you to something wonderful to add to your book.
Keep your story colorful, inventive, different, and moving along. Throw in the unexpected. Have a grieving widow sum up in five words her entire 30-year relationship with her recently deceased husband. Show your protagonist’s weakness or weaknesses at a surprisingly inopportune time. Stun us with simple words of the horror of taking someone’s life. Reveal a worthwhile trait about a worthless villain. How many of us can forget that Hitler loved his German Sheppard to distraction?
Set up an outline as detailed as you like, but never hesitate to deviate from it. We are artists, baby. We create. If you’re interested in going someplace else, the reader will be, too. Trust yourself.
HINT: Regardless of what type of mystery you write, someone is going to die in it. The taking of a life, no matter whose life, is a very meaningful, serious thing. While we may not care about the victim, we should know the impact of the death on others. No one leaves this planet without affecting someone with the leaving, good or bad. It will make for a richer read and help ground the story.
We’re done. Now get out there and write the perfect mystery. And when you’re finished, come back and show me how to do it.
My best always, Heather