As a lover of mysteries since I was a child, I started on Nancy Drew books and kept on reading. Now my favorite mystery authors are William Bernhardt, Anne Perry, and Carolyn Hart, as well as one great writer who recently left us, Tony Hillerman.
As I read mysteries over the years, I studied them because I wanted to be able to write them. Finally, I succeeded after many tries and much study. I'd like to share some of what I've learned.
Between a good beginning and a powerful end, a well-written mystery has to keep the reader's attention through the use of foreshadowing, tension, drama, and action. The reader has to want to turn the page or go to the next chapter to find out what happens next. Only the writer can accomplish that with good writing, dialogue, believable characters and action.
Here are a few tips that will help a writer create a good mystery:
Write a good story: Huh? What does that mean? That means that no matter what tips or tricks or whatevers may be in a mystery, if the story isn't well-written, with correct grammar,spelling, sentence structure, the story won't fly. Kathy Pohl (The Writer June 2007) states it's important to learn the craft, the basics, of writing. Without knowing the basics of writing, once can't write a good story.
All the wonderful ideas found in the mind can't become written stories if the creator can't write the words so that they can be enjoyed and understood by others.
Create strong, believable characters: In a mystery, the writer knows one thing about one character before writing: The killer, if there is a murder, will kill someone. Other than that one fact about the antagonist, nothing else is know about any of the characters. The writer must develop each one thoroughly so that he or she is real, rounded, and believable to the reader.
Flat, one dimintional characters cause stero-types and boring reading. Multi-dimentional characters cause readers to care about them. Even an evil killer can have traits or background that will allow the reader to see him as a person.
Don't rely on a technique: Using a technique such as outlining or storyboarding should be an aid, not a master. Outlining never worked for me, because I work out the story/plot so thoroughly in my head, that's it's real before I start writing. Bestselling crime author Tony Hillerman said that outlining didn't work for him. He tried with the first three novels he wrote and failed and felt guilt-ridden and inadequate. When he decided not to try to outline, he found success.
If outlining works for you, great, but don't become a slave to a technique.
Have a strong plot: Any story must have a plot, a storyline. A conflict is necessary, a climax, a resolution, an ending. In a mystery, there must be a crime or some other type of mystery to be solved. A good book has a major plot and at least a couple of sub-plots. For example, a couple who meet as a result of the mystery and who are attracted to each other create a sub-plot inside the main plot of solving the mystery.
Those points are just some of the ones needed to create a strong mystery. I hope people who read my mysteries, including Midnight Hours, will find those components in my writing.
Note: I met Tony Hillerman and had a few interesting visits with him about five years ago. I enjoyed his writing, and I really liked the man. I'll miss him, as his readers will, too. I'll be posting about him sometime soon, and how he wrote a prized autograph in my copy of one of his books.
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