Today we’re welcoming Staci Troilo, past Amazing Racer and talented author! Staci is the author of the mystery series, Mystery Ink, which takes place in a CURSED TOWN. Why do I tell you this? Because I love curses–always have, always will (only in fiction, of course!)
Staci is tackling some Mystery terminology for us, helping out with the basics of what a strong mystery needs. When you’re done reading, make sure to track her down on Twitter, Facebook and her blog, because she’s a great gal to connect with!
Whodunit? I Did. With These Techniques. At My Computer.
Ah, the mystery novel. The whodunit. The sleuth story. Sherlock and Miss Marple have nothing on us, or so we tell ourselves as we race through the pages, determined to find the answers before they do, rewarding ourselves if we’re right. Castigating ourselves when we’re wrong. Again.
The mystery genre is a relatively young one at 200 years, and it’s undergone a lot of changes since its inception, but two things have remained consistent: there’s got to be a crime and it’s got to be solved. The rest is (almost) up to the writer.
Do you want to:
- reveal the identity of criminal (usually a murderer) in the beginning?
- write in multiple points of view?
- have the sleuth be someone other than a detective?
- mix a little romance in your whodunit?
These days, you can.
There are purists who insist the villain’s identity can’t be revealed until the end, that the story must be in the sleuth’s POV and that sleuth must be a professional detective of some kind, and that there definitely must not be any romance in the book. And there are books like that out there for the purists. But for the reader who has moved past Doyle’s idea of a murder mystery, there are so many more options out there. Romance, suspense, thrills… even some horror and gore.
So what has to be there?
Writers today are always told that their work will be either character- or plot-driven. I say they’re both. Without a strong plot, you just have interesting characters gamboling about. Without strong characters, you’ve got people you couldn’t give a flying fig about doing spectacular things. Develop both, and you’ve made magic.
Characters in a Mystery
This is the person who will ultimately solve the crime. Male, female; brilliant (Sherlock Holmes), bumbling (Columbo). This is your hero. This person has to be likeable enough for your readers to root for and smart enough that it’s believable when he or she solves the crime.
This person is the foil for the sleuth. The sleuth will bounce ideas off the sidekick, and sometimes the sidekick will either discover the missing piece of the puzzle or jumpstart the discussion or discovery that leads to a breakthrough. The sidekick can be a love interest, but often it’s better if the love interest is a third party, often one who finds him or herself in danger.
This is the person who the sleuth is chasing. He or she is either mentioned or around throughout the novel, but doesn’t seem guilty until near the end. Clues will have to be left, though, so that, if the reader re-reads the book, the guilt is apparent.
The red herring is the distraction. The sleuth mistakenly pursues this person early on, and doesn’t discover the red herring’s innocence until late. It’s especially poignant if the red herring can be made to be sympathetic, particularly if he or she can be made loveable and then can maybe be framed and eliminated by the villain.
Plot Elements in a Mystery
The most important part of writing mysteries is misdirecting the reader. All the clues need to be given, but in a way so that the reader may not notice them until the time is right. A great way to do that is to list several items found on a bookcase or desk, and bury the important one in the middle of the list before moving on to a different part of the room. The clue has been given, but neither the sleuth nor the reader has realized the significance yet.
We’ve all heard of Chekhov’s gun. Nowhere is it more poignant than in mysteries. If something is called attention to in the beginning of the book, it’s a significant clue. Make use of it by the end.
Clues introduced right before action scenes might be missed by the reader. That’s a good way to bury something you want the reader to know but temporarily forget. They’ll be so caught up in the action, they might not remember the clue you’ve introduced.
Reveal and Recap
Clues need to be spaced out throughout the novel. If they all came at the beginning, there would be no novel to read. The sleuth would solve it immediately. If they all came at the end, what would the sleuth do for 300+ pages? Space the clues out, and have the sleuth recap his knowledge once and a while (definitely before the villain is revealed) so the reader can regroup with him.
Mysteries come in all shapes and sizes, and they are in fact character and plot driven. With the right pacing and proper mystery-telling technique, even an old school whodunit fan will be searching out the clues in your story.
In a town whose residents believe they’re cursed, the murder of a councilman and business paragon is a harbinger of more doom to come. The police have just one suspect, but robberies, a kidnapping, and attempted arson all lead amateur sleuth Naomi Dotson to a different conclusion. She convinces her twin Penelope to help discover the real truth—before anyone else gets hurt.
AND if you’ve got a spare minute or two, slip over to A Place on the Bookshelf to read an interview with Becca about her writing origins, the birth of The Bookshelf Muse, and other useless but entertaining trivia ;). Also, Angela is posting about how to Make Your Hero Complex By Choosing The Right Flaws at Adventures in YA Publishing.
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