Writing Mysteries Ten Tips That Work

Tip 1. Find your niche. The best reason for choosing to write a mystery is that you love to read them. Take a minute to analyze your mystery reading habits. Do you prefer hard-edged or soft boiled? Gritty or cozy? Graphic or “fade to black?” A professional detective or an amateur who gets caught up in solving a crime? Being able to pinpoint the sub-genre is critical in selling your book to an agent or publisher.
Tip 2. Nail down the tropes. Read extensively in your sub-genre. Note what works and what doesn’t. Pay attention to details like chapter length and number of characters. How early in the book does the murder take place? When is each new character introduced? Is profanity acceptable? Yes, there’s a formula. Like the architect who must start with the basic structure of floors and ceilings, it’s up to the writer to add the elements that make his book unique.
Tip 3. Build the character arc. Whether your sleuth is an amateur or a professional, give him an arc of personal growth that is apart from, but runs parallel to, solving the crime. Maybe he’s afraid of heights but in order to find the last clue he has to climb to a rooftop. Maybe she thinks ill of a secondary character, but finds out in the course of the investigation that she’s misjudged him and has thus learned something about herself.
Tip 4. Motivate your sleuth. Especially if your detective is not a professional, there must be a compelling reason for him to want to solve the crime. But even if your sleuth is a homicide detective or a PI, it’s a good idea to add a personal motive for her passion to bring the killer to justice. Is the victim related to a friend? Is there back story that makes this case important? Will this case help resolve a personal issue?
Tip 5. Beat the reader over the head. Be aware that although you introduced Johnny in Chapter Three, the reader might have gone to Tahiti and back since she picked up your book. Provide a tag line nearly every time you mention Johnny. Remind the reader who he is and what he’s like through action or description. Maybe his bald head picks up light from the lamp; maybe he’s wearing the tie with the gravy stain in the middle of the flock of seagulls.
Tip 6. Delete small talk. Make your dialogue count. Never use throwaway words like “Well,…” or information-free phrases like “How are you?” Instead, use “Do you still suffer from…?” or “When’s your surgery?” Give each character a distinctive phrase or manner of speaking, without going overboard. Use accents sparingly or you’ll annoy the reader.
Tip 7. Mark time well. Pace the story by interweaving all the elements of fiction in every scene: action, dialogue, physical description of the setting, physical description of the characters, internal thoughts and physiological sensations of your point of view character. Spending too much time on one element, such as lumping several paragraphs in a row to describe scenery, will bore the reader and distract from the story.
Tip 8. Layer the crimes. Each suspect should have some flaw that makes him seem guilty of murder, but in the end is a lesser crime. Your sleuth discovers that the victim’s financial manager is an embezzler, but not a murderer; the butler has been skimming from the cookie jar, but he’s not a killer. The murderer will be the last to be revealed, but on the way, your sleuth finds that everyone is hiding something.
Tip 9. Make every scene count. Each scene needs an arc of its own, with a beginning, middle, and end. Each scene must move your story forward. Avoid throwaway scenes that are simply funny or pertain to a romantic thread. Plant an “aha” moment in the line of that joke, or a clue as the date progresses. Everyone, even Cupid, must serve the mystery! Consider also a cliffhanger ending to each scene, as long as you eventually include a payoff.
Tip 10. Make every word count. Use allusions and figures of speech wisely. Choose a theme or metaphor or leit motif and stay with it. If your sleuth is a scientist, show us her world through metaphors that evoke laboratory smells and equipment. Don’t throw in a reference to Hamlet unless you’ve convinced us that she’s also a Shakespeare buff. Like a beautiful painting, your novel should have a finely tuned palette.

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