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February 2022

The Top 5 Mistakes Mystery Writers Make - and How to Avoid Them

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I've been reading mysteries since I cracked open my first Nancy Drew novel back when I first learned to read. I'm the author of the Dreamslippers amateur sleuth series, and I've personally steered the storylines on hundreds of mystery-themed story video games over a 15-year career in that industry. I've had the opportunity to analyze when, why, and how mysteries work, and I make a living through a skilled understanding of how to fix them when they don't.

Here are the top 5 mistakes we mystery writers can make - and how to avoid them.

5. Skimping on character development.

Whether it's the vaudeville relic of the mustache-twirling villain or the über-perfect heroine, painting with too broad a brush is tempting when you're writing mysteries. But some of the best-known characters in the genre are... complicated. The PI who's battling her own drug addiction while trying to track down her brother's killer. A boy who's pushed to murder his own father in a fit of wild self-preservation. Maybe even the perpetrator of a justified revenge murder. We want to know more about people whose lives occupy the grey areas. The ones in mere black or white? We've seen 'em all before.

To avoid this pitfall, don't be afraid to torture your good guys, or lend a sympathetic ear to your crooks. We'll feel your hero's win all the more if she's had to prevail against her own worst judgment in order to get there. And a villain is all the more diabolical for her charm.

4. Failing to provide a motive.

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While asking "whodunnit" is the crux of the mystery genre, motive is always key. Sure, killers are gonna kill, but if they can get what they're after without resorting to murder, why wouldn't they?

Which is not to say that motive can't be mysterious, or even intangible. In my first novel, Cat in the Flock, the killer was bent not on personal gain but on the preservation of a religious ideal, something that never even really existed, but in her tortured mind, it was the most important thing. This is precisely how the "whydunnit" has supplanted traditional mysteries; we're fascinated by criminal intent, the motive behind a killing that seems otherwise senseless.

When you're working out the plot for your next mystery, constantly ask yourself, "What's the motive?" 

3. Slacking off on research.

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This is one I've seen a lot with beginning writers, whether they're writing for print or games. We're all walking around with sort of rudimentary understandings of the law-enforcement process, for the most part gleaned from episodes of Law & Order and Scooby-Doo. But that doesn't take the place of good research. For the jurisdiction you're depicting in your story, what officially should happen when a dead body is found and reported to police? What are the police department's procedures for filing a missing persons report? Do you know the difference between jail and prison? What is required for an arrest? What forensic evidence was found at the scene of the crime? What evidence is admissible in court? These are the questions that can make or break a story's authenticity.

Don't limit yourself to a simple Google search when you're researching details for your mystery. I have illustrated guides to pistols, rifles, and poisons sitting on my bookshelves, which might have been an intimidating factor back when I was dating! When I lived in Chehalis, Washington, I attended a 'day in the life' program at the Lewis County Sheriff's Office. That day alone gave me tremendous insight, from how police scenario simulations work to what the inside of a county jail really looks like to what the drug evidence room smells like.

2. Turning your story into an activist project.

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The place to watch out for one-dimensional portrayals the most these days is when the project is made primarily political. Are your people of color only victims, or only good? Are all of your villains stereotypical white males? Is your portrayal true-to-life, in all its nuances, or is it just true-to-narrative?

I read a thriller a few years back in which the twist at the end was that the big, bad mob boss turned out to be the bitter mother of a paraplegic son who ran her entire dirty operation via her cell phone while stuck at home caring for the kid. This was in the era before smart phones, too. It wasn't that I don't think a mother is capable of acting as a brutal mob boss; I do; but this scenario seemed pretty implausible. How did she manage to instill the fear necessary to traffic drugs and human beings across the US-Mexico border from the personal comfort and safety of her home, using only rudimentary text messaging as her weapon? Just because we want a woman like that as a villain doesn't mean it works.

1. Revealing too much too soon, or too little too late.

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The mystery genre is unique: It's the only form of writing in which the story itself is also a puzzle to solve. That means mystery writers must also be puzzle designers, not just storytellers. By the time the big reveal comes, readers should be, above all, satisfied by it. They can be surprised by the reveal, but they shouldn't be too surprised. They should be able to look back and trace the clues to see the logical outcome. 

For example, Murder on the Orient Express is a classic mystery tale that masterfully skirts a powerful genre convention: that the story must end with the murderer being taken away in handcuffs. Once Hercule Poirot traces the motives and means that not just one but in fact every passenger on the train has for killing the victim, we're surprised at this twist on the tried-and-true, but we can follow each thread to see why and how each person participated in the multiple stabbing, which makes for a terrifically satisfying ending. When Poirot tests our collective killer, and then determines that none of them possess the heart of a true murderer, we're right there with him, as we, too, have become invested in their mitigating circumstances. His moral decision, another surprise for a character such as his, is grounded in the masterful reveal.

This is probably the toughest aspect of mystery writing to get right. It really depends on whether you're the type of writer who likes to plot everything out ahead of time or just free-write till you figure it out, but either way, you should take a moment to see if the clues add up at the right moment. Tip your hand too early, and you spoil the surprise.

I hope these tips help you with your own sleuthsaying. Happy writing!