Friday, August 12, 2011
5 Mistakes Nearly Every Newbie Mystery Writer Makes
1 - Information only the police would have is made too easily accessible to the protagonist. A lot of writers try and get around this one by making the lead investigator the protagonist's romantic interest. That was a fun, fresh idea twenty years ago. Now days? Not so much. Now days the fresh, fun idea is the lead investigator is the protagonist or the protagonist simply has to work around not having the same information that the police have.
2 - The killer's motivation is crazy. No, I don't mean the writer came up with a crazy motivation. I mean the motivation itself is craziness. That way, no matter how illogical the killer's moves and motives are, it can all be explained by Teh Crazy. Now if you give the killer rational and believable motives for committing his crimes, you also waaay up the chance that the reader will figure out whodunnit. But even if the reader ultimately figures out the killer a few pages ahead of schedule, believable motives for all your characters still makes for a more satisfying read.
3 - The killer is a serial killer. See above. I know, I've written a few serial killer novels too, but with 43 stories under my belt, obviously I'm grabbing for any and every idea. What's that you say? The first mystery I wrote had a serial killer? Oh. Well, of course! Serial killers have built-in thrill value and, again, they're pretty easy because Teh Crazy eliminates the need for any kind of logic on the part of the killer. The serial killer is pretty much as worn out a convention as the lady in the nightgown fleeing along the cliffs, the castle lit by one lonely light in the background.
4 - Not enough suspects. There are all kinds of crime stories. Sometimes we're writing romantic suspense and sometimes we're writing classic cozy mystery and sometimes we're writing thrillers. In a thriller, we usually know who the killer is right away -- the who dunnit is not the important element -- but in a classic mystery or even romantic suspense, the reader likes a little more of a puzzle. More characters mean more subplots and that is certainly more work for the writer, but it results in a more satisfying and entertaining mystery.
5 - The prologue that begins with the gruesome murder of an unknown character. Generally this is a yawn. We're not invested in the character, we already know what's going to happen to her or him, and very rarely does anything that occurs in the prologue tie into the rest of the story in a meangingful way. THE KILLER HAS STRUCK! That's pretty much the point of most of those prologues. And they're usually popped into place because the author has a sort of dull first chapter, so a gruesome murder is supposed to compensate for that. A better idea is to write a really strong first chapter with characters we're soon going to love.
The qualifier to all of the above is sometimes someone comes along and makes all of these "mistakes" and yet still makes the book work. So write the best book you possibly can and all the rest of it will likely fall into place.