Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What Makes a Mystery?


Sharon Wildwind

Books about mystery writing focus, in large part, on the same things found in other how-to writing books. Strong characters. High sakes. Dynamite first lines. Immediate hooks. Impeccable writing. Tension on every page. Story arcs. Knowing the writing and publishing business.

So what makes a mystery unique?

The great Y split: is it a thriller or a mystery?


A mystery asks who committed the crime? The reader’s task is to discover clues, filter out false leads, and solve the puzzle. Thinking wins the day. The reader should always know less than the characters; that is, each character knows where his/her guilt lies. The reader doesn’t, until secrets are revealed. Clues turn the plot. Most mysteries contain at least one murder.


A thriller asks how much with the villain get away with before being brought to justice? In many books, the villain’s identity is already known. A thriller may contain murder(s), but the reader’s task is to root for the protagonist to overcome persistent, life-threatening odds. Emotional reaction wins the day. The reader should always know more than the characters; that is, the reader knows how close the world is to catastrophe, but the protagonist comes to this realization in the course of the book. Betrayals turn the plot.

Above all, both mystery and thriller are marketing words. The terms tell agents and publishers where to place the book; tell booksellers and librarians where to shelve them.

No matter what the author thinks he/she is writing, it’s the publisher who decides in which category to place a book.

Sandra Parshall will have more to say about suspense tomorrow.

Defining Characteristics of Mysteries and Thrillers

The fight between good and evil
Mysteries and thrillers are about the fight between good and evil. A hook is what grabs the reader in the first three pages, preferably on the first page. It should focus on the emotional complexity of the task at hand.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
~ Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

The emotional complexity of The Big Sleep is the conflict between appearances and money. Some characters are going to do things to keep up appearances; others are going to commit crimes strictly for money.

Match strong motives and strong oppositions. Characters are in a fight, literally to the death. Some characters will die a physical death; some will die an emotional death, or their values will die.

Expect the protagonist to pay a price at every opportunity. At first, the price is small: coffee spilled on a new dress or being embarrassed by being late for a meeting. The closer the protagonist gets to the resolution, the larger and more personal the price paid.

All detectives should have a turning point where solving the mystery becomes a personal quest. This is true even for professionals, such as cops, lawyers, forensics specialists, and so on.

This turning-point loss is usually the second most serious in the story, and involves a physical loss, such as destruction of property, death of a valued individual, being fired, having their reputation besmirched, being locked up for a crime they didn’t commit, etc.

The largest loss is the shattering of a long-held belief, and that comes during or after the story’s climax.

No character is all good or all bad
What does the protagonist fear? Consider not only how to make that fear a reality, but make it worse. (We are so mean to our characters.) Isolate the protagonist at every opportunity. Make a beeline for the worst possible situation.

Make another beeline for character flaws. What makes the protagonist flawed and vulnerable? How can those flaws and vulnerabilities be exploited?

All villains are human. Give them human traits, foibles, and redeeming qualities along with their villainy. The more ambiguous a villain on the good/bad spectrum, the more time the reader spends thinking about them.

Life makes sense to the villain. There are good reasons he/she must act in the way they are acting, even if this includes torture, kidnapping, murder, and other bad things.

Play fair
In a mystery — as opposed to a thriller — three to five serious suspects are a good number to start with. Develop strong secrets, breaking points, motives, means, and opportunities for each suspect, not just the real villain. In other words everyone is guilty of something, but not necessarily the murder(s).

Allow characters to lie, even the protagonist.

Play fair with the reader. Don’t hold back critical information. If the murderer needs to be a crack shot, put something in his/her background that relates to being a crack shot. Hide the tree in the forest. If the book is set at a shooting club, everyone has the potential for being a crack shot.

Humor is another good way to hide important information. Slip in an important fact in the middle of a funny exchange and the reader is likely to give it less weight than it deserves.

Treat violence with respect
Violence is a form of dialog. It should advance the plot and set characters in opposition to one another, not only physically, but in their values on how they view violence and the proper use of violence.

Violence has repercussions, both immediate and long-term.
In real life, the average bar fight lasts 20 to 30 seconds.

At the very least, in the immediate aftermath, broken glass has to be swept away; bloody shirts changed; maybe a visit to the Emergency Room, or someone being booked at the police station. Living with having killed or severely injured someone lasts for years.

Violence changes place, mood, and atmosphere. Consider how the place where violence occurred was been wounded by that violence. Why is that place now different? Is it going to recover or will it forever be changed? If it’s going to recover, who will help it do so? If it won’t recover, what scar or stigmata will it carry forever?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent lesson in the subject! I plan to make a copy and read it often! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Sharon Wildwind said...

Thanks, Thelma.

Steven M. Moore said...

I wish that I had this discussion when I was studying how to write my first mystery novel. That said, nothing is black or white (fifty shades of gray?).
I can write a thriller where the evil-doer is known but no one knows what his evil deed will be until the end--as the reader goes along, he's given clues and maybe misdirects about the evil-doers intentions.
Is this a mystery-thriller? If there is some romance involved, is it a mystery-thriller-romance? If the evil-doer is a vampire, is it a mystery-thriller-vampire-romance?
By now, you get my point. Even for ebooks, retailers want us to pigeon-hole our works into some genre. We'll truly be free when everything is just a story, a tale to be enjoyed, irrespective of any taxonomy retailers have forced upon us.

Glan Deas said...

Wow!! It is very nice. Hope next will be more interesting and wonderful. All the best.

Regards,
Kopi Luwak

Sharon Wildwind said...

Steven, you've got it. Right now publishing is in the habit of tacking on as many hyphenated words as they think will sell the book.

One of the issues in mystery/thriller/hyphenated is that there is a hard core of readers, who know the genres and what kind of book a particular author is likely to turn out.

Because what we write often deals with violence and graphic yuckiness, some readers who want to stick a toe in the water, want assurances that they won't be inadvertently disgusted. I mean, if it says romance, how yucky can it be? If they only knew.

Ruth Donald said...

Good article, Sharon!

As an avid mystery reader who isn't fond of graphic violence but likes realism, I tend to shy away from books labelled as thrillers. I prefer it when the murder happens 'off camera' and the story focuses on solving the mystery.

I'm disappointed when a book relies on violence to advance the plot. It seems the writers can't decide what should come next in the story, so they have someone knock the protagonist out from behind, or they throw in another murder.

With all the thrillers being written, I suspect I'm in the minority!

Sharon Wildwind said...


Ruth,

You might be in the minority when it comes to professional marketers, but I suspect you're in the majority when it comes to readers.

I very frequently talk to book club members whose club won't read mysteries because they're afraid of getting a "bad" one; that is, one that's too graphic for their tastes.

In fact, a club I attend — we read only mysteries — picked one for this month that I simply can't read. It's heavily loaded with violence for the sake of violence and I don't want to have to contend with that. I stopped reading after I had the second nightmare.