I’m sorry I’m so late getting this posted today! The weekend was crazy, and I realized this morning that I was supposed to post a blog. Santa will probably put me on his Naughty List (no comment from you, Natalie!).
I’ve already deleted three blogs this morning so I am just winging it today. But let’s talk about mysteries. I’ve always loved a mystery. I devoured Nancy Drew when I was a kid. I love outsmarting the bad guy. And I like a question that needs an answer.
I even liked Diagnosis Murder which make my kids roll on the floor laughing because… “That’s for old people.”
Why do we have kids again? No really. I once made the mistake of telling my oldest son that my favorite Halloween song is Monster Mash. He laughed for a week straight. He called friends just to tell them and laugh. So why do we have kids????? And please, don’t anyone tell my kids that I used to love Colombo!
I love mysteries, especially fast paced mysteries. The mystery is what drew me into Harry Potter. Who was this little boy who lived under the stairs? Things start happening rapidly and every time we get one answer, another question pops up. It’s riveting…
Now I’m going to tell you a secret. I find some mysteries boring. It’s a pacing thing. This is why mysteries can be really hard to write.
See in suspense, the action is based on a chase that naturally lends itself to a fast pace. You might know the bad guy from chapter one, and you know they are going to murder the good guy, and what keeps the reader turning pages is the chase. The tension mounts based on the reader seeing the killer getting closer and closer to the intended victim. (Or that’s one way to do suspense.)
But mystery is based on a question like, Who Shot JR? Wait, that wasn’t a book, but you get the idea. We don’t know who the killer is, and we must base an entire book around finding him or her by using the clues. In real life that can be tedious. And it can be tedious in a book too, if the writer takes the read through every little detail. Readers are smart, and generally very good at using their intelligence and imagination to fill in the blanks. And these days, readers are even more savvy. They understand that you can type blood and do DNA on it, so unless you are writing a procedural or are Patricia Cornwell, you don’t need to take them through every step.
So how to keep a mystery fast paced? Good characterization is, in my opinion, the strongest tool. I’ll follow an interesting, engaging character through even a weak plot—usually because I’m so engaged in the character that I don’t realize the plot is weak until I finish the book. Characterization is my favorite part of the book. I want to know how the mystery is affecting the characters and what the stakes are for them. Harlan Coben does a good job of weaving the character and mystery so closely that the reader is compelled to keep reading to see how the mystery is resolved so they can make sure the character comes out okay.
The next tool I like is to complicate everything for the character. When I wrote NINJA SOCCER MOMS, I knew I was going out on a limb. My first editor had just left, and I’d been kicked up to the editorial director. I had no idea what she was going to think, but I like to write complex plots to really drive my characters crazy. So I did, I sent it to my new editor and held my breath. Finally, I exhaled when my new editor loved it. On the phone she said something like; “You threw a lot of balls in the air and I wondered how you were going to catch them, but you did it!” She meant would I be able to tie all the threads together to a satisfying resolution. I hope I did—she thought I did. And that’s what kept my readers turning pages—to find out how my character was going to handle the next complication. And yet, still solve the murder mystery.
And, of course, the payoff of a mystery is that some kind of justice happens at the end. I don’t follow many rules, but I always follow that one or the readers feel cheated and so do I! The book must feel like it has a just ending.
Those are my thoughts on what makes a mystery novel compelling—what are yours?