Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Mystery Writer's Challenge

By Chester Campbell

Writing mysteries is a bag full of challenges. First, you need a situation that can lead to dire consequences. Or, to put it simply, somebody's gonna get murdered. When I start writing a story, I usually have a simple idea of who's going to wind up in the morgue and basically why. Then I get into the details and it isn't so simple any longer. I have to know exactly why this person got himself done in. At that point, I often find the original idea doesn't quite get it. Time for more thought about both characters and their motivations.

If you're writing a series, as I do, you have one or two characters you and your readers are well acquainted with. So you have to find a realistic way to get them tangled in the plot. That brings on more challenges. I write PI mysteries, and everybody knows private investigators (except in rare cases like The Marathon Murders) don't get hired to solve murders. So their involvement with the homicide must be a natural outgrowth of some other plot point.

The next big challenge lies in the area of creating characters who might have done it (or whodunit). You need multiple suspects to keep things interesting. And all of them must be capable of committing the crime. If there's a little old lady involved, she'd better be a pistol packin' mama. It takes a bunch of red herrings to make the plot really fishy.

If you're using subplots, and most of us do, the challenge is to invent a scenario that fits into the main story without hijacking it. Sometimes a bit player in a subplot will try to take the spotlight away from the protagonist. When that happens, you have to put him or her back in their proper place as supporting actors. If they're really Oscar material and won't behave properly, pull them out and give them a book of their own.

Now comes the really big challenge, filling up that vast wasteland known as the middle of the book. Unfortunately, we can't accomplish it by throwing in lots of ands and buts and the's and thou's. It must be interesting stuff that moves the plot and draws out the characters, tantalizing details that will keep the reader reading the book rather than  doing the old fast pitch against the wall.

Finally, the last, and probably most important, challenge is to pin everything on the bad guy and bring down the curtain with a finale that is both surprising and satisfying, one that grows naturally out of the action and makes the reader think I should have known that all along, how else could it have ended?

That's why I enjoy writing mysteries. Nothing like a bundle of challenges to get your juices flowing. How about you?


Jean Henry Mead said...

Sometimes I don't know who the killer is until the final third of the book. The fun part is giving all the characters motives to make them look guilty.

I'm in the dreaded middle of my current mystery and just now getting an inkling of who the killer is.

The Daring Novelist said...

I find myself struggling with an unexpected challenge right now. I was writing the scene where the detective explains all, and realized that the truth is going to have a strong impact on several of the characters - so much so that their horror derails the cleverness of the scene.

After thinking about it, I realized that these revelations had to come earlier - in the high stress confrontation and action sequence. Learning the small details of the truth, in this case, is a catalyst, not just clean up of questions.

Beth Terrell said...

Exactly, Chester. Finding the balance between plot and subplot is a challenge, as is creating tension throughout the book, but I wouldn't give it up for anything.

Bill Kirton said...

A good summary of the whole process, Chester. It's the whydunnit? part that fascinates me. Next week there's a charity event at which teams have to be CSI investigators. I've written the murder scenario and just about any of the suspects could legitimately be accused. They'll only find the real one if they look properly at motives. As for the WIP, I've now got everything I need for it - background, characters, setting, sub-plots. All I need now is the central mystery. I wish it would hurry up and occur to me.

Chester Campbell said...

Interesting dilemma, Bill. That's one I've never faced. In my current WIP I have everything I need except for more of it.