She released her latest Southern Quilting Mystery last month and stopped by WITS to help the rest of us take some of the guesswork out of writing mysteries.
By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
So you’re a big mystery reader and decide you’d like to write one, yourself. Or maybe you’ve already written a mystery or two and think you’re in for smooth sailing now.
I hate to say it, but each book is a little different, just like each mystery is different. About every other book, I find that I run into a significant plot problem. The good news is that once you diagnose your issue, there are plenty of ways to troubleshoot it.
What I thought I’d do today, as a follow-up to my previous post on mystery writing here at Writers in the Storm, is to offer fixes for common problems you might encounter while writing your mystery.
Mystery writing problems and some possible solutions
#1 - The story isn’t long enough.
If you’re writing for a traditional press, you’ll need a book between about 65,000 and 80,000 words. There are plenty of solutions for making a mystery longer—the important thing is that the added words need to add to contribute to the plot instead of watering it down.
One way of approaching this is by adding a subplot to your story. This could be (if you’re writing cozy mysteries), the sleuth’s hobby. It could be a relationship between minor characters or between the sleuth and another character.
It’s even better when the subplot impacts the main plot in a surprising way: maybe the sleuth lost her day job and comes across an argument between suspects while she’s on her way to an interview. Maybe the subplot helps the sleuth solve the mystery or get out of a dangerous situation.
Other ways to add length to a mystery novel (and also some added interest for readers) are red herrings. A red herring is information that appears to be a clue but then is later discovered to be a false lead.
You could also try putting your sleuth in a dangerous situation or upping the stakes in the story by adding another murder.
Another consideration: self-published books can be shorter. If you feel your mystery would genuinely be watered down by adding more words, why not consider putting it up on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords, yourself?
#2 - Your amateur sleuth doesn’t have a good reason to be involved with this case.
Why is your amateur sleuth putting aside her comfortable life to go chase down a murderer? There are different ways to approach this problem (and, unlike some of the other problems listed, this is an issue every writer who uses amateurs faces).
- Your sleuth could be unfairly suspected by police and needs to prove her innocence.
- Your sleuth could have a friend or family member who becomes a suspect.
- Your sleuth could be a personal friend or family member of the victim.
- Perhaps your sleuth discovered the victim’s body and feels personally involved.
This isn’t something that needs to be brought up more than once, but it’s important to establish the sleuth’s personal connection with the case.
#3 - The plot is too linear—I’m worried that it’s not complex enough.
Sometimes our stories might feel a little too pat. If you feel like you’re just connecting the dots with your plot, you probably need to send your sleuth out in a different direction.
Consider having a few of your suspects lie...or having them tell the truth and tell a lie, so the sleuth must ferret out which is which. Consider adding some more secrets to your plot. What if your suspects have something to hide…something that isn’t the fact they’re murderers. Maybe it’s obvious that they’re not telling all that they know, but the sleuth isn’t sure why that’s the case.
#4 - I’m not sure what to write next in the story.
Are you stuck? Going to your library and reading recent releases can help you determine a general pattern of events for mysteries.
Mine usually follow this pattern (which is based on a traditional mystery model):
- Introduction of suspects and victim.
- Discovery of victim’s body.
- Sleuth determines suspects, and then questions them.
- Sleuth investigates leads and re-interviews some suspects.
- Discovery of second body.
- More interviews and more information to consider…how does the crime connect to the first murder (if it does)?
- Moment of danger for the sleuth (frequently coincides with her uncovering of the murder’s identity.)
#5 - My motives for the murder all seem to be the same.
This is a problem that I know editors and my agents don’t like to see. If all the suspects’ motives are revenge, that might either confuse readers or bore them.
There are lots of reasons why we might want to kill somebody—most of us just never carry it out (a good thing!)
Since I set many of my books in small towns, I’ll sometimes focus on minor irritants between neighbors…the kinds of things that can build up over time. Those could be as minor as dog waste issues, property boundary issues, noise issues, forgotten Christmas light issues—you know the types of things. But there are big motives, too—revenge, love, hate, financial gain.
For more ideas to get you thinking, check out this post, “Murderous Motivations” by Beth Terrell on the Murderous Musings blog. And Agatho on the Mysterious Matters blog also has a nice post on motives in “The Reason for Murder.”
#6 - I can’t think of any good clues.
Clues can be anything that makes the sleuth follow a lead.
We all think of very clever clues from classic mysteries, but in most books, the clue is just something that simply leads the sleuth to discover the murderer’s identity.
- This could be a slip of the tongue—maybe the murderer says something that she shouldn’t know…unless she’s the killer.
- Maybe she says something to indicate that her alibi is faulty.
- Maybe there’s a bit of physical evidence (no forensics, if you’re working with an amateur)—an item that the murderer left behind—that points to the murderer.
Once you’ve got your clue or clues, you need to make sure you drop it so that it’s fair for the reader, but not completely obvious. You can do this by distracting the reader immediately—drop something else that seems to be a clue, but isn’t. Introduce two suspects having an argument. Anything to deflect attention from the clue you just planted.
#7 - The book’s beginning is boring.
When is the body discovered? Can you push the discovery of the body up more? My editors like to see a body in the first thirty pages. Before the body’s discovery, everything is just set-up—and that can definitely get boring.
#8 - Beta readers say that they’re confused by all the characters.
How many suspects do you have? I try to use a maximum of five. In addition to suspects, you’ve got a sleuth and probably a sidekick…then you’ve got regular characters if you’re writing a series. The plot can get crowded with characters if you’re not careful.
#9 - I think my mystery is too easily solved.
One great solution: point to someone else right before the actual killer is unveiled. Another solution to this problem would be to add another suspect…but that won’t be as quick of a fix as making it appear that another suspect is the murderer shortly before the end of the book.
Have you ever run into some of these problems while writing a mystery? How did you address them? Can you think of other potential issues that I’ve missed? Are there any other mystery questions you wanted to ask?
(Thanks to the Writers in the Storm bloggers for hosting me today!)
Elizabeth Craig’s latest book, Knot What it Seams, was released February 5. Her next release is Rubbed Out, which launches July 2nd. Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink and independently.
Elizabeth is also the creator of the Writer's Knowledge Base--the Search Engine for Writers, full of amazing links on every writing topic imaginable.