Writers in the Storm

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March 20, 2013

Taking the Guesswork out of Writing a Traditional Mystery: 9 Common Problems (and Solutions!)

ESC Head ShotWriters In The Storm is delighted to welcome back Elizabeth Craig, one of the most giving writers we know.

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!)

About Elizabeth

knot what it seams 1Elizabeth 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.

She can be found at her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder or on Twitter at @elizabethscraig.

0 comments on “Taking the Guesswork out of Writing a Traditional Mystery: 9 Common Problems (and Solutions!)”

  1. Elizabeth, it's a delight to read you here at WITS ... especially since I'm in the process of submitting the first of a mystery trilogy. My drafts went from being crowded with too many characters, to becoming episodic, to driving me crazy enough to kill 🙂

    It's a wonderful genre to write and a challenge to find just the right blend of clues, suspects ... and as the plot thickens ... not choak the reader with too much information. Thanks for visiting today ... today as I ponder the main issues with the second of the trilogy. It is good to know I can learn from the best !!

    1. Hi Florence! Thanks so much for coming by. Good luck with your mystery trilogy! Yes, mysteries can make murderous thoughts go through our heads--in more ways than one. 🙂 It's a great genre, though, and once we get into the rhythm of it, things tend to get smoother (although problems still seem to crop up from time to time!)

  2. Elizabeth - You've definitely hit on some of the main challenges mystery writers face. I think you're right that weaving in a sub-plot can be a very effective way to make a book more complex, less linear and more absorbing. And if that sub-plot is related in some way to the main plot, that can help too.

    I found it helps too to develop the suspects' characters so that we learn a lot about them. Of course you wouldn't want suspects to be 'cardboard characters' anyway, but even more, if the suspects' characters have real depth, that can also make for interest, more length, good sub-plots and so on. But perhaps that's because I like character-driven mysteries...

    1. Hi Margot! Thanks for visiting. I'm with you on the character-driven mysteries. They're not only more fun to write, they're more fun to read. When we get to really know a sleuth, we want to read more books featuring him (great for series). And, on the suspect and victim level, knowing more about those characters means getting and giving better insight into who might be the murderer and what motivated him or her.

  3. Love these tips. Even for those of us who don't write mysteries, they present ideas that can be used for great plot twists. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for these tips. I'm glad to see that even early in my drafting process, I've addressed some of these. Maybe I'm on the right track!
    5 suspects, eh? It is tricky to have enough suspects to make the mystery complicated but not so many that the reader forgets who they are. I have this problem even when watching mystery shows if the actors look too much alike. I forget who's the son and who's some neighbor and who's got what motive.

    1. Hi Connie!

      Yes, and I neglected to mention that I usually kill the most likely suspect halfway through the mystery. So really, we end up with 4 suspects, ultimately, using that approach. And I'm with you on the mystery shows--I think I need a cheat sheet!

    1. Actually these tips are great for writing in general. Also when writing something with an element of mystery/suspense. Good tips on subplots and the need to make the opening of whatever story you're writing start in the right place.I don't read a lot of cozy mysteries but the few authors I do read make it a fun story as well as make me think.

      Good list. I need to go and read your first article you wrote for this. 🙂

  5. Very interesting post, but I feel like most of your points really work for any work of fiction and not just mysteries largely because every book worth reading has an element of mystery to it. Will definitely have to keep this post bookmarked for future reference!

    1. Thanks! Yes, I think they can definitely be adapted. I think one common problem with books is that writers tend to want to lay everything out for readers....and readers like to uncover stuff. They love secrets and surprises. You're right...most books could benefit from adding an element of mystery.

  6. Hulloo, Elizabeth!

    My WIP would have been a long short story rather than a novel length mystery if I hadn't discovered the idea of a B story to not only fill it out, but to lead directly to the solution at the end.

    Re: #7 -- I write body-less mysteries. Was there even a murder? I'm not telling. But that makes it hard to "put a body in the first 30 pages" as your ghoulish publisher requests 😉

    Any tips for finding the beginning? I am, of course, in love with the sound of my own voice, so the more of my words on the page the better, right? (No, Joel, no. No.) But it's tough knowing how much of the timeless prose at the beginning to amputate.

    1. Ha! My ghoulish publisher, for sure! 🙂 So, I'm thinking, in your case....in the first 30 pages you'd lay out what the mystery is. Somebody disappears, something precious is stolen, etc.

      You could play that a couple of different ways. Marvelous Melinda is missing. So you could either start the book showing how marvelous Melinda is (everyone *says* they just *love* her!) But there are dark shadows about...one person almost sounds sarcastic when they say how marvelous Melinda is. One person's eyes don't really twinkle when they speak of Melinda. *Then* Melinda disappears.

      OR....Melinda is missing on page one. The problem of Melinda's backstory and the potential suspects who might be involved in a disappearance (which may or may not entail murder) could be addressed in either interviews with the sleuth (dialogue) or flashbacks (of course, flashbacks are tricky. I tend to love them, if they're done right.)

      Basically, you're just showing what that mystery *is* in the first 30. It's a disappearance/a stolen masterpiece/mysterious bloodstains in a deserted house.

        1. Excellent point, Joel. Thanks for that detailed answer, Elizabeth. I tell you, you've almost got this non-mystery writer thinking she could write one. 🙂

        2. Mysteries are the dark chocolate of literature. Dark chocolate, and a glass of good port, or perhaps cognac. (If you've never had cognac and dark chocolate, put it on your weekend plans. Melt the chocolate in your mouth, and, seriously, wash it down with a slurp of VSOP. It is quite the sensual experience.)

  7. Oh, I've run into several of those! I loved your early advice of making sure ALL suspects had a real potential motive and including a clue that exposed it, and making sure all suspects are hiding or lie about SOMETHING so there is a reason to doubt.

    1. Thanks! Yes, if everyone has a motive, then we can even change the murderer at the end (I've been asked several times by editors to do that.) Makes life easier, in a lot of ways.

      And secrets and lies make mysteries fun. 🙂

  8. Elizabeth, I love these! I remember a piece of advice I ran across (forget where), which corresponds to the solutions you propose to problem #3 - not complex enough. "Give each of your major characters a secret" - they don't all have to be secrets that pertain to the murder, but if there are enough people running around trying to keep certain things private, it's going to look suspicious and muddy the waters, for sure!


    1. Thanks for coming by, Kathy! Yes, I think it's fun to read mysteries where all the characters have some sort of a secret. It could be something minor, but important to them that it stays under wraps. Of course, small town settings are especially perfect for this--no one wants the whole town to know their business!

      1. That's another one I've underused in my WIP. My B story depends entirely on the character's secret, but I have at least 3 other characters whose actions would make even more sense if they were protecting themselves from emotional death (the stakes should always be death, physical or otherwise, I think.)

  9. [...] 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.  [...]

  10. Hi Elizabeth, great to see you on here. A really interesting post. Although I don't write mysteries, I love to read them and have downloaded one of yours - looking forward to it. Fiona

  11. Port? Did someone say, Port? That's the only wine I truly like! It's what I thought wine was supposed to taste like, when I was young, and read about it in books!

    YUM!!!! May have pop downstairs and ...

  12. So very helpful, Elizabeth! I'm writing my 1st P.I. story and was unsure of the answer to almost all of these questions. I feel refreshed and ready to get back to the story now!

  13. Excellent advice! #7 with the boring openings is always my biggest problems, eventually I accept a lot has to be slashed out of the story to get to the mystery. The sleuth not having a good reason for investigating is a pet peeve of mine.

  14. What a great list. I love your clue advice. I always worry when I plant a clue that it's too obvious. I really like the idea of dropping a red herring clue right before. Your post is going to help me with my story length issue, too. Thanks!

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