When I read the fall quarterly CRRL @YourLibrary publication this summer, I realized I was scheduled to make a presentation on writing mysteries to each of the library's three Inklings Writing Groups. And I was only to happy to do this. The handout follows below, but I told them that although it is critical to keep learning the craft of writing, sometimes rules need to be broken. Writing is first and foremost about YOUR creativity.
The question I am often asked is: "What's the difference between a mystery and thriller?" The question should be: "What the difference between a mystery, suspense and thriller?"
At the recent CRRL Writers Conference, Traci Hunter Abramson described the differences with the bomb comparison:
Mystery - The bomb has gone off - protagonist has to find out who done it
Suspense - Reader knows about bomb; protagonist doesn't
Thriller - Lost of bombs; lots of action
I told the group to put the word "usually" in front of everything I say, because sometimes our stories don't exactly fit the mold.
Mystery is a genre of fiction usually involving a mysterious death or a crime to be solved. Often with a closed circle of suspects, each suspect is usually provided with a credible motive and a reasonable opportunity for committing the crime.
Traditional: A mystery must have certain elements to be considered a mystery. Essentially, a mystery will have a puzzle or secret, or layers of puzzles or secrets, a setting that fits the type of book, a sound motive, red herrings, and clues. Most traditionally accepted mysteries have a murder. This is the element that compels people to keep reading. (Think Agatha Christie)
Cozy: Traditional cozies are light, sometimes humorous, slow paced (as compared to the other categories), the murder (usually quite civilized) and sex happen off scene, and the solving of the crime is a battle of wits between the reluctant amateur sleuth and the villain. The setting is most often in a small town or community and the sub-characters are quirky and fun. The sleuth falls into the mystery by accident or circumstance and uses common sense/gray cells to solve the crime. Usually first person. (Think Janet Evanovich)
The hard boiled mystery is a detective story with attitude and action. It’s a tough mystery that takes place in a city or urban setting. It’s gritty. It’s violent. The blood and violence (and sex) takes place on screen. Usually the detective is a professional who’s been hired to investigate. Usually first person with a bare-bones or abrupt narrative style. This is not your emotional mystery. (Think Raymond Chandler or Michael Connelly)
The soft boiled mystery falls somewhere between the hard boiled and the cozy. It’s not as violent as the hard boiled, but can have more on scene than the cozy. Many soft boiled mysteries have humorous elements. The detective can be a professional or amateur. Misa’s Lola Cruz Mystery Series is an example of soft boiled. Janet Evanovich is also soft boiled (with some caper thrown in).
The detective/sleuth in a police procedural is almost always a law enforcement agent of some sort. The details of the mystery plot are the focus, as opposed to the heavier character development of the other categories. The term police procedural is used because the procedures are detailed and accurate. Rules must be followed and crime details are key. (Think PD James and Tony Hillerman)
Think hard about the kind of details, POV, setting, level of violence in your book and how to categorize it. Not every book fits neatly into a category, but you should be able to see it in one of these categories (even if you have to push or shove a little bit!). Just a caveat, things that aren’t easily marketable–meaning your agent or editor doesn’t know how to explain what it is–are less likely to sell. If you can categorize your book, in general, all the better.
In a thriller, "who done it" is usually known to the reader, and often times to the main character. The goal is not to solve a mystery, but rather to catch a criminal, or stop a crime from being committed. A thriller is a mystery that de-emphasizes cerebration, and emphasizes action and suspense. The protagonist is in danger from the outset.
Subgenres: Legal, Medical
Suspense: the main character may become aware of danger only gradually. In a mystery, the reader is exposed to the same information as the detective, but in a suspense story, the reader is aware of things unknown to the protagonist. The reader sees the bad guy plant the bomb, and then suffers the suspense of wondering when or if it will explode. Suspense gives a feeling of pleasurable uncertainty.
Mysteries have the same basic elements as all prose
Plot/storyline/your reason for writing
Suspense/Action/ What’s at stake/Hold readers’ attention/
Hook the reader on the first page
Character bios – protagonist and supporting characters (not too many)
Each character should have a role
Mirror characters – the protagonist needs someone to talk to, bounce ideas off of
Be ready for your characters to take over and change the story
Develop your protagonist:
What crime (or bad thing) has been committed and needs to be solved.
Who is he/she? Why does your protagonist care about the crime? Make it personal.
What is your protagonist’s problem, goal, need, desire?
What are his/her motives for solving the crime and what resources will he/she need?
What obstacles stand in his/her way? Develop a crisis point.
Show readers something your protagonist wants, and then threaten it.
Build tension. Get into each character’s head. How would they react in any situation?
How will your characters change by the end of the book?
Point of view (POV)
Dialogue – keep crisp, clear
Plotter or Pantser? Do you plan ahead, outline, or just write and see what happens?
What is this story about? What do I want this story to be about? Keep asking that question.
Red herrings – suspects/clues/misdirection – but play fair
Pacing – give your readers a break! After a fast-pace chapter, slow it down
Research – Readers are smart, and will catch any little detail you’ve gotten wrong
Editing – make every word work
Think of your story as a three act play – setting the stage, climax, tying up plot lines
How will the story end? Write the ending first.
My Writing Toolbox
George, Elizabeth, Write Away. Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2004.
King, Stephen, On Writing; A memoir of the Craft. Scribner, New York, 2000.
Lamott, Anne, Bird by Bird. Anchor Books, New York, 1994.
Mills, Elizabeth Shown, Evidence Explained; Citing history sources form artifacts to cyberspace. Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, MD, 2009.
Munier, Paula, Plot Perfect. Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2014.
Munier, Paula, Writing with Quiet Hands. Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2015.
Provost, Gary, Make Your Words Work. Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1990.
Roberts, Gillian, You Can Write a Mystery. Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1999.
Stone, Todd A., Novelist’s Boot Camp; 101 Ways to take your book from Boring to Bestseller. Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2006.
The Chicago Manual of Style, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. 14th Edition, 1993.
Writer’s Digest – Subscribe to get all the latest information on writing process, finding agents, best websites, and unlimited how-to’s for writing. [http://subscriptions.writersdigest.com/Writers-Digest/Magazine]
Dictionary and Thesaurus