Genre Lessons: Mystery

Detective. I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

I expected this post to be all about plotting. Mystery writers are great at writing twisty plots, revealing just the right amount of information at just the right times, and keeping readers turning pages. And while some of the things I learned have to do with plotting, I was surprised and delighted to pick up tips about descriptions and characterization as well. Here are the main lessons I took from studying mysteries.

1. Don’t give too much information up front. If something dark or traumatic happened to your main character in the past that plays into his present conflict, don’t put that whole flashback in the first chapter. For example, if he’s a detective who was disgraced after botching an investigation, and that case is similar to his current case, don’t give readers every detail of the first case. Instead, mention it casually as needed (but be careful not to get too repetitive) and drop hints about what happened. Readers like to keep guessing, and not knowing what happened means they’ll keep turning pages.

2. To create suspense, save that flashback scene until the climax of the novel. By this point, readers know something bad happened, and they’re dying to know what it is. They’re already hooked by the action of the present, so slipping in that flashback does double duty — they finally get to know why the detective can’t stand murder-by-rubber-chicken cases, and they’re on the edge of their seats to learn who the rubber chicken killer is this time (and if it’s the same one as the last time). To raise the tension even more, interrupt that flashback with something from the present — and if you’re writing a series with this detective, maybe keep readers waiting for another book to get the rest of the flashback.

3. Descriptions don’t have to be long or elaborate to be memorable. In mysteries, there are plenty of minor characters that could be suspects. These characters could get a single sentence to describe them, but if it’s the right sentence, readers will remember them a hundred pages later. For example, the girl in the TARDIS dress whose alibi was that she was in a Whoovian chat room at the time of the murder. This also makes it easier for your other characters to discuss (and often dismiss) these suspects without readers having to flip back and remind themselves who these people are.

4. Finally, active setting descriptions can help propel the narrative forward in a fast-paced scene. The mystery I read had a lot of creepy forest scenes, where rivers of ivy cascaded down stones — a gorgeous image, and one that mirrored the protagonist’s run through the woods. Even if you’re writing a slower scene, descriptions like this can make your setting come alive much better than “the stone was covered in ivy.”

There were so many good things to take from this book, but these were the ones that stood out the most. Have you read any good mysteries lately? What writing lessons did you take from them?

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