Writing Tricks for Mysteries and Thrillers: Start With the Crime

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I’ve been chatting with some 30-Day Novel-Writing Challenge members about writing mysteries and thrillers.

In these genres, the crime’s the thing.

Just in case you’re wondering what the difference is between a mystery and a thriller… in a mystery, you don’t know who the killer/ bad guy is until the end of the book, and in a thriller you do. A thriller tends to have much more action. In a mystery, your “action” can be minimal — your cast can spend the entire time chatting in a hotel, on shipboard or on a train, or even in a house.

Sleuth

The movie Sleuth, for example, which was based on a play, has the two characters, Milo (Michael Caine) and Andrew (Lawrence Olivier), spend the entire movie in Andrew’s wonderful house. Sleuth is a mystery, not a thriller.

Nathan Bransford offers this:

Thrillers have action

Suspense has danger, but not necessarily action

Mysteries have mysteries, i.e., something you don’t know until the end

You need to know your genre, because readers want certain things from their genre. Mystery readers want a puzzle. Thriller readers want to be excited by the action.

I consider suspense novels to be thrillers, but the “action” can be in the mind. If you get a chance to watch the movie Gaslight, do watch it. I consider it a suspense-thriller, but Wikipedia calls it a mystery-thriller. Whatever. The only real action in Gaslight is psychological. It’s a scary film.

When you’re writing a novel, emotions are always paramount. Which brings me back to the point: if you’re writing a mystery, or a thriller, start by developing the crime, and the criminal.

Focus on the crime, before you start writing a mystery or a thriller

Over the years, I began several mysteries which went nowhere. I got to around page 100 and ran out of gas. Woeful. I created some wonderful, quirky sleuths, and expected that I’d have no trouble writing the books. Wrong.

It was only when I focused on the CRIME, and the killer first, that I managed to write a satisfactory mystery — one which was easy to write, because the spine of the book, the crime, was there.

Without a spine, your book ends up a blob.

Here’s your workflow.

Create the killer/ bad guy.

He wants something — what is it? I think of what the killer wants as the “treasure”. This treasure can be as unusual as you like. It doesn’t have to be an object. Your bad guy may want to wipe out a population, or start World War III.

He needs to plan, find a weapon, decide on a time and place for the crime, and he’ll need to clean up after himself, so that he isn’t discovered. In a thriller, he may be committing the crime in order to publicize a cause, so he needs to make arrangements for that.

Write an interview with the killer/ bad guy to learn more about him. The interviewer can be a cop, or your as-yet-undeveloped sleuth.

Create the victim.

In a mystery, the crime is personal. The killer knows the victim. In a thriller, your killer may want to blow up a building for his cause, and may not know any of the victims.

Plot the crime.

Create scene cards for the crime. Most of this will be backstory, it won’t appear directly in your novel, until your sleuth discovers the chain of events of the crime.

Until you’ve created a bad guy/ killer, plus a crime and victim, and have plotted exactly how, when, and where the crime is committed, you don’t have the spine of your mystery or a thriller novel.

That’s the big trick to writing a mystery or thriller. Start with the crime. Avoid the temptation to create a sleuth first. You can create a wonderful sleuth after you’ve created a crime worth solving. With your crime firmly plotted, and your sleuth created, the writing will go well. You’ll complete your novel.

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Angela Booth is a top copywriter, multi-published author, and writing teacher. She offers many guides, courses and classes to help writers to enhance their skills on her websites. She also provides inspiration and motivation for writers on her writing blogs. Angela has been writing successfully since the late 1970s, and was online in the 1980s, long before the birth of the Web. Her business books have been widely published.