You’re writing a mystery novel. Kudos to you. Mysteries are huge fun to write. They depend on skillful plotting however, so be mindful of the needs of your plot.
Essentially, mysteries depend on suspense, and your focus is on three characters: the victim, the murderer, and the sleuth.
A vital tip before we go on: focus on emotion. What are your characters feeling? What feelings do you hope to arouse in your readers?
Writing a mystery novel: the victim, the murderer and the sleuth
A mystery’s three primary characters are: the victim, the murderer, and the sleuth.
The victim won’t play an active role, but the novel depends on him, because the entire novel focuses on the crime, and the activities and motivations of your murderer and suspects.
Your sleuth is usually your viewpoint character. Be aware that in all novels, authors create two strands of a major character’s characterization:
- Outer obstacles (in a mystery, your sleuth’s activities as he solves the crime);
- Inner obstacles: your sleuth’s inner motivations — what personal flaws and failings must your sleuth overcome?
Your sleuth’s inner life can lift your mystery from straightforward genre potboiler status, into a more elevated “breakthrough” bestseller status. (We’ll discuss breakthrough novels in another article.)
Now let’s look at our tips.
1. Choose your genre and sub-genre with care: your novel’s sales depend on it
Before I start a new novel, I like to check Amazon. It’s important to understand Amazon’s current classifications (keep an eye on them, because they often change), so that your novel can be found by readers after you publish it.
Here’s Amazon’s best sellers in its top-level Mystery, Thriller & Suspense genre (category.) Click on one of the sub-genres in the left sidebar — and you’ll find more sub-genres.
This can get a little confusing. Some genres are more open to gaming than others, so you’ll find books where they obviously don’t belong. Please don’t try to game Amazon yourself, even though people do it. You want your book to sell for years, so choose your genres with care: you want to help readers, and guard against an Amazon purge if you try to be too clever.
When you click on the Mystery sub-genre, you’ll see another list of sub-sub-genres. Try clicking on one of these to explore the titles. For example, should you click on the Series link, you’ll find mysteries which are part of a series, as you’d expect.
My suggestion: make some notes about possible genres for your mystery, and compile a list of links to the sub-genres too, so that you can find your way back to them when you’re ready to publish.
Although you can only choose two categories for your novel, Amazon’s algorithm will add your novel to other genres and sub-genres. Not happy where Amazon’s placed you? Contact Amazon. Often, the kind people at Amazon KDP are happy to add your novel to any genres which you suggest would be appropriate.
2. Introduce your three primary characters as soon as you can
We said that in a mystery, your primary characters are the victim, the murderer, and the sleuth.
Therefore, many mysteries begin with an opening scene of the unfortunate victim’s ordinary life. He’s alive, and he’s about to meet his end.
Readers expect this type of opening. An episode of the Law & Order crime series for example always begins with the victim’s murder.
The victim is going about his or her day when the murderer (or the murderer’s agent) arrives, and the murder takes place.
Remember: feelings. Your novel’s opening is an opportunity to hook your readers, so don’t waste it. Your reader expects to be there, with the victim.
In some sub-genres, notably Suspense and Thrillers, you can go to town and indulge yourself in blood and gore. In others, like cozy mysteries, the murder is air-brushed. The murder happens, and it’s nasty, but readers read cozies for the mystery puzzle. They want to know whodunit; graphic details are unwelcome and unnecessary.
3. Focus on suspense in solving the mystery
On this blog, as well as on the Fab Freelance Writing Blog, I’ve talked about developing suspense in your novels. Suspense is important in all fiction, and in mysteries and thrillers, it’s essential.
It’s vital that you control what you tell your reader, and when. In our Write Fiction For Readers: 3 Tips For Narrative Drive post for example, we talked about controlling information, and about open loops:
Many novels use a rapid cutting technique of a series of cliffhangers — open loops. The author places a character in a tough spot, and leaves him there for a few scenes. When the author returns and rescues the character, he’s closing that loop, so he immediately opens another one.
Please be aware that readers read mysteries for the clues. So although you should be careful about what you tell readers, and when, you must play fair with them too.
Plant your clues and red herrings, and hide your clues as skillfully as possible… But don’t omit clues, or readers will hate you.
Writing a mystery novel is great fun, so happy writing — I’m looking forward to reading your next mystery. 🙂
You want to write fiction. Perhaps you're a self-publishing author — or perhaps you're a ghostwriter, and want to offer fiction writing services to clients.
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