Essentials of a good mystery
My latest novel, Time and Regret, is a mystery, a very different genre from the historical fiction of my first two novels. And it’s written in two time periods – early 1990s and World War One – just to provide an added challenge. I stumbled on the story while sharing dinner and a bottle of wine with my husband at a quaint restaurant in northern France.
Once the decision was made to write it, I settled into the task of constructing a mystery. “Can’t be too difficult,” I kept muttering to myself. Well, actually, it can and here’s what I discovered.
Plot is everything. You have to have a great story; one that engages readers from the outset offering twists and turns and unexpected developments. For example, a character your readers expect to be the culprit dies before the novel ends. Or perhaps your heroine loses the very clue that promised to solve the mystery or her lover is revealed to be working against her.
Pacing must be high. Mystery lovers expect the story to build momentum and then for the action – those twists and turns – to remain in high gear. And there must be action! Too much interior musing will slow the story down. The hero has to be on the move with some sort of adventure happening while the mystery unfolds.
Tension has to build and build. Your heroine must experience danger and challenge. Conflicts and dead ends must occur. A clue or two – ones that readers think are meaningful – should turn out to be insignificant.
Characters can’t be boring. They need angst in their lives, personal dilemmas and demons and, like characters in any good novel, they need to change during the story. Their motivation for taking on the mystery must be clear.
The crime or triggering event has to occur early in the story. The sleuth and culprit also need to be introduced early and the crime has to be believable. No slow build up while readers get to know your characters. No extensive scene setting or backstory either.
The mystery must challenge most readers. Your story will fall flat if it’s too easy to figure out. Readers should wonder who did it for a long time. Readers should suspect someone only to find that person had nothing to do with the crime. And yet, the ultimate explanation for why the culprit has done the crime has to be simple.
Wait as long as possible before revealing the culprit. The reveal is your readers’ ultimate satisfaction. They don’t want a lot of story resolution after that occurs.
The culprit needs to be punished. Your readers expect justice and will be disappointed if that doesn’t occur.Not surprisingly, I reconstructed the plot many times and wrote many drafts before being satisfied that Time and Regret hung together as a mystery. You’ll have to be the judge as to how well is satisfies these criteria.