Sigh. I finished reading a mystery today on my Kindle. I won’t say which one or who the author is, because I don’t do book reviews and I’m sure there are people who enjoy this writer’s stories. I was able to try this author’s work for $.99, for which I’m grateful. And if I like an author, I’ll gladly pay full price for his or her work.
In this case, the book started strong — set in Arizona, which is right next to my New Mexico stomping grounds, so I love stories set in the American Southwest. A great premise, too. Double murder at a campsite, internally tortured female detective with all kinds of issues, both professional and personal, and weird stuff about the murder victims and the possible suspects.
The author has a nice eye for detail, and included some great descriptions. That went on and on and on and on and…seriously. Often a tangent that took up 1-2 PAGES, detracting from the narrative and losing the reader. The author also did another no-no in my mystery-writing toolbox — a form of “as you know, Bob.” That’s another form of info-dumping and telling, not showing. It occurs when a writer provides way too much backstory and not enough narrative to move the story along. Your purpose as an author is to MOVE THE STORY FORWARD. You do that in a number of ways. Dialogue with characters to reveal things, action sequences, and subplots tightly woven in to your main plot. This author included a subplot that was a serious red herring and ended up adding probably 80 pages to this book that were unnecessary to the main plot. And it’s frustrating, because the author didn’t effectively tie the two together in a logical way.
Want more? Read on.
Here, thus, is my list of 5 things to do (or not) to write an effective mystery:
1) STAY ON TOPIC. There’s a murder. Your job as the writer is to use your main character(s) to solve that murder. You can tease your readers with possibilities, but don’t write a whole separate plotline and then attempt to loosely relate it to your main plotline in an attempt to trick your reader. 9 times out of 10, it won’t work and it ends up making your reader wonder why the hell you sent them down that road when it was unnecessary to the unfolding of the main plot. So if you’ve got a double murder at a campsite, stay on topic with that. Don’t send the reader down a road where one of the suspects is involved in, say, some crazy terrorist or pervert plot that has absolutely nothing to do with the original murder. That’s a red herring — a smokescreen used to divert attention from the original topic. Some writers do it as a way to build a suspect list, others tend to get lost in the red herring and it ends up becoming a mini-novel within the original novel (which is what happened in the book I just finished). Writers who do not have control of their narratives use this technique, and it will show.
2) STAY FOCUSED WITH AS FEW CHARACTERS AS POSSIBLE. When you’ve got a detective trying to solve a murder, stay with him or her as your main POV. You don’t need to jump into the heads of other characters. In this case, the author jumped into the heads of several minor characters who were part of the red herring subplot that went nowhere, including the head of the guy we were all supposed to suspect. When you stick to 1 or 2 POVs, it forces you to stay focused on the matter at hand, and it will automatically keep you from running down Red Herring Lane with all kinds of subplots in an attempt to fool your reader. I’m a firm believer in sticking to one POV throughout a mystery, because it forces me to stay focused on that character’s process and on the mystery at hand. It’s a really good way to keep your narrative tight, if you don’t go wandering off into other characters’ heads.
3) SHOW, DON’T TELL. Easy on the backstory there, pardner. The author I just read literally introduced backstory almost every single page that went on for at least a paragraph. Here’s an example of what it looked like (which I made up to evoke what I’m talking about):
Lisa watched him drink the soda, and it made her think about the time she spent with her grandfather when she was six, on the lake that summer her parents were divorcing.
Okay, that’s a lovely detail, but she’s interrogating a suspect. Why the heck would she think of her grandfather and her childhood in the middle of an interrogation? Backstory is what you introduce in bits and pieces through dialogue with other characters. Your job as a writer is to provide just enough info for a reader to fill in the blanks, not to overwhelm her so her eyes glaze over and she wonders when the character is going to get back to business. That’s story pacing, and it’s very important. Every word, every scene, everything you write in a mystery must serve the purpose of either moving the story forward, revealing motive, setting up suspicion, or deepening characterization without paragraph after paragraph of backstory. Handy link for showing, not telling.
4) GO EASY ON DESCRIPTIONS. I’m guilty of going a little overboard with descriptions now and again, but this author has me beat hands-down. You don’t need a page or two to describe the motel your detective is staying in while working the case. Think journalistically. Short, sharp, to the point. One or two well-placed similes or metaphors will get your point across just as well and more effectively than 2 pages of describing every paint shade of the room, the type of roofing tiles used, and the furnishings. Trust me on this. Less is more. Setting is important as a character, too, but you don’t need 2 pages of description where 2 sentences or a paragraph will do. Longer than that interrupts pacing, and bogs your reader down in needless detail. Word choice and cutting out all the fat helps tighten your narrative and improve your pacing. Don’t get attached to every word you write, because it may have to come out to improve the story.
5) DON’T USE A CAST OF THOUSANDS. The author I just read is guilty of this. This author threw character after character into the mix, giving each one a first name, last name, and a 1-2 page description no matter their role in the story (and most of them had only peripheral roles, if any). The narrative thus became unbalanced. Every single character you write into a novel must serve 1 of 2 purposes (or both). One, he or she must provide characterization for the main character and/or two, he or she must provide information to the main character that relates to the primary issue. Otherwise, they’re just extras on a stage standing around with inappropriate blocking and timing. There were so many characters in this novel that the author seemed to forget their names; in two instances that I caught, the author used a name for another character incorrectly, which confused the reader. That is, the author started a scene with, say, John and halfway through, John became Mark, a different character introduced later on (and an editor should have caught that, as well as the numerous typos in the text, but that’s another issue for another blog).
Point being, if you’re writing a police procedural, stick to the facts, ma’am. The characters who are going to directly help the main character solve the mystery or reveal some bit of info are the ones who stay. Not every single person in the town.
All rightie. When you write, stay lean and mean. Don’t get bogged down in needless detail. Write effectively, and choose your words carefully. The best narratives are so tightly written that everything works seamlessly together and you don’t notice the myriad moving parts. If you start noticing the parts, the writer hasn’t done her job.
Happy writing, happy reading!