How To Write Mysteries And Suspense
How to write mysteries and suspense: the differences between mysteries and suspense, as well as pertinent tips on how to write for either genre.
Who says that crime doesn't pay? For every author who can craft a compelling mystery and bury clues with the panache of Agatha Christie, there's a readership eager to play armchair detective. There's also a hungry following for writers who take skullduggery down a darker path and incorporate elements of psychological suspense.
On the surface, these two genres look very much alike. In order to target your plot to the right market, however, you need to understand the main differences.
Whereas the hero or heroine of a conventional mystery is a pursuer, seeking to unmask a villain by story's end, the protagonist in a psychological suspense is usually the pursued, engaged in a battle of wits with an unknown adversary who takes wicked advantage of internal fears and imagination. Both genres abound with dangers from external forces; it's the fragile psyche, however, that makes such threats all the more frightening to the hero in a novel of mind-manipulating suspense.
Mysteries are also more likely than suspense novels to spin themselves into long-running series with sustaining characters; i.e., amateur sleuths, private eyes, insurance adjusters and forensic coroners. While such characters can be found in stand-alone novels of suspense, the primary focus in the latter is almost always on the narrator/victim.
SOME DO'S AND DON'T'S
The #1 rule of writing for either genre is Accuracy. Detail management is crucial to reader satisfaction, whether it's articulating the effects of curare, explaining the hierarchy of The Mob, or tying up loose ends after you say, "Book 'im." Paying attention to detail, whether clinically or artistically painting the backdrop for your plot, is essential to the success of your project. If you strive to heighten the reader's sensitivities to the unfolding drama you are creating, make certain you've created a page-turning thriller that will cause a definitive, can't-put-it-down-even-though-it's-3 a.m.- reaction. Otherwise, a gaffe here or an incongruity there could wind up making your literary effort the unfortunate victim...and your storytelling the prime suspect.
Hide your best clues in plain view at the very beginning of the book. Why? Because your readers will be too absorbed in learning names and getting into the rhythm of the book to pay as close attention as they will in later chapters after the victims start adding up.
Be liberal with your red herrings and keep your readers guessing all the way to the denouement. A word of advice, though: readers like to be tricked, not cheated. If you’re going to lace your plot with false clues to throw them off the scent, make sure they're the kind that can stand up to multiple (mis)interpretations. Likewise, balance those red herrings with genuine clues that (1) seem too obvious to possibly be real and (2) are also subject to ambiguity.
Introduce the initial crime as early as possible. Whether your medium is mystery or suspense, there's no time to waste in grabbing the reader with something juicy to try and start solving. Keep your murderer/thief/blackmailer visible throughout the whole story. Readers dislike it when the felonious behavior all gets tacked to a minor character who doesn't even appear until the last chapter. It's also critical to give your villain a believable motive for his/her behavior, whether that answer lays deep in childhood or in a more immediate association with the various targets of wrath.
If at all possible, avoid the following clichés :
1. Conspirators who find it necessary to keep explaining the game plan to each other. (i.e, "As you know, Reggie, we agreed that you were going to kidnap Vicki and make it look like a bungled burglary while I distracted her husband Winston--the brother of my supposedly dead business partner--with a round of canasta...")
2. Arrogant murderers who not only feel compelled to explain themselves as they hold the hero at gunpoint but recite all of it as if they are being paid by the word. (i.e., "Before I kill you, Inspector, you're probably wondering why I pretended to be Count DuBois at the Embassy masquerade party last October 4th, or what I did with all the stolen gold which, by now, you've assumed is on a steamer enroute to South America..."
HOW TO MESS WITH A READER'S MIND
Although many of the following plot devices can be found in other genres, they represent a key component in developing thrill-packed scenarios that will leave readers breathless. Psychological suspense also lends itself well to stage and film--VERTIGO, GUILTY AS SIN, MARATHON MAN, CAPE FEAR--something to keep in mind if you plan to expand your publishing horizons!
1. Phobias. A common theme is to have your main character deeply afraid of something. Whether real or imagined, the pervasive threat of heights, snakes or drowning is the weakness that he or she will ultimately be forced to deal with big-time before the plot is over. Flashbacks are used liberally in filling in the blanks of the protagonist's life and, thus, provide a frame of reference for the current sense of vulnerability. The best phobia to ascribe to your lead character? Whatever personally gives you, the author, a bad case of the willies! It's not enough to just "write what you know;" you also need to "write what you feel".
2. Recurring Nightmares/History Repeating Itself. In both of these themes, the protagonist is haunted by a terrible occurrence from the past. Perhaps it's the unsolved murder of a friend and the accompanying dread that the killer has not only been lurking all these years but intends to return to the scene of the crime. Maybe your character is consumed with guilt for not having reacted quickly enough to an emergency; i.e., the inability to save someone from a burning building or a moment of casual neglect that resulted in a child's kidnapping. In the present-day story, he or she must rise above the paralyzing fear of reliving that terrifying moment in order to achieve some level of redemption.
3. Credibility/Alienation. If you were seated on a plane next to a man who had just been released from a mental hospital and he told you there was a furry monster dancing on the wing, would you believe him? Of course not! A character whose sanity, morals or judgment have ever been called into question is a prime candidate for calculated mind-games. Like the curse of Cassandra, the protagonist's insistent truths fall on deaf ears, fulfilling the villain's agenda to destroy all credibility and, in tandem, create isolation. The escalating sense of panic that ensues in trying to find someone to listen before it's too late is a guaranteed, pulse-pounding read.
4. The Prey. While mystery novels spread out the mayhem over a variety of random victims, the antagonist in a psychological suspense is usually only stalking one person/household or a particular "type" in order to exact vengeance or gain an edge. Additionally, the cat-and-mouse slow torture of the victim's mind seems to bring more sadistic pleasure than an actual kill. Toward this end, profilers will sometimes figure into a storyline as supporting characters, attempting to second-guess why such twisted schemes are going on in the villain's head.
5. Prior Knowledge/Association. It has often been said that our worst enemy is someone who was once a friend; those with whom we share the most intimate relationships would seem least likely to ever make the list of "The Top Ten People Who Might Be Trying to Kill Me." Yet time again we're shocked when the killer turns out to be the adoring husband, the perky babysitter, the kindly neighbor. The insider knowledge these people possess--whether from a past liaison or a current position of trust--gives them the power to not only strike at their victims' insecurities but also be first on the scene to extend the false comfort of 'protection'. Because the protagonist has become unraveled enough by now not to discern any coincidence, he or she steps ever deeper into the trap.
Certainly whichever genre you choose in which to tell a tale of jeopardy, it's important to familiarize yourself first with what has already been written, as well as who publishes it. Membership in organizations such as Mystery Writers of America isn't just a valuable network in terms of contacts and contest information, but also a good source of energy and support from fellow 'partners in crime'.
Last but not least, buy yourself some seasoned “accomplices”: specifically, any of the selections in the HOWDUNIT series published by Writer's Digest. Whether your method of choice is poison, pistols, or a pool of piranhas, these references provide the know-how to make your crime scene--and its resolution--credible. Not to mention the effect it has on your spouse or roommates if you leave any of these books lying around on the kitchen table!