Saturday, August 17, 2019

Basic Building Blocks for Mystery Writers


Oh what a three weeks it’s been. I’ve been back from Mykonos hiding out at my farm for the month of August. The place looks greener and lusher than I can ever remember, though my impression is largely based on what I can glean of it through the lone window in my third floor garret—where I sit fingers glued to the keyboard.

It’s been weeks of fifteen-hour days (a) finishing the latest draft of the new book, (b) reducing a full-length manuscript to a 750-word synopsis (i.e., think in terms of taking a chainsaw to key plot points, characters and scenes), and (c) going back to rewriting that same manuscript. ARRGHHHH.

But I shall return to Mykonos in ten days. AHHHH.

Hopefully that introduction summons up sufficient sympathy for my plight to justify my running a post I wrote several years ago for a different blogsite. It’s based on the mystery writing course I taught at Washington & Jefferson College for pour souls out there looking to get into this glamorous, wild, and carefree writing life.

So, here is my “brief but spectacular take” on the inherently controversial subject of mystery writing’s basic building blocks, with observations borrowed from true experts on the craft whose names I no longer remember.
I look forward to enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…along with the strong opinions of those of you who may disagree.  

As you no doubt will recall, Snow White had seven dwarfs helping her create her story.  I’m no Snow White, and I’ve only got six to rely upon, but to me they’re just as dependable, even if not as cuddly. Permit me to introduce you to Characters, Dialog, POV, Plot, Setting, and Tension.

1.         Characters drive the engine of your story.  They convey what you want the world to know. They are the product of your innermost thoughts, your views of life, but to really get to know them you must spend a lot of time earning their trust. It’s an investment well worth it, for your characters are who will make you famous.  Readers remember characters far after the plot has faded, e.g., Dirty Harry, Harry Potter, Hamlet, Pudgy Wombat.

As for where to find those characters, I’d say look into the very core of your being for their essence. I know, that sounds all artsy-fartsy, but think of your heart as a storehouse of emotions and subliminal impressions collected over a lifetime of encounters.  As for character traits and appearances, I tend to pick those up through direct observation of passersby and jotting down notes. Accept that you’re a body snatcher, storing up parts and gestures to flesh out the souls of those characters you’ve found lurking about in shadowy places within yourself…and enjoy.

2.         As to how we bring our characters to life, my favorite building block on that score is dialog. Good dialog is like eavesdropping.  Read your dialog aloud. Does it sound natural, does it fit into the setting, and most importantly, does your dialog bring your character to life consistent with your vision of that character’s unique voice?  To grasp what I mean, I recommend reading poetry and great plays, as you’ll gain an appreciation of how cadences and rhythms bring dialog to life.  For those of you adventuresome enough to attempt the most difficult of all dialog—dialects—I recommend you read Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga.  Once you’ve made it through its first 50 pages you no longer need dialog tags, for he’s masterfully caught your ear with a unique dialect for each of his characters—including the narrator.

3.         With that mention of narrators, we arrive at POV, more formally known as Point of View. POV is what holds all the other building blocks together.  Indeed, how could any of us have made it through Moby-Dick without Ishmael telling us the story from his POV?  One should never underestimate the value of a likable narrator.

Most writers choose between first person and third person points of view.  First person is harder to pull off because the reader knows no more than does the protagonist, and that can lead to some awkward devices straining to get information before a reader that the protagonist could not otherwise be expected to possess. Third person POV allows for greater flexibility, but lacks the immediacy of first person telling. And of course, there are some notable POV shifting authors.  Ultimately, it’s your book, expressing your POV on POV. 

3.         Which brings us to Plot. Everyone struggles with plot.  Stephen King suggests tossing your characters into situational conflicts and letting them figure their own way out, advice consistent with the classic admonition that you should never try to fit your characters into your plot.  Once you have a basic story line in mind, let the plot evolve through your characters. 

Yes, I’ve drawn a difference between plot and story.

Story is a narrative based on time, a series of events flowing chronologically (The King died, and then the Queen died.).  Plot is a narrative based on what caused events to happen, a series of events deliberately arranged to create dramatic significance (The King died, and then the Queen died of grief.).

The same story can be told using different plots. Queen died because she too was murdered, or because she partied too hard celebrating the King’s death, or her horse threw her and kicked her to death on the way to the King’s funeral.

Plot is what makes your way of telling the story come to life, so make certain your plots are vivid and continuous, and don’t leave any loose ends hanging out there to frustrate the reader—unless you mean to.

5.         Setting is my personal favorite of the six elements, which makes sense since my books are named for places all across Greece.  Still, that’s not in any way inconsistent with my belief that characters are what drive a mystery.  I say that because, in my books, settings are characters.  For some, setting is of little concern beyond serving as a generic venue for telling the story, so a particular location doesn’t matter beyond being a city of a certain size, a farm, an ocean, a manor house, or a boxcar.

But no matter the level of importance you attach to the setting for your work, always bear in mind that nothing turns off a reader’s faith in an author more quickly than a story setting Chicago on the ocean—barring a tale set in post-apocalyptical climate change America.

6.         And now we’ve arrived at tension, the emotional roller coater ride element so beloved by readers of our genre. Tension heightens interest by relying upon the same basic three-step process used by comedians in telling a joke: setup, buildup, payoff.   One simple way of achieving tension is to reverse the polarity of a scene.  If a scene starts out positive for the protagonist, have it end on a negative note. That keeps your reader turning the pages, which after all, is our goal.

Here’s an example.  At the beginning of the scene it’s dusk, and we find our hero racing his super-charged police cruiser across an empty, two-lane, West Texas badland blacktop highway headed for the kidnappers’ hideout; a place he’s discovered through two days of knuckle-busting, call-in-every-favor, no-time-for-sleep police work.  Our hero’s thoughts are focused on how he’s going to rescue poor Nell without any back-up, and we, his readership, have no doubt he’s going to do it.  At least not until three mule deer dart out of the brush directly in front of him doing nowhere near his cruiser’s 90 MPH.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my garret calls.



  1. Great job, Jeffrey! I can never forgive a writer for putting mountains where there are plains, swamps where there is grassland, etc. Reading out-loud is always a great idea...I could go on, but you said it all.
    BTW, with all the rain the eastern part of the U.S. received this past Spring,I am sure that your trees were indeed greener and lusher than usual; I made the same observation about my neck of the woods recently.

    1. It is surely GREEEEEEEN. As for setting destroying mood, I'll never forget the time--though I surely forget the book--where the opening line had to do with standing on the edge of the sea on Mykonos watching the tide roll in. There are no tides on Mykonos. End of book for me.

    2. If he was standing, waiting for the tide to roll in, the book could have been very long indeed...

    3. Really? Are there no tides anywhere in the Mediterranean? I would think the moon-pulled oceans would affect any body connected to the open ocean... as, obviously, did that author. :-)

    4. Caro, Good point. Until then I thought those standing by the sea, seemingly forever staring straight out into the great beyond, were simply stoned.

      EvKa. From what I understand the Mediterranean has some tides in some places but of very low amplitude (centimeters)...basically because of the narrow entrance to the Atlantic.

    5. Yes, it's that sort of thing. I read a story a short time ago where the writer claimed that the cabbie "drove like a NASCAR driver, dodging the piles of snow drifts while taking them to the mountains. Obviously, the person had never been in Colorado, let alone during a snowstorm.
      One story had a man thinking of his son in Scouts, and had the rankings all wrong.The writer could have called a Scout office or asked any any 8 yer old Cub Scout.There is no excuse, but the goofs remain in our minds, even when the story does not,(or perhaps that is the reason why the story dies not.)

  2. Fantastic. Now I'm all set to become the next NYT best-selling author. Although, I should add that your missing seventh dwarf is "author's voice," that indescribable, I-know-it-when-I-read-it way of putting thoughts and words together such that the reader has no choice but to trot along at your heels. This is related to all of the other dwarfs, yet truly does stand-alone as its own element.

  3. My dwarfs relate to the tools one must take into account in building the book. Voice is something different--but vital of course--as it's more like finding the right carpenter for your project. At least that's how I see it. By the way, each carpenter uses his tools in a different way, which is why some build shacks, and others palaces. At least that's how I see it.

    1. I see your POV: your six dwarfs are the bricks and mortar, but not the skill with which they're put together. :-)

  4. Fantastic post, Jeff. It's an excellent view into your mind and process - and scary how similar it is to mine. :) Clearly, we were meant to be friends. (Also, thanks for a really good reminder, at a time when I'm heading back into my own little box to start a new mystery!)

  5. A perfect primer for me to follow as I begin my writing journey! Starting off with a one page a day minimum. I will see where this takes me and the gang currently living in my head. Thank you for the encouragement, Jeff!