Recently I watched a wonderful Sherlock Holmes movie, Incident At Victoria Falls. Don’t look for it amongst your collection of Doyle writings. It was an original screenplay. Still, it was quite entertaining.
I thought of my favorite mystery story, Death On The Nile, and contemplated the mystery genre. I had only tried it once, a short story, and a miserable failure at that. I am almost convinced that mystery maybe the most difficult genre for writing, which gives it the greatest payoff for the reader when done well.
Middle Makes The Tale
There is plenty to cover, so we’re breaking it down into a pair of articles, one dealing with plot and the other handles character. In a great mystery, the beginning will grab your attention (someone is murdered, a spy stole something) and the ending is tremendous (the murderer is identified, the spy is foiled). But with the exceptional mystery plots, the middle makes the tale.
The middle of a novel is always the hardest to get right. I think it may be more so with mystery. This is where the detective finds all of his clues. The middle is where he learns all about everyone’s past. And often, it is where more crimes are committed to deepen the cover-up. For example, the one witness is also murdered, or the one person who can identify the foreign spy is kidnapped.
The whole point of the middle is building tension, and nowhere is this most critical than in a mystery. This is not like the tension in a will-he-get-the-girl story. The stakes set at the beginning are always crucial: life and death, law and order, the prevention of war.
Every new discovery must be critical. Every deadend must provide more than just frustration, but adds to the danger. Maybe our hero is up against the clock, or if the murderer escapes, he might not ever be caught. Make every step up the ladder in a mystery tale a vital one, and you’ll have a real page turner.
One way to raise the tension is to raise the stakes. One way to raise the stakes is to see there is more than meets the eye. Backstory can illuminate why characters might have reason to be involved, whereas otherwise, they might seem as nothing more than colorful secondary characters.
You can show how one married man is having an affair with another married woman, even though they don’t seem to even know each other in the story. Maybe a few of the seemingly unrelated characters share a past together, such as debts owed, failed business dealings, or political affiliation. This can raise the suspicions of some characters, while confusing the actions of others (of course, with some clarification later).
Have Fun With Settings
Notice where the best mystery writers set their stories, such as Victoria Falls or on the NileRiver. You don’t have to set your tale in Africa, just don’t make it boring. Exotic locations heighten the sense of something outside of the reader’s life. If draws them in and helps them identify with the detective, which all mystery readers like to do.
Also, these locales can play a part in the story. In the Incident At Victoria Falls, Holmes gets a clue at the actual falls site, or actually, a filming of it. Death On The Nile would be completely different if it were not all set on this boat. And one of the most memorable scenes from any movie is the cliffhanger ending to North By Northwest.
Share this article with other writers you know, and challenge them to write the most compelling mystery possible. It might become a pleasant little private writing contest between the two of you. And as always, your Comments are most welcome.