Monday, January 13, 2014


September 13, 2010, Elizabeth Sims blogged ‘How to add suspense to your novel.’  It’s a well-written blog by an author I’ve grown to enjoy.  I’ve ‘blog hi-jacked’ her article – sharing the first half today and finishing it tomorrow. I hope you enjoy reading it.  Rita
Just as eating a balanced diet requires an endless series of good choices, so does writing a successful mystery. And just like anyone else, we authors are constantly tempted by junk. It’s true: When crafting a story or chapter, you can opt for the cheap, first-thing-to-hand alternative, or you can push yourself toward something that may be less convenient, but that will ultimately be more fulfilling for both you and your readers.
Think of it this way: As an author, you’re feeding your readers. Those readers come to a mystery hungry for certain elements, and they expect to feel satisfied at the end. They don’t want formulaic, predictable stories that are the equivalent of fast food; they want substance, flavor, verve and originality. If you want to keep them coming back for seconds, you need to nourish them with quality prose, cooked up with skill and caring.
Here’s how to make smart choices in your writing (with apologies to the Eat This, Not That diet book) when it comes to the five key ingredients readers expect from a juicy mystery.
1. COINCIDENCES - A coincidence that arises organically from a solid plot.
EXAMPLE: In Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, a crucial plot point is protagonist Ben Marco finding out that he isn’t the only member of his platoon having strange recurrent nightmares about garden club ladies who morph into Communist officers. This is key because it’s the first evidence that the soldiers have been brainwashed. Condon crafted the story so that Marco learns of another soldier’s dreams when his platoon leader, Raymond Shaw, mentions a letter he received from the soldier. Better still, when Shaw reveals the key information in the letter, he does so without realizing its significance. The reader puts two and two together, right along with Marco—and is completely hooked. If Marco had just happened to meet another nightmare sufferer somehow, readers may have had a hard time suspending their disbelief.
A contrived coincidence that has nothing to do with what came before.
A prime example is the off-duty detective who just happens to be walking past the abandoned warehouse at the precise moment the torture gets going on the abducted coed.

Mystery writers are constantly tempted to solve a plot problem by putting in a coincidence. After all, mysteries tend to have complex plots, and complex plots are challenging to write.
Fortunately, readers love coincidences—provided they work. Life is full of real ones, so to turn your back on them in your writing would be to reject a reasonable plotting technique. The key is to generate realistic coincidences rather than contrived ones that will leave readers rolling their eyes. So how do you do it?
You’ll find that organic coincidences will suggest themselves if you populate your story with enough strong, varied characters. Let’s say you have a damsel in distress—that coed in the warehouse, bound and gagged by the bad guy. You need this exciting scene; your plot relies on her survival. Some of your most interesting possibilities hinge on the characters themselves. Take the bad guy, for instance. What if there’s more than one? What if one of them is holding a secret grudge against the leader? Can you immediately see where this could go?
Or, rather than drawing on your villains, say you want a hero to stop by and bust up the party. Make this more than a ploy to get your damsel out of trouble: Make it a real subplot that twines throughout the story.
For example, perhaps the building has been scheduled for an inspection. The inspector knows the building is a blight and has been fighting with the mayor to get it torn down; the bad guy knows the building is a perfect hideout. The plots about the inspector and the bad guy (who, let’s say, were best friends in high school but haven’t met in years) can be parallel and separate, with the building being the piece in common. This way, you can make both characters converge on the scene at the same time, resulting in a natural coincidence. Written just so, the arrival of the building inspector with the bolt cutters will make readers slap their foreheads and go, “Oh, yeah, the building inspection! Oh boy, what’s gonna happen next?”
2. DYNAMIC DESCRIPTIONS - A description based in unconventional comparison.
EXAMPLE: “More cop cars pulled up, more cops came in, until it looked like they’d been spread on with a knife.” (This from my first novel, Holy Hell.)
A description you’ve read a dozen times: “The place was crawling with cops.”
I almost think I became a crime fiction author so I could write books without using the sentence, “The place was crawling with cops,” thus proving it can be done.
HOW TO DO IT: I believe many aspiring mystery writers fall into clichéd descriptions because of the genre’s deep roots in pulp, work-for-hire and cheap magazines. These outlets served, it must be admitted, less-than-discriminating audiences. (The Twinkie eaters of mystery readers, metaphorically.) Today’s mystery readers demand better.
Constantly be on the lookout for clichés in your writing. Welcome the occurrence of a cliché in your rough draft, because now you’ve got an opportunity to show off!
I learned from bestselling author Betty MacDonald (The Egg and I, among other golden oldies) to compare people with nonhuman entities, and nonhuman entities with people. She wrote things like, “As evening fell, the mountain settled her skirts over the forest.” That’s a great technique, a terrific cliché-buster.
Let’s say you’re describing a man who storms into a room, and you just wrote, “He was like a bull in a china shop.” You stop in horror, hand to your mouth with the realization: I have just written a cliché.
Brainstorm other comparisons as well as other contexts for your description. What if he was like a garbage truck with no brakes? What if he was like a ballplayer driven insane by the worst call he’d ever seen? What if (simply describing what he does) he tears off his shirt, and the sound of the popping buttons is like a burst from an Uzi?
3. FALSE CLUES - A red herring that’s built into the plot from the get-go.
EXAMPLE: Agatha Christie did it beautifully in her famous short story “The Witness for the Prosecution,” which later became a classic Billy Wilder film. The protagonist, Leonard Vole, is on trial for murder. He’s a sympathetic character, and you find yourself rooting for him from the beginning. The evidence against him is circumstantial but heavy; even his wife testifies against him.
The wife is the red herring. She appears to be trying to send him to jail; she says she hates him and presents marvelous evidence for the prosecution. You begin to focus on her, wondering, gosh, what’s her angle? Dame Agatha stokes your high suspicion. All of a sudden, however, Mrs. Vole’s testimony is discredited, and Vole goes free. Aha, you think, I was right: She had it in for him!
But then (spoiler alert!), in a wonderful twisted ending, the wife reveals that she’d been working for that result all along; she herself provided the discrediting evidence, knowing the jury would be more easily manipulated that way. We learn that Vole had indeed committed the murder. Because our attention had been drawn to the wife, the heart-clutching moment when we learn of Vole’s guilt is the stuff mystery readers long for.
A false clue that’s isolated.
In too many amateur mysteries, we get red herrings like a creepy next-door neighbor who turns out to be a good guy. You know you’re being cheaply manipulated when you realize the neighbor has nothing to do with the plot; he appears solely to frighten us from time to time.
HOW TO DO IT: Mystery writers are always in need of red herrings to shake readers off the scent. A terrific test for these false clues is to ask yourself: “If I removed this clue from the story, would I have to change anything else to accommodate the cut?” If the answer is no, you’ve got some work to do.
Let’s say you’ve got multiple suspects in your murder mystery. One is the proverbial creepy next-door neighbor who someone reports having heard arguing with the victim the night of the crime (of course, he’ll later be revealed to be innocent). This is a typical false clue to plant; readers have seen it before. So, why not expand the clue to give it some deeper roots—say, by making the argument part of a long-running feud, one that’s now taken up by the victim’s family members who’ve shown up for the funeral? Suddenly this isn’t an isolated clue, but a part of the story.

You might also further consider the neighbor character himself. What if he is revealed to have been the victim’s first husband? Did he kill her out of jealousy? Or did he rent the house next door so that he could protect her because he loved her so truly? Characterizations like this can turn an ordinary red herring into a satisfying subplot.


Elizabeth Sims said...

Hi Rita! Just saw this. Actually that piece was originally an article in the May/June ed. of Writer's Digest, titled, "Write This, Not That". Then I think it got put up on one of the WD blogs later. Anyway, I'm so glad you're enjoying it! Thanks for the mention, and best wishes on your writing.

Elizabeth Sims said...

Forgot to mention my actual blog, which is

Romance Reviews

The Romance Reviews

Manic Readers

Manic Readers

She Writes

Historical Fiction Books

Readers and Writers of Distinctive Fiction