Mesmerizing Mysteries and How to Master Them
by Sarah Sundin
What makes a satisfying mystery? As in all novels, we need intriguing lead characters, a captivating premise, and a setting that supports the story on both a physical and emotional level. But mysteries also have a cast of suspects and an interwoven plot with suspects and investigators acting and reacting to each other. Ideally, the reader figures out the mystery around the same time as the sleuth does. Too obvious and the reader is bored. Too opaque and the reader is annoyed.
When I tackled my first mystery plotlines in the Waves of Freedom series, I found I needed new ways to develop my secondary characters and plot. As an outline-oriented plotter, I laid this all down in advance so I had a clear roadmap when writing my rough draft. But a seat-of-the-pants writer may find these methods helpful when analyzing the rough draft before editing.
Well-developed secondary characters are necessary in any novel, but in mysteries the author needs to dig even deeper. The story needs a number of suspects, both guilty and innocent, for the sleuth to investigate.
To develop the suspects, I filled out character charts—a shortened version of the questionnaire I use for heroes and heroines, with some additional specialized questions.
To understand each person, I filled out information about his appearance, family, upbringing, education, employment, morals, personality, strengths, and weaknesses. I want to know what makes him tick.
Next, I examined why the character is qualified to be a suspect. How is he clever, resourceful, knowledgeable, or skilled? What does he bring to the table in the story?
What is his driving passion? Does she want something badly enough to break the law to get it? Does he love someone so obsessively that he’ll do anything to help—or have—this person? Along these lines, what is her greatest fear and what will she do to make sure it doesn’t come to pass? What is his greatest secret and what will he do to keep it in the dark?
How does she act suspicious? If she’s guilty, how is she concealing her actions? If he’s innocent, how does it look as if he’s concealing something? Maybe he’s hiding an affair, or a surprise party, or an unrelated crime, or a secret from his past.
Each suspect needs to have the classic “motive, means, and opportunity.” Each must look as if he could and would commit the crime. But you can create “holes”—an airtight alibi or a seeming lack of connection to the victim.
Each suspect needs to look evil enough to have committed the crime. And—this is important—each needs to look innocent enough not to have committed the crime. Give each one, including the actual villain, some positive traits—kindness, humor, devotion, chivalry, courage, standing up for the downtrodden, charitable giving, excellence in his field—traits that make the sleuth and the reader write him off as a suspect.
Next, write a brief sketch of the plot from his point-of-view. What actions does he commit? How does he react to the story events, investigators, and other suspects?
Now to set your cast in motion. You might have a dozen suspects, an amateur sleuth, and a detective. They interact with each other, respond to story events and each other, and drop clues and red herrings. They lie, conceal, and deliberately mislead.
It was enough to make me pound my head on my keyboard.
Instead I made a chart.
In a table format, I set up columns for each suspect and each investigator, including my amateur sleuth heroine.
Each row is for a scene in the novel—or for the time between scenes—and I shade these in different colors. For the scenes, I fill in what each character does or says, what others say about her, or any clues that point to her.
Just as important—the rows for time between scenes. This is what happens offstage. Perhaps a hitch in chapter 10 causes the villain to change plans. Perhaps a clue in chapter 20 leads the police to search Innocent Suspect A’s apartment. Perhaps that search makes Suspect A panic and plant evidence to place Suspect B at the crime scene.
The chart format allowed me to make sure each suspect followed a natural plot arc and acted and reacted in character. I could track what my heroine learns, when she does so, and whom she suspects most at each moment.
For you seat-of-the-pants writers who discover the true villain along with your point-of-view character, this can help you backtrack and plant appropriate story elements.
Done well, your conclusion will be a logical surprise, and your readers will be delighted.
Sarah Sundin is the author of eight historical novels, including Anchor in the Storm. Her novel Through Waters Deep was named to Booklist’s “101 Best Romance Novels of the Last 10 Years,” and her novella “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in Where Treetops Glisten was a finalist for the 2015 Carol Award. A mother of three, Sarah lives in California, works on-call as a hospital pharmacist, and teaches Sunday school. She also enjoys speaking for church, community, and writers’ groups. Please visit her at http://www.sarahsundin.com.