Sunday, October 26, 2008

A few mystery writing tips by Vivian Zabel

As a lover of mysteries since I was a child, I started on Nancy Drew books and kept on reading. Now my favorite mystery authors are Tony Hillerman, Anne Perry, William Bernhardt, Stuart Woods, J. A. Jance, and Carolyn Hart.

As I've read mysteries over the years, I studied them because I wanted to be able to write them. Finally, I succeeded after many tries and much study.

A few tips I've learned include the following:

Between a good beginning and a powerful end, a well-written mystery has to keep the reader's attention through the use of foreshadowing, tension, drama, and action. The reader has to want to turn the page or go to the next chapter to find out what happens next. Only the writer can accomplish that with good writing, dialogue, believable characters and action.

Write a good story: Huh? What does that mean? That means that no matter what tips or tricks or whatevers may be in a mystery, if the story isn't well-written, with correct grammar, spelling, sentence structure, the story won't fly. Kathy Pohl (The Writer June 2007) states it's important to learn the craft, the basics, of writing. Without knowing the basics of writing, one can't write a good story.

All the wonderful ideas found in the mind can't become written stories if the creator can't write the words so that they can be enjoyed and understood by others.

Create strong, believable characters: In a mystery, the writer knows one thing about one character before writing: The killer, if there is a murder, will kill someone. Other than that one fact about the antagonist, nothing else is know about any of the characters. The writer must develop each one thoroughly so that he or she is real, rounded, and believable to the reader.

Flat, one dimensional characters cause stero-types and boring reading. Multi-dimensional characters cause readers to care about them. Even an evil killer can have traits or background that will allow the reader to see him as a person.

Don't rely on a technique: Using a technique such as outlining or storyboarding should be an aid, not a master. Outlining never worked for me, because I work out the story/plot so thoroughly in my head, that it's real before I start writing. Bestselling crime author Tony Hillerman says that outlining doesn't work for him. He tried with the first three novels he wrote and failed and felt guilt-ridden and inadequate. When he decided not to try to outline, he found success.

If outlining works for you, great, but don't become a slave to a technique.

Have a strong plot: Any story must have a plot, a storyline. A conflict is necessary, a climax, a resolution, an ending. In a mystery, there must be a crime or some other type of mystery to be solved. A good book has a major plot and at least two or three sub-plots. For example, a couple who meet as a result of the mystery and who are attracted to each other
create a sub-plot inside the main plot of solving the mystery.

So far I've written three mysteries: The Base Stealers Club, Case of the Missing Coach, and Midnight Hours. The first two are young adult and the last a mystery/suspense novel.

Want to know more?

My blogs: Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap Vivian's Mysteries
website: Vivian Gilbert Zabel


Helen Ginger said...

Good advice, Vivian. I agree with it all!

Morgan Mandel said...

For sure, what's a mystery without a dead body, or at least the possibility of one?

Vivian, all the things you mentioned are great advice.

Morgan Mandel

Dana Fredsti said...

I relate to Tony Hillerman's feelings of guilt and inadequacy when it comes to outlining. There is no one right way to write a novel.

Nice post, Vivian!

Vivian Zabel said...

Thanks, everyone. I guess my teacher persona mixed with my mystery writer one.

Hmm ... that happens a lot with me: my teacher persona jumping into the middle of whatever else I'm doing.

Mark said...


Good comments. I can't agree more. The question of outlining versus not outlining comes up a lot, but it's not an either/or. The varieties of preparation for writing include a lot of different techniques, only a few of which might be recognized as outlining.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I enjoyed your article, Vivian. I have no trouble outlining a nonfiction book, but for the life of me, I can't layout a novel in advance. I'm a seat of the pants novelist who sits down with a vague idea and I give my characters free rein. Works for me. :)

Vivian Zabel said...

Each writer must use what works for him or her. The trick is not to allow the technique take over.

Me, I'm guilty of letting the character's dictate too much sometimes. *laugh*

Thanks for allowing me to visit today.


Mark said...

Word came this morning that Tony Hillerman passed away. He was 83 and in ill health. We'll miss him greatly.

Vivian Zabel said...

I heard about Tony's death, and I'm sad to hear about it. Yes, we'll miss him.

He's been in poor health for some time, and now he's at peace. We're the ones left with holes in our lives.