Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mystery Tips Part 2 by Vivian Zabel

This post I want to cover four more components needed in a good mystery: action, tension, misdirection, and dialogue. Mix these well with a well-written story, strong and believable characters, using only techniques that work for you, and a strong plot, and you should have an interesting story when completed, one that will keep readers wanting to read more.

Action must be included in a good mystery. The action can be mental and physical, but both types are needed. Mental agility is needed not only to discover clues, but also to use the clues to solve the mystery. Some kind of physical action is required to investigate crimes, to hunt criminals, to do whatever must be done by the detective (professional or amateur). Yes, in fiction a detective may be almost non-physical, such as Nero Wolfe, but someone has to move and do. Wolfe had Archie to fight and run and kiss the girls.

Tension keeps the reader on edge waiting to discover what happens. Tension is created by showing conflict: conflict between people, conflict between right and wrong, conflict between agencies, conflict between family members. Opposition may be a way to produce tension, but remember not all tension is bad. What about romantic tension? Yes, mysteries can have some romance, too. Opposition produces energy, and energy/tension is needed in a mystery.

Another way to create tension is through foreshadowing, hints about what may happen or bits of information that might or might not be important in solving the mystery. Foreshadowing is a sense of expectation colored with uncertainty.

Misdirection keeps readers guessing, adding to the tension and desire to know. Now misdirection is not false information, but something that sends the reader's mind in the wrong direction temporarily. A writer shouldn't lie to the reader, but can create a situation so that the reader lies to himself. According to Michael Kurland (The Writer,March 2007, "MISDIRECTION The mystery writer's invaluable tool and how to use it") misdirection can be either external or internal. Often what is written is misunderstood until other information is revealed. A small detail can be hidden in a conversation that becomes important later. A red herring can cause the detective (and reader) to chase in the wrong direction.

Kurland writes, "The fiction writer, like the stage magician, can use a candy coating of misdirection to disguise the pill of truth to keep the story healthy and alive."

Dialogue also helps keep a story healthy and alive. If the dialogue is "real" and moves the plot forward, it has power to the plot. Also dialogue is one way of building tension and inserting a bit of misdirection.

I hope I've helped you find a few ways to make your mysteries stronger. May you write powerful ones that will keep readers gripped from the beginning to the end.

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


Morgan Mandel said...

It's fun to go back into a manuscript when you get toward the end and then plant some foreshadowing events or clues. Sometimes you can't figure them out right away.

Morgan Mandel

Dana Fredsti said...

I didn't know there was another way to get some of those red herrings and foreshadowing events other than planting them after the fact! People who can plan everything out in advance truly amaze me...

Good post, Vivian!

Vivian Zabel said...

I sometimes add some of the twists and turns after I finish the first draft, but many of the major ones are already in my mind, planted there by the plot and the characters.

Those voices in my head become dialog in my stories and novels.

Mark said...

Michael Connelly does great foreshadowing in his books. He makes it subtle, too, so you think he's doing it just for character development and then bam!
For example, in Lost Light Harry Bosch is off the force working as a private detective driving his own car. We discover early on that he has problems with running out of gas because when he was with LAPD, he always drove department cars which had oversized gas tanks. It seems like throw off information that he could have left out until late in the story it turns out to lead to the clue that solves the case. I won't spoil it for you, but if you read the story, keep that in mind.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Good advice, Vivian. I love planting red herrings as I go along and sometimes don't know until the middle of the book who the killer actually is. :)

Vivian Zabel said...

Mark, yes, subtle foreshadowing is a talent that some authors have, and others don't or haven't developed yet. I wish I were better at it.

Jean, so far, I know who the villain is before I write the book. I just don't how he/she/it will develop. Midnight was rather complicated.

Earl Staggs said...

Excellent advice for all writers, Vivian, new or old.