Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

5 Ways Mysteries Fail

Genre or literary, mysteries have to be psychologically true.

Every wonder why mysteries are so popular? Check your local or national bestseller list and you'll typically see the same names again and again, often of mystery authors. Whether written in page-turner genre style or with more literary intentions, the best such novels replicate a world in which the psychology of the characters feels real enough for readers to believe in them.

Duds, on the other hand, are those that you simply give up on, at most flipping to the end just to learn how the story turns out.

Useful insights into how "real" characters and worlds show up on the page (and can be developed), are the focus of a new book: Now Write! Mysteries: Suspense, Crime, Thriller, and Other Mystery Fiction Exercises from Today's Best Writers and Teachers, edited by Sherry Ellis & Laurie Lamson. It should be of interest to both readers and would-be writers of mystery, thriller, or crime novels.

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Here is why mysteries sometimes FAIL to draw real people into their fake worlds:

5 FAILS (& 5 Exercises for Writers)

1. The opening isn't compelling and the book drags until its mid-point. "A first line should scare its author by promising more than it can possibly deliver—and then it should deliver."

Exercise: Write an average-to-bad first line. Then ask yourself what's wrong with it. Keep improving it, which—at some point—will mean changing it altogether.

2. The main character is a wimp. "A wimp is someone who sits around and takes it, who reacts more than acts. Get your characters moving against the forces arrayed against him."

Exercise: Analyze your protagonist and make sure she's action-oriented and not whiny.

3. The point of view changes suddenly and confusingly. Readers have to ask, "What happened to the other voice I was hearing so consistently?"

Exercise: Write the same scene from the point of view of the victim, the murderer, and the detective.

4. There are too many skippable parts. Readers crave engagement. When they start skimming to get to the action, the characters aren't holding them.

Exercise: Choose a book by an author with whom you're not familiar and analyze it. Ask yourself: Is the story bogged down by too much description? Does the author tease his or her readers (in a good way, by not giving away too much, too soon)?

5. The characters never lie. Real people do. "Characters who never lie aren't realistic. They fail to produce as much conflict as possible. They remain flat."

Exercise: Write short scenes in which a character tells a white lie, in which he lies to another character about something trivial, in which he covers embarrassment by lying, in which he lies to get away with a crime.

Do you like mystery novels? If so, what makes you give up on one?

Copyright (2012) by Susan K. Perry

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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