What Makes A Good Mystery Story Essay
Thriller writing? Mystery writing? Literary fiction? It’s all the same: Building apprehension in the minds of your readers is one of the most effective keys to engaging them early in your novel and keeping them flipping pages late into the night.
Simply put, if you don’t hook your readers, they won’t get into the story. If you don’t drive the story forward by making readers worry about your main character, they won’t have a reason to keep reading.
Think: Worry equals suspense.
The best part is, the secrets for ratcheting up the suspense are easy to implement. Here are six of the most effective.
1. Put characters that readers care about in jeopardy.
Four factors are necessary for suspense—reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger and escalating tension.
We create reader empathy by giving the character a desire, wound or internal struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathize, the closer their connection with the story will be. Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be invested when they see the character struggling to get what he most desires.
We want readers to worry about whether or not the character will get what he wants. Only when readers know what the character wants will they know what’s at stake. And only when they know what’s at stake will they be engaged in the story. To get readers more invested in your novel, make clear: 1) What your character desires (love, freedom, adventure, forgiveness, etc.); 2) what is keeping him from getting it; and 3) what terrible consequences will result if he doesn’t get it.
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Suspense builds as danger approaches. Readers experience apprehension when a character they care about is in peril. This doesn’t have to be a life-and-death situation. Depending on your genre, the threat may involve the character’s physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or relational well-being. Whatever your genre, show that something terrible is about to happen—then postpone the resolution to sustain the suspense.
We need to escalate the tension in our stories until it reaches a satisfying climax. Raise the stakes by making the danger more imminent, intimate, personal and devastating. So, if the moon explodes in Act 1, the entire galaxy better be at risk by Act 3. If tension doesn’t escalate, the suspense you’ve been developing will evaporate.
It’s like inflating a balloon—you can’t let the air out of your story; instead, you keep blowing more in, tightening the tension until it looks like the balloon is going to pop at any second.
Then blow in more.
Until the reader can hardly stand it.
Incidentally, this is one reason why adding sex scenes to your story is actually counterintuitive to building suspense. By releasing all the romantic or sexual tension you’ve been building, you let air out of the balloon. If you want to titillate, add sex; if you want to build suspense, postpone it.
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2. Include more promises and less action.
Suspense happens in the stillness of your story, in the gaps between the action sequences, in the moments between the promise of something dreadful and its arrival.
When I was writing my novel The Bishop, I began with the goal of letting the entire story span only 52 hours. I thought that by packing everything into a tight time frame I would really make the story suspenseful.
As I worked on the book, however, I realized that there was so much that needed to happen to build to the climax that if I kept to my 52-hour time frame, events would need to occur one after another so quickly that there wouldn’t be space for suspense to happen among them. Finally, I added another 24 hours to the story to create the opportunity for the promises and payoffs that would make the story suspenseful.
If readers complain that “nothing is happening” in a story, they don’t typically mean that no action is occurring, but rather that no promises are being made.
Contrary to what you may have heard, the problem of readers being bored isn’t solved by adding action but instead by adding apprehension. Suspense is anticipation; action is payoff. You don’t increase suspense by “making things happen,” but by promising that they will. Instead of asking, “What needs to happen?” ask, “What can I promise will go wrong?”
Stories are much more than reports of events. Stories are about transformations. We have to show readers where things are going—what situation, character or relationship is going to be transformed.
Of course, depending on your genre, promises can be comedic, romantic, horrific or dramatic. For example, two lovers plan to meet in a meadow to elope. That’s a promise.
But the young man’s rival finds out and says to himself, “If I can’t have her, no one can.” Then he heads to the field and hides, waiting for them, dagger in hand.
The lovers arrive, clueless about the danger …
Milk that moment; make the most of the suspense
And then show us what happens in that meadow. In other words …
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3. Keep every promise you make.
In tandem with making promises is the obligation of keeping them. The bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff. For example, in my first novel I had the killer tell a woman whom he’d abducted, “Your death will be remembered for decades.” That’s a huge promise to readers. I’d better fulfill it by making her death memorable or terrifying. In another book I had a character tell the hero that the villain had “a twist waiting for you at the end that you would never expect.”
Another huge promise. Readers think, OK, buddy. Let’s see if you deliver.
That’s what you want.
So you’d better deliver.
A huge promise without the fulfillment isn’t suspense—it’s disappointment.
Every word in your story is a promise to the reader about the significance of that word to the story as a whole. This is where so many authors—both of suspense novels and of fiction in other genres—fumble the ball. If you spend three paragraphs describing a woman’s crimson-colored sweater, that sweater better be vital to the story. If not, you’re telling readers, “Oh, by the way, I wasted your time. Yeah, that part really wasn’t important to the story.”
Never disrespect your readers like that.
When stories falter it’s often because the writers didn’t make big enough promises, didn’t fulfill them when readers wanted them to be fulfilled, or broke promises by never fulfilling them at all.
Here’s a great way to break your promise to the reader: Start your story with a prologue, say, in which a woman is running on a beach by herself, and there are werewolves on the loose. Let’s see if you can guess what’s going to happen. Hmm … what a twist this is going to be—she gets attacked by the werewolves! Wow. What a fresh, original idea that was.
How is that a broken promise? Because it was predictable. Readers want to predict what will happen, but they want to be wrong. They’re only satisfied when the writer gives them more than they anticipate, not less.
I’m always annoyed when an author introduces a character, gives me background information on where she went to college, what she studied, her love interests, her favorite snack food and so on, and then kills her off right away or fails to give her any significant role in the story.
When readers invest their time, they want that investment to pay off.
Make big promises.
Then keep them.
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4. Let the characters tell readers their plans.
I know, this seems counterintuitive. Why would we want readers to know what’s going to happen? Doesn’t that give the ending away?
I’m not talking about revealing your secrets or letting readers know the twists that your story has in store. Instead, just show readers the agenda, and you’ll be making a promise that something will either go wrong to screw up the schedule, or that plans will fall into place in a way that propels the story (and the tension) forward.
Simply by having your characters tell readers their schedules, you create a promise that can create anticipation and build suspense:
• “I’ll see you at the 4 o’clock briefing.”
• “Let’s meet at Rialto’s for supper at 8.”
• “All right, here’s what I have lined up for the rest of the morning: Follow up on the fingerprints, track down Adrian, and then stop by the prison and have a little chat with Donnie ‘The Midnight Slayer’ Jackson.”
A story moves through action sequences to moments of reorientation when the characters process what just happened and make a decision that leads to the next scene. We do this in real life as well—we experience something moving or profound, we process it, and then we decide how to respond. Problem is, in those moments of reflection, a story can drag and the suspense can be lost. During every interlude between scenes a promise must be either made or kept.
And, if you resolve one question or plot thread (that is, you keep a promise you made earlier), introduce another twist or moral dilemma (in other words, make another promise).
When a story lags it’s almost always because of missing tension (there’s no unmet desire on the part of the characters) or not enough escalation (there’s too much repetition). To fix this, show us how deeply the character wants something but cannot get it, and escalate the story by making it even more difficult to get.
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5. Cut down on the violence.
The more violence there is, the less it will mean.
This was a problem I faced with my thriller The Knight. In the story, a killer is reenacting 10 crimes from a 13th-century manuscript that was condemned by the church. If I showed all 10 crimes, the story would have certainly included lots of gruesome violence, but the murders would have gotten boring after a while. Instead, my investigator finds out about the killings partway through the crime spree, and he has to try and stop the killer before the final grisly crime.
A murder is not suspense. An abduction with the threat of a murder is.
If you want readers to emotionally distance themselves from the story, show one murder after another, after another, after another; but if you want to build tension, cut down on the violence and increase the readers’ apprehension about a future violent act.
The scariest stories often contain very little violence.
And, of course, different genre elements dictate different means of suspense. In a mystery you might find out that a person was beheaded. This occurs before the narrative begins, so the focus of the story is on solving the crime. If you’re writing a horror story, you’ll show the beheading itself—in all of its gory detail. If you’re writing suspense, the characters in the story will find out that someone is going to be beheaded, and they must find a way to stop it.
Reader expectations, and the depth and breadth of what is at stake in the story, will determine the amount of mystery, horror or suspense you’ll want to include. Nearly all genres include some scenes with them. As a writer, it’s vital that you become aware of how you shape those sequences to create the desired effect on your reader—curiosity, dread or apprehension (see the chart on this page).
Also, remember that valuing human life increases suspense. Because readers only feel suspense when they care about what happens to a character, we want to heighten their concern by heightening the impact of the tragedy. Show how valuable life is. The more murders your story contains, the more life will seem cheap, and if it’s cheap, readers don’t need to be concerned if it’s lost.
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6. Be one step ahead of your readers.
When I write my novels I’m constantly asking myself what readers are hoping for, wondering about or questioning at each point in the story. Our job as writers is to give them what they want, when they want it—or, to add a twist so that we give them more than they ever bargained for.
Here are some ways to do that to amp up the suspense:
→ As you develop your story, appeal to readers’ fears and phobias. (Phobias are irrational fears, so to be afraid of a cobra is not a phobia, but to be afraid of all snakes is.) Most people are afraid of helplessness in the face of danger. Many are afraid of needles, the dark, drowning, heights and so on. Think of the things that frighten you most, and you can be sure many of your readers will fear them as well.
→ Make sure you describe the setting of your story’s climax before you reach that part of the story. In other words, let someone visit it earlier and foreshadow everything you’ll need for readers to picture the scene when the climax arrives. Otherwise you’ll end up stalling out the story to describe the setting, when you should be pushing through to the climax.
→ Countdowns and deadlines can be helpful, but can work against you if they don’t feed the story’s escalation. For example, having every chapter of your book start one hour closer to the climax is a gimmick that gets old after a while because it’s repetitious and predictable—two things that kill escalation. Instead, start your countdown in the middle of the book. To escalate a countdown, shorten the time available to solve the problem.
→ As you build toward the climax, isolate your main character. Remove his tools, escape routes and support system (buddies, mentors, helpers or defenders). This forces him to become self-reliant and makes it easier for you to put him at a disadvantage in his final confrontation with evil.
→ Make it personal. Don’t just have a person get abducted—let it be the main character’s son. Don’t just let New York City be in danger—let Gramma live there.
No matter what you write, good prose really is all about sharpening the suspense. Follow these six secrets, and you’ll keep your readers up way past their bedtime.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.
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In 1944 the literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote an exasperated essay in the pages of The New Yorker titled “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” Wilson, who at the time was about to go abroad to cover the Allied bombing campaign on Germany, felt that he’d outgrown the detective genre by the age of twelve, by which time he’d read through the stories of the early masters, Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. Yet everyone he knew seemed to be addicted. His wife at the time, Mary McCarthy, was in the habit of recommending her favorite detective novels to their émigré pal Vladimir Nabokov; she lent him H. F. Heard’s beekeeper whodunit “A Taste for Honey,” which the Russian author enjoyed while recovering from dental surgery. (After reading Wilson’s essay, Nabokov advised his friend not to dismiss the genre tout court until he’d tried some Dorothy L. Sayers.) Surrounded on all sides by detection connoisseurs, Wilson sounded genuinely perplexed when he wondered, “What, then, is the spell of the detective story that has been felt by T. S. Eliot and Paul Elmer More but which I seem to be unable to feel?”
That T. S. Eliot, of all people, was a devoted fan of the genre must have rankled Wilson in particular. Eliot, the author of famously difficult and formidably learned poems, whose every critical pronouncement was seized upon by dons and converted into doctrine, was an unimpeachable authority in matters of literary judgment. Wilson, indeed, had played a part in establishing Eliot’s reputation as such, having gushed, in his era-defining study “Axel’s Castle” (1931), that the poet-critic had an “infinitely sensitive apparatus for aesthetic appreciation”—a sensitivity presumably not worth squandering on something as puerile and formulaic as mysteries.
But, as scholars like David Chinitz have pointed out, Eliot’s attitude toward popular art forms was more capacious and ambivalent than he’s often given credit for. His most formally ambitious poetry retained something of the jumpy syncopations of the ragtime he’d heard growing up in St. Louis; in his later years he wanted nothing more than to have a hit on Broadway. And it so happens that, well before detective stories came into vogue among Wilson’s cohort, Eliot had become one of the genre’s most passionate and discerning readers. Among the many treasures to be found in the third volume of “The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot,” which is now out from Johns Hopkins University Press, are a number of reviews of detective novels which Eliot published, with no byline, in his literary journal The Criterion, in 1927. In them, we see not only Eliot’s passion for detective fiction but his attempts to codify the genre in the midst of some of its most momentous evolutions.
Eliot was composing his reviews in the early years of detective fiction’s Golden Age, when authors like Sayers, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr were churning out genteel whodunits featuring motley arrays of suspects and outlandish murder methods. More even than the stories of Poe or Doyle, the early work that to Eliot served as a model for the genre was “The Moonstone,” by Wilkie Collins, a sprawling melodrama about the theft and recovery of an Indian diamond, which appeared in serial installments in Charles Dickens’s All the Year Round magazine in 1868. In his introduction to the 1928 Oxford World Classics edition of the novel, Eliot called it “the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels.” (This blurb still adorns Oxford paperback editions.) The story is full of protracted plot twists and portentous cliffhangers, many of them not of particular relevance to the mystery at hand; we are told as much about the reading habits of the house-steward, a fan of “Robinson Crusoe,” and the fraught romance between the handsome Franklin Blake and the impetuous Rachel Verinder, as we are about the circumstances surrounding the heist. For Eliot, such digressions helped lend the mystery an “intangible human element.” In a review written in the January, 1927, issue of The Criterion, he claimed that all good detective fiction “tends to return and approximate to the practice of Wilkie Collins.”
A key tenet of Golden Age detection was “fair play”—the idea that an attentive reader must in theory have as good a shot at solving the mystery as the story’s detective. To establish parameters of fairness, Eliot suggests that “the character and motives of the criminal should be normal” and that “elaborate and incredible disguises” should be banned; he writes that a good detective story must not “rely either upon occult phenomena or … discoveries made by lonely scientists,” and that “elaborate and bizarre machinery is an irrelevance.” The latter rule would seem to exclude masterpieces like Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” which involves a murder carried out by a snake trained to shimmy through a heating duct, then down a bell rope whose tassel extends to the victim’s pillow. But Eliot admitted that most great works broke at least one of his rules. He in fact adored Arthur Conan Doyle, and was given to quoting long passages from the Holmes tales verbatim at parties, and to borrowing bits and ideas for his poems. (He confessed in a letter to John Hayward that the line “On the edge of a grimpen,” from “Four Quartets,” alludes to the desolate Grimpen Mire in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”)
In the June, 1927, issue of The Criterion, Eliot continued to articulate his standards, reviewing another sixteen novels and drawing fine distinctions between mysteries, chronicles of true crimes, and detective stories proper. His favorite of the bunch was “The Benson Murder Case,” by S. S. Van Dine. One of the few American writers to factor into Eliot’s analyses of detective fiction, Van Dine was the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright, an art critic, freelance journalist, and sometime editor of The Smart Set, who, after suffering a nervous breakdown, spent two years in bed reading more than two thousand detective stories, during which time he methodically distilled the genre’s formulas and began writing novels. His detective, Philo Vance, was a leisurely aesthete prone to mini-lectures on Tanagra figurines, who approached detective work, as Eliot put it admiringly, “using methods similar to those which Mr. Bernard Berenson applies to paintings.”
In 1928, Van Dine would publish his own “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” in The American Magazine; that same year, Ronald A. Knox—a Catholic priest and member of the mystery-writer’s group London Detection Club, along with Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and G. K. Chesterton—would put forth his Ten Commandments of detective fiction. It is hard to know if these authors would have been aware of Eliot’s own rules, published the year before, but many of their principles echo Eliot’s parameters of fair play: Van Dine wrote that “no willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader”; the Detection Club’s Oath, which was based on Knox’s commandments, required its members to promise that their stories would avoid making use of “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or the Act of God.” (Christie had tested the limits of fairness with the twist-ending of her 1926 novel “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” causing a stir among devotees of the genre; in 1945 Edmund Wilson, having been deluged with angry mail after his first piece was published, wrote a follow-up titled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?,” in which he deemed his experience reading a second batch of mystery novels “even more disillusioning than my experience with the first.”)
But in comparing Eliot’s reviews with the rules of these detective-fiction insiders, we can see just how idiosyncratic Eliot’s judgments could be. Where Van Dine specifies that “a detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked out character analyses”—exactly the qualities Eliot so admired in “The Moonstone”—Eliot, ever the literary historian, saw the genre as stemming from a deeper tradition of melodrama, which for him included everything from Jacobean revenge tragedies to “Bleak House.” “Those who have lived before such terms as ‘high-brow fiction,’ ‘thrillers’ and ‘detective fiction’ were invented,” Eliot wrote in an essay on Wilkie Collins and Dickens, “realize that melodrama is perennial and that the craving for it is perennial.” Good detective fiction tempered the passion and pursuit of melodrama with the “beauty of a mathematical problem”; an unsuccessful story, Eliot wrote, was one that “fails between two possible tasks … the pure intellectual pleasure of Poe and the fullness and abundance of life of Collins.” What he appreciated, in other words, was the genre’s capacity for conveying intensity of sentiment and human experience within taut formal designs—a quality that might just as soon apply to literary fiction or poetry.
It is disappointing, then, that Eliot’s reviews included no opinions on the new kind of literary detective novel that was taking shape across the ocean. At precisely the moment when Eliot was laying down his rules in The Criterion, Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective and an enthusiastic reader of “The Waste Land,” was in the process of serializing his tale of a jewel-encrusted statuette in the pages of Black Mask. Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” marked a shift in detective fiction, away from decorous country-house puzzles into a meaner, starker, bleaker kind of urban crime thriller, in which the mechanics of the crime were often less essential than the atmosphere through which the characters moved. With the advent of this “hardboiled” style, the British murder mysteries began to seem quaint and artificial. (In his 1950 essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler would deem Van Dine’s Philo Vance “probably the most asinine character in detective fiction.”) One wonders what Eliot, who built his great poem around the Grail legend, would have made of “The Maltese Falcon,” with its cosmopolite eccentrics chasing after a shadowy MacGuffin with a history going back to the Knights Templar. And one wonders what, with his more-British-than-the-British expat sensibilities, he would have made of this bold new American literature.
It’s possible, though, that Eliot’s affinity for Golden Age detective stories had only partially to do with the genre’s literary merits. During the year he wrote his mystery reviews, Eliot was undergoing a sharp turn to the right politically, and was steeped in dense works of theology in preparation for his baptism into the Anglo-Catholic church. (In a June, 1927, letter to his friend Virginia Woolf he described himself, only half-jokingly, as a “person who specializes in detective stories and ecclesiastical history.”) His conversion to a man of royalist proclivities and religious faith, after which he attended Mass every morning before heading off to work in Russell Square, was at least in part a matter of giving order to a world he saw as intolerably messy. At the end of his 1944 essay, Edmund Wilson suggested that it was no accident that the Golden Age of detection coincided with the period between the two World Wars: in a shattered civilization, there was something reassuring about the detective’s ability to link up all the broken fragments and “know just where to fix the guilt.” Such tidy solutions were to Wilson the mark of glib and simplistic genre fiction. But to Eliot, who in “The Waste Land” wrote of the fractured modern world as a “heap of broken images,” it seems possible that Golden Age detective stories offered above all a pleasing orderliness—a way of seeing ghastly disruptions restored to equilibrium with the soothing predictability of ritual.