How to Put Mayhem in Your Mysteries
By Leslie Caine
“Trap your main character on the ledge of a cliff, then throw rocks at him.” That excellent piece of advice was given by Barbara Steiner in her writing-for-children class that I attended twenty years ago. Perhaps I took her words so literally that my children’s fiction was the stuff of nightmares. I only sold one short-story for children—and even at that, it was for young adults. However, her advice proved to be perfect for creating mayhem in murder mysteries. HOLLY AND HOMICIDE, released from Bantam in November of 2009, is my 17th mystery.
Whenever my pace seems to be dragging—aka: the middle of the manuscript—I realize it’s time for the situation to grow truly dire; a second body hits the floor. If I feel the story has slowed to a crawl, I will heap an extra challenge on myself and make my own prime suspect be the second victim. That creates wonderful mayhem in my story arch, but also in my plotting; few things alter an ending as drastically as, with a third of the book yet to be written, having the killer turn out to be not merely innocent, but dead.
A second excellent writing tip, this one from Jack Bickham, is: “Good news for your characters is bad news for your book.” When your sleuth is trying to figure out who dunnit, what he finds instead until the very last page is mayhem. He finds unreliable witnesses, misleading clues, multiple motives from multiple characters, lies, and obfuscations. When he finally discovers the correct path to point him to the murderer, he finds that the path has placed him on the face of a cliff, and that his antagonist is fully armed with rocks.
How, then, do you choose your particular brand of mayhem? One excellent source is your own life. Whenever something terrible happens to me, I take some solace in telling myself: I can have this happen to one of my characters—and make it even worse! Some of my most embarrassing moments are plot points in my characters lives. That said, the truly horrific events in my life haven’t worked on the page; they don’t feel appropriate to fictionalize or—as in the case of when I was taken hostage in a robbery—they feel forced and, ironically, unreal. Even so, your primary job as an author is to elicit an emotional reaction on the part of your reader. The experience of holding your mother’s hand as she dies or riding in the ambulance with your child might never be a scene in your mystery, but those raw emotions that you so unwillingly endured are now invaluable tools for your storytelling.
My first mysteries were written when my children were young and I was often exhausted and overtaxed. In those days, I would get the ideas for my mysteries by finding myself short-tempered with pushy salespeople, with bureaucrats, or at endless PTA meetings; someone in real life would tick me off, and I would kill them on the page.
Perhaps the initial spark for your mystery novel is a vivid setting, a quirky neighbor, or a snippet of conversation you happened to overhear. Just remember to put your protagonist on a cliff, then throw some rocks. Voila! Mayhem!
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