Friday, July 2, 2010

Guest Blogger - Dorothy Howell - Keeping in real in your mystery


            Mystery readers are smart.  They like well-crafted stories, engaging characters, and interesting settings.  Most of all, they like puzzles – solving them, that is, and that’s what puts the magic in the mystery.
            As writers it’s our job to put a whodunit together that has just enough clues, red herrings and misdirection to keep the reader interested.  We want them to engage with our sleuth, follow our clues, weed out the unimportant details, and try to solve the crime as our story unfolds.
            So it’s important that we authors give our readers the tools with which to do this.  We have to play fair.  We have to intrigue our readers without alienating them.  Here are three things to watch out for:
Coincidences.  Billions of things are happening in billions of places simultaneously in the world.  That’s life.  That, however, is not good fiction. 
Actions in a fictional universe must feel plausible to a reader.  True, readers are willing to suspend belief but that will stretch just so far.  Too far, and your reader is liable to toss your book aside and pick up another. 
If you’re relying on a coincidence to make your plot work, you should probably go back and start over. 
Withheld information.  Mystery readers are all about solving the mystery alongside the sleuth.  To do that, the author absolutely must reveal information to the reader at the same time the sleuth discovers it.  
Don’t wait until the final reveal to have your sleuth announce a crucial piece of evidence.  The reader will feel cheated – and rightly so. 
Stupid characters.  We’ve all seen those horror movies where the terrified young girl escapes the haunted house, yet for no good reason keeps running back inside.  And how about the amateur sleuth who’s confronted by the killer but won’t simply call the police?  Haven’t we all seen these and thought, “What an idiot!”
Don’t make these mistakes in your mystery.  Give readers a character to root for who will make the same sort of decisions the rest of us would make.  Or if your character simply would not act that way, be sure you’ve given the reader a very good, compelling reason why he/she wouldn’t. 
Mystery readers have high standards.  It’s our job as writers to live up to them. 

Happy reading!
Dorothy Howell


  1. Love this advice and thanks for posting it; I took notes to keep by my writing desk.


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