Crime Fiction: How Mystery Writers Pen a Chilling Read (Pt 1)

Writing Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

Crime fiction is wildly popular.  Writing novels with spine-tingling action requires Mystery writers to study the literary device known as suspense. 

Even if you aren't writing novels for the Crime Fiction market, your Romance, Fantasy, Thriller, Western, Horror and Science Fiction novels can benefit from tips on how to write suspense. 

So in Part I of this 3-Part Series, Crime Fiction:  How Mystery Writers Pen a Chilling Read, let's review three suspense techniques that master Mystery writers use to keep their readers on the edge of their seats.

Make Your Opening Chapter Drip with Evil

The reader is reading Crime Fiction, after all, because he or she loves to be spooked. The best Mystery writers don't waste page space talking about Aunt Esmeralda's new cat -- unless, of course, the cat is really a vampire in disguise.  However, master Mystery writers do make the reader worry.  To do this, Mystery writers sometimes choose to reveal the source of the plot's evil in Chapter One. 

Many Mystery writers use the device of setting the opening scene in the murderer's viewpoint. This Crime Fiction technique clearly pits the strengths of the protagonist against the antagonist.  In many Mystery novels, the writer will obscure the identity and gender of the antagonist in an effort to keep the reader guessing.   

An observation from Yours Truly:

When writing novels, it's darn hard to compose more than a few pages in which the character's gender is obscured from the reader.  (Trust me.  I’ve tried it.)  Too many entrants in Crime Fiction contests and too many writing students of my acquaintance attempt this technique, only to wind up making the prose in their Mystery novels ponderous or stilted. 

So by all means, practice the technique, but keep your genderless passages extremely short.  The idea is to make your novel writing seamless -- not to frustrate the reader.

Make Your Reader Care

In Mystery novels, suspense builds because the reader has invested emotionally in the outcome -- and suspects that the outcome won't be good. Thus, to keep your readers biting their nails, you have to threaten your protagonist.

Of course, making your protagonist appealing BEFORE he or she is threatened is the best way to connect with your readers' emotions.  If you threaten your protagonist on page one, before the reader understands what the protagonist has to lose in the story, then you’ve missed your mark. 

Gratuitous violence and gratuitous sex are not necessary to sell popular genre fiction.  “Gratuitous” in this instance refers to violence and sex for the sake of violence and sex.  In other words, the violence and sex do not develop a character, nor do they move the plot forward. 

In the Romance genre especially, I’ve read surveys in which readers vehemently object to novels where Chapter One opens with characters engaged in sexual intercourse.  In the words of one Romance reader, “I feel like a voyeur.”  In the words of another, “Who cares?”

Therefore, to make your readers care about your protagonist(s), educate yourself about any taboos that may exist in your fiction genre, and make doubly sure that you aren’t writing novels that open with one of those reader turn-offs.

Throw in a Red Herring

Readers of Mystery novels hunt for Red Herrings. They pride themselves on spotting the proverbial Wild Goose Chase before the detective does. Master Mystery writers are careful, however, to advance the plot with each new clue -- even if it's a false lead. The idea of the Red Herring is to put your protagonist (or the person the protagonist is trying to protect) in more danger.

When you're writing Mystery novels, you may not always have all these clues plotted out from the beginning. One way to overcome this handicap -- so you don't stall in your daily writing schedule -- is to let the characters write the book for you. For instance, a secondary character may reveal, while you’re spontaneously writing dialogue, that he lost a substantial amount of money in a poker game to the murder victim.  Suddenly, that secondary character can become a prime suspect in the murder (at least for a chapter or two!)

In Part 2 of Crime Fiction:  How Mystery Writers Pen a Chilling Read, I’ll cover four additional suspense techniques that will keep your readers curling their toes.