Crime Fiction: How Mystery Writers Pen a Chilling Read (Pt 2)

Writing Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

(Part 2 in the 3-part series, Crime Fiction:  How Mystery Writers Pen a Chilling Read)

Even if you aren’t writing Crime Fiction, you can learn how to write an edge-of-your-seat read by studying how Mystery writers incorporate suspense into their scenes. 

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed 3 best practices used in Mystery novels to craft the literary device known as suspense. 

In this second installment of the series, Crime Fiction:  How Mystery Writers Pen a Chilling Read, we’ll explore 3 more suspense techniques that you can incorporate when you’re writing novels for the Romance, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Thriller, Western, and Horror markets.

Show How Some Other Character Gets Axed

A popular suspense technique in Crime Fiction is to show how a minor (or major) secondary characters gets murdered.  The master Mystery writers will carefully plan a scene early in the book that shows just how devious and dangerous the killer is. 

Later in these Mystery novels, the writer will insert a scene in which the protagonist is being threatened by the killer in the same devious way. This suspense technique makes the Mystery writer's fans shiver, because they’re anticipating the worst for the hero/heroine – and they’re looking forward to seeing how the protagonist outwits his/her nefarious foe.

Give Your Secondary Characters a Secret

(Or, if you’re writing novels for the Romance market, give your hero or heroine a secret.)

Crime Fiction wouldn’t be half as interesting if the characters weren’t hiding a couple of skeletons in their closets!  Gothic Romance novels, Romantic Suspense, Thrillers, Horror, and of course, Mystery novels, all thrive on this staple for generating suspense. 

Put the reader in the viewpoint of the protagonist.  Maybe your hero or heroine is wandering innocently through the killer's Victorian mansion, opening eerie-looking doors by candlelight. Yikes!  Since your protagonist has no clue which doors (secrets) are harmless, and which are deadly, your reader is going to be thinking, "No, no, Penelope, don't open the door to the master's bedchamber . . . Argh!"

Make the Protagonist Propel the Plot Forward

From Sherlock Holmes to Richard Castle, if you study Crime Fiction protagonists, you’ll realize that the hero (or heroine) doesn’t sit around in the office, waiting for the phone to ring.  Protagonists boldly search for clues in Mystery novels!

More to the point, your protagonist has to go out and face the evil that he fears (or that he intrepidly ignores).  Mystery novels deliver these type of scenes several times throughout the story arc, and Mystery writers make sure that the conflict in each scene raises the emotional stakes for the protagonist. 

Whenever you make the protagonist propel the plot forward (searching for clues, initiating a warrant, stumbling inadvertently within earshot of two arguing henchmen, etc.), you can increase suspense by making sure that your scene includes a dangerous or life-threatening obstacle.  Force your protagonist to use his wits and his resources.  Squeeze the most suspense out of a scene by making the protagonist really, REALLY struggle – as if he might not survive the threat this time.  But of course he does (by the skin of his teeth).  Master this suspense technique, and you’ll keep your readers curling their toes.

Jumping on My Plotting Soapbox

When you’re writing novels, PLEASE don’t make your protagonist look like an idiot, because he (or she) ignores every rational warning and obvious clue and still marches into the jaws of death. Nothing turns off a reader faster than making a protagonist appear stupid, except, perhaps, making your protagonist appear cowardly.

Contrived plotting is one of my all-time pet peeves, and it CAN cost you a sale. (See my earlier post, 7 Story Plot Problems that Guarantee “No Sale” for Novels.)

Of course, some of these books do sneak by editors -- if not readers.

For example, I once read an historical Romance novel with a medieval setting that drew upon the Beauty-and-the-Beast story archetype.  In this novel, the heroine was being held against her will in the hero’s castle.  The castle was located 100 miles from London in a frigid, snow-covered wilderness.  Our intrepid (and thoroughly stupid) heroine didn’t put much thought into her escape:  she simply bolted out the gate when the guard wasn’t looking.  She took no food, no flint (to strike a fire), no horse, no weapons, and no extra clothing. 

Clearly, the author’s goal was to have the hero ride out after the heroine and save her from the cold, thereby incorporating the (overused ) Romance plot device of using his body heat to save her from death.  The problem was that the heroine’s complete lack of anticipation regarding four-legged predators, highwaymen, and freezing temperatures made her look like a moron.  In fiction parlance, we call such plotting “contrived.” 

So when you’re writing novels to sell, be sure to strike a balance between the protagonist driving the plot (by marching into the jaws of death), and the protagonist coping with external crisis that he didn’t create. 

To keep your characters likeable (or at least interesting) in such scenes, provide your characters with a compelling goal, motivation, and conflict so that any reasonable reader will find the character’s behavior believable – if not always rational.

Next week, in part 3 of the series, Crime Fiction:  How Mystery Writers Pen a Chilling Read, I’ll cover 3 more best practices for adding suspense when you’re writing novels.  (Part I can be reviewed here.)