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How to write mysteries

ADVISE From The EXPERTS

P.D. James
“With Agatha Christie ingenuity of plot was paramount – no one looked for subtlety of characterization, motivation, good writing. It was rather like a literary card trick. Today we’ve moved closer to the mainstream novel, but nevertheless we need plot.”
 

Mickey Spillane
“Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.”

Anton Chekhov
“If somebody places a gun on the mantle in the first act, it must be fired before the end of the second.”

Alfred Hitchcock
“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

Benjamin Franklin
“Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”

Joseph Hansen
“Don’t just say it’s raining – make us feel the sodden weight of a wall of water driven by winds at sixty miles an hour.”

The TEN COMMANDMENTS of PLOT DEVICES from 1928

In1928, Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox  (1888 – 1957) priest and crime writer,  created a “Ten Commandments” of plot devices that more or less codified the rules of the Fair-play whodunnit. A few of them are vastly outdated now, but still, fun to look over and appreciate in principal:

  • The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early on, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  • All supernatural solutions are ruled out.
  • No more than one secret room or passage is allowable, and must be appropriate.
  • No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  • No Chinaman must figure in the story. ( A case of unsophisticated anti-racism, given the Yellow Peril figures prevalent in dodgy crime fiction at the time.)
  • No accidents or lucky intuition must ever help the detective.
  • The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  • The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  • The detective and his sidekick must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind.
  • Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been prepared for them.

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    • Hello Mystery Lover!
      A mystery has two components; ‘what actually happened’ and ‘what appeared to have happened’. You tell the story of ‘what appeared to have happened’ and your detective or protagonist figures out ‘what actually happened’. This is often accomplished by telling the story out of chronological sequence. Know what actually happened before you start, break it down into pieces and then toss them out there for your sleuth to find and put back together.
      A mystery doesn’t have to be a murder, in fact it doesn’t even have to be a crime. A ‘whodunnit’ simply means that an unknown person performed an action – no matter if the action is a murder, a theft, or the baking of a cake. Basically you want to have your theft have the motive, the method and the opportunity (The Mystery Bones) to have committed the theft and then create the clues to prove that he had, indeed, each of those three things. You will also need to create clues to show that other people also had one or two of the Bones (motive, method or opportunity) otherwise there is nothing to solve. You can get a bit of help with the clues here.
      Put the crime, or a piece of intrigue leading up to the crime, at the beginning of the story. You want to grab the reader and have them asking questions right away. Keep the action going right up until the end. ‘Give hope. Take hope away. Give hope. Take hope away.’ Let your detective make wrong assumptions and then figure out what a clue really means at the last minute. If you enjoy writing your mystery then others will enjoy reading it.



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