What All Writers Can Learn From Mysteries

No one gets murdered in my new novel. It’s a mainstream story, with plenty of action and fun. Just no killing. My first published novel, The Fiction Class, was a mainstream novel, so I’m not unfamiliar with the territory. But one thing that has surprised me as I’ve been working on this new one is how helpful my years of mystery-writing have been. Whether you’re planning to kill off characters or not, the fact is that all writers can learn so much from mystery novels.

A mysterious tree. For inspiration.

1. The importance of suspense

One of my favorite moments in Maggie Dove is when my protagonist finds herself alone in a park and hears a noise behind her. Is it an animal? Someone dangerous? The killer? It’s a frightening moment, and it certainly taps into my own fears about being in deserted places. But mainstream novels need suspense too. Your character is waiting to hear the results of a biopsy. Your character has asked someone on a date and is waiting to see if he’ll return her call. Your character is waiting to find out if her plane to London is going to take off. Suspense pulls your reader into the novel. Readers share your character’s anxiety. We bond with her. Find those moments in your novel where you can draw out the time, make the reader hold her breath. Feel suspense.

2. High stakes

With rare exceptions, mysteries are about life and death situations. A sleuth must figure out what drove another person to take a life. That’s about as high stakes as it can get, and that’s why people love mysteries. What can you do to raise the stakes in your own novel? Think about your character. What matters to her? Life, certainly. But it could also be children. Many people are willing to risk everything for their children. Reputation? Love? Money? Make sure your protagonist is passionate about something, because once you know what it is, you can try to take it away from her. What will she do to protect it? Now that’s drama.

3. Secrets

Characters in mysteries have secrets. Terrible secrets. Murderous secrets. But so do most people, fictional or otherwise. Secrets add energy to your writing. Even if the secret is not important to the plot, it can still give the novel a jolt. For example, imagine your protagonist lusts after her dentist. She’s happily married (more or less). She wouldn’t tell anyone. But she dreams about her dentist and it embarrasses and delights her. Then, one day, she chips a tooth. She has to go to the dentist after hours and the office is empty. Nothing romantic will happen between them, (unless you want it to) and yet, knowing how she feels, the reader will tense up just a bit when the dentist says, “Now, relax and open wide.” Giving your characters secrets will add tension to your novel, and tension makes people turn the page.

What do you think? Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

You can read a longer version of this blog post in an article I wrote for The Writer.

Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove mystery series. Her stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The MWA anthology, Crime Hits Home, in which she has a story, just won an Anthony Award. She teaches novel-writing at Gotham Writers and is on the staff of the New York Write to Pitch Conference. www.susanjbreen.com

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