Let’s say your mystery fiction manuscript has one main character: amateur detective Thomas Green. But that doesn’t mean it only has one crime-solving sleuth.
The second your story hooks a reader, it has two.
That’s a fact we first uncovered with Tuesday’s Definition of mystery fiction novels and mystery fiction manuscripts, as copied below.
Who did it? That’s the question this genre constantly poses. There’s a crime – normally a murder – and a criminal. Can the protagonist figure out who he or she is? For that matter, can the reader?
Purposely plot-focused, mystery fiction is all about the thrill of the chase, and not just for the professional or amateur detective of a main character. It’s also a heart-quickening adventure for readers, who take in all the clues right alongside the protagonist and try to figure out who did it before the book’s big reveal.
That Definition is non-negotiable when it comes to mystery fiction manuscripts. Authors are not allowed to deviate from it if they’re going to write in this genre. And the same applies to its connected Challenge below.
If you can’t meet this one, you’re going to have to find a different genre to operate within.
Leave logical leads for your readers to follow.
Ever played the board game Clue? Then you know how well-constructed mystery fiction works. You start out with a murder, and it’s your job to solve who did it with what weapon in which room based on logical leads.
Writers who work within the mystery fiction genre need to construct cases that make sense. There shouldn’t be any freak surprises at the end that leave readers scratching their heads in confusion. No matter whether they can solve the case before the big reveal, they should be able to say, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
It’s not necessarily a partnership between your main character and reader. It’s more of a friendly competition to see who can find who did it first.
So when our amateur detective Thomas Green questions the deceased victim’s recently exed-girlfriend, he’s not the only one studying her and her responses.
When she shrugs and says, “I don’t care that he’s dead. Good riddance,” the reader is right there with Green making mental notes. They’re both weighing that statement against the cast she’s wearing on her arm.
That impairment doesn’t mean she couldn’t have hired someone to do it though. She’s got the money, as evidenced by the casual wealth she’s displaying from head to toe. Nothing ostentatious, but those are quality threads she’s wearing.
So she’s a solid suspect for both Green and Green’s readers.
Yet the next chapter over, our main character has an unpleasant interaction with Detective Mueller, who’s yelling at him again to back off. “This isn’t your investigation,” he rants. “Nothing is your investigation. You’re a civilian, you idiot! Get that into your head.”
Angry though he is, Green sees it as the sign of a territorial law enforcement agent. His readers, however, are free to interpret it how they’d like. Could Detective Mueller be acting a bit shady there?
Maybe he is, and maybe he isn’t. If he is, you, the mystery fiction writer, need to offer a lot more hints than that. If he isn’t, feel free to add in just as many hints to outwit the reader. But add in correct clues about the real killer as well.
Because while your readers’ goal is to outsmart Thomas Green… Your goal as the author is to outwit readers.
Just outwit them in a purely logical, understandable, followable manner. That’s the time-honored tradition of the mystery fiction manuscript writer. Don't let it down.