If you want to be a mystery fiction writer, you’re in some luck. There’s nothing too shadowy about this genre. Not about its definition, anyway, which incidentally goes like this…
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.
Now, there are plenty of subgenres of mystery fiction. There’s historical mystery fiction, a category that includes the phenomenal Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters – a fun and fascinating romp across Egypt through the eyes of a Victorian-era Englishwoman.
There’s paranormal mystery fiction, which covers murders and other crimes committed by ghosts and ghouls and the like. And the Stephanie Plum novels can fall into both the humorous fiction and mystery fiction categories according to Amazon.
But no matter the additional details in them, a mystery is a mystery is a mystery. And so it all comes down to solving a case.
This means that, unlike with literary fiction, characters come second in the list of important features these books offer. Nobody wants to read a book with poorly developed characters. That should go without saying. But a mystery fiction writer can have the most engaging protagonist ever and the most compelling villain created.
If they’re not being driven by a riveting plot, however, they’re a wasted effort.
So get right to the down and dirty details if you’re a mystery fiction writer. Let it all hang out, and answer the question that started it all: What happened?
Readers want to know right away what case they’re meant to solve. That means that, as a mystery fiction writer, you have full permission to start out with a literary bang – a shot fired in the dark or a secluded room or an uptown mansion – with your first page or paragraph or line. Maybe something such as:
The body was cold. Not smelling yet, but there wasn’t a single sign of life left to it as it lay on the pristine ivory tiles.
“We’ve got another one.” Zadrak’s grim tone was compelling, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t catch the background details on the other end of the line. He was at the crime scene already. So was the rest of the crew.
“Why didn’t you call me right away?” I asked, not bothering to sound anything less than cranky.
“I tried. Your phone went to voicemail. Twice.”
It hit me then. Tracy. She must have turned off my phone again. “I’ll be right there.”
You could also introduce the crime at the end of the first chapter or perhaps the middle of the second. But whatever you do, don’t wait too long.
One final tip until Wednesday. This goes right back to the Definition at the beginning of this post. Since this genre is so plot-driven, the main character or characters need to be directly involved in the crime. This doesn't mean the criminal himself, herself or itself, but whoever's gathering the clues.
That way, readers can experience the thrill of the chase they’re craving as up close and personal as they can get from the safety of their sofas.
That’s a mystery fiction writer’s role: to combine intellect and intrigue into a plot full of mayhem and, quite possibly, murder… that follows certain specific nuances we’ll be discussing further in the days ahead.