52 Pick-up 2.0, #46 – 11/17/2020
“When writing a mystery series, how do you prevent yourself from creating the same “aha!” moment when you reveal the culprit? How do you stray from the same “mystery novel” footprint? I’ve read other author’s work… and some, (cough cough… Dan Brown) you can make an educated guess in the first 60 pages as who the bad guy is, and you’d probably be right.
How do you prevent this? How do you structure your writing to make sure you’re not predictable? And how do you use different characters to prevent the story from repeating itself over such a long series?
That is a very technical question, but I’ll try and give you a straight-but-not-too-long answer… I do outlines of each book, which allow me to spot some of the problems before they arise. One of the really satisfying things about being a writer is when you accept the fact that at some point, if you’re doing your job to its fullest, the story is going to go off the rails. You always think you know what the novel is about, but there’s always that improvisational moment where the work takes on a life of its own, and if you’re lucky, it’ll be an existence very different to anything you’ve written before. It takes a certain amount of practice, but hopefully you get to the point where it not only becomes exciting but enjoyable.
It’s easy to fall into the rut of formula when there are certain mechanics involved, and those exist in the mystery genre. I think a lot of it has to do with being aware of what those are. I think there are something like 250 hardback mysteries published every month, so there’s no way to keep up with all of them but I have my favorite authors—along with the classics. You can’t bend the rules if you don’t know what the rules are; besides, why respond to something you don’t recognize? There are things you have to do to play fair with the reader, to give them an equal footing with your protagonist, but there are also ways of changing up the game—sometimes it’s a who done it, sometimes a why done it, and then even a how done it. I think one advantage is in thinking outside the box and just knowing what’s been done before.
Humor is a powerful tool in all these situations and something I employ a lot. Humor gets people thinking, but it also distracts. An awful lot of the time when I drop a clue, I do it when something funny happens—readers tend to remember the funny but not so much the clue that way.
Settling on a culprit, especially an honest one, is always tough, but I think the Latin phrase cui bono says it best—who benefits? Someone has to be motivated enough to want to kill someone and that better be a powerful motivation. Therein lies the difficulty, though, and once again the intricacies and individuality of each novel save you if you let them. Also, don’t allow your personal prejudices to have an effect in choosing antagonist. For instance, there are writers I read and when I hit a certain character type, I know they’re the culprit simply because I know the author doesn’t like them.
Repetition is always a problem, but some of the things I’ve mentioned above guard against that. Another would be in having an entourage of characters you can draw from, providing an ebb and flow that allows each novel to have a separate style and voice. The difficulty in this is that readers sometimes want all of the same characters in the same amounts and that leads to the repetition you mention.
What it finally comes down to is that you have to take chances even though a certain percentage of your readership are going to be resistant to it. A lot of readers get used to an environ and ensemble that’s comforting and they don’t want you venturing out and taking chances, but as I’ve said, it’s an important part of being a writer—a real writer and not a sausage maker.
See you on the trail,