Writing a Mystery

by Meredith Cole

How should you start a crime novel? A lot of writers get caught on the first sentence and first chapter of their book and have a hard time digging into the rest of their novel. It’s easy to see why. The beginning is important and you have to grab your readers right away. My advice to beginning writers everywhere is to scribble something down, write the rest of your book and come back again to the beginning and work on it later.

Okay–so your book is done, and you’re examining your first sentence, paragraph and chapter and trying to figure out what it needs to say and what needs to happen to hook your reader. What’s the secret to holding a reader’s attention, wowing an agent, and getting a wonderful offer from a publisher?

I wish I knew. But here are things that I try to make sure that my first chapter absolutely has and doesn’t have:

1) A murder. Yeah, I know. Agatha Christie could wait 60 pages to murder someone, and Dorothy Sayers could write a book where no one got murdered at all. You, on the other hand, need to get the deed done as close to the beginning as possible. Why? Because agents and editors and readers are looking at your book and trying to find out the answer to an important question: can this writer write a crime novel that holds my attention and fascinates me? You have to prove yourself fast, because there is no guarantee that they will read your amazing description of your characters’ job history in order to get to the juicy bits. Oh–and you get extra points for the murder happening on the first page.

2) Foreshadowing and suspense. Don’t make me feel like I’m reading a sweet romance or a non-fiction guide to marsupials and then–BAM–have someone jump out and kill someone. Give me that tingling tension ahead of time so I can dread the appearance of the killer before they arrive… Y’know, hook me.

3) Characters that I care about. Your characters don’t have to be Mother Theresa, but I would like to care whether they lived or died before they, um, die. Otherwise, what’s the point? So try to give your characters some traits that make them interesting rather than treating me to yet another big busted blonde stripper with a heart of gold, or fat Italian mobster who likes to torture people. Been there, done that. Give me something that doesn’t feel stereotyped.

4) Cut the backstory. Or move it to the second/third/fourth chapter. Do I really need to know that your detective wore braces in 10th grade and attended Woodrow Wilson Elementary School? Don’t put your reader to sleep reading all that background information. First, intrigue them. Then tell them more just when they want to know more. It’s not easy to pull off, so ask trusted readers if you’ve managed to pull it off. And if they tell you they’re bored, don’t get offended. Listen! And then fix it.

5) Present a puzzle/question that the book will take its sweet time answering. Here are some good questions: What happened? Why did it happen? Will it happen again? Here are some not so good questions: What the heck is going on? Who are these people? Why should I care?

6) Keep the cast of characters in check until you’re further in. Try to keep things small–two to three people if you can. It’s confusing for the reader to have to keep track of the main character plus fifty of their closest friends. They may give up if they feel like they can’t keep up with who’s who.

So that’s my list. I’m sure every writer has their own list of do’s and don’t’s. Do I follow all these rules slavishly? Um, no. But I try to break as few of them as I can. And I revise my beginning as many times as it takes so it does exactly what it needs to do: make you want to read more.

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