Removing the Mystery From Mystery Writing: 13 Tricks Used by Acclaimed Novelists

Photo: Everett Collection What makes reading a good mystery so satisfying? A writer’s hard work. A complex story à la Gone Girl doesn’t just pop out of a writer’s brain fully formed on a random Tuesday. Giving readers what they crave is about structure and pacing and, ultimately, originality. In 2019, it’s also about writing characters with more depth than your archetypal male dick motivated by some dead girl who maybe, if she’s lucky, gets to have a name.

To learn more about the elements of great mystery architecture, Vulture asked eight masters of the form to anatomize their thinking, from the most conceptual level down to the technical details. None of their tips or habits are compulsory, and some even contradict one another, but together they represent craft perfected to the level of art. (Spoiler: Literal crafts are sometimes involved.) Be Your Own Audience

“When I wrote my first novel, I was just writing it for me,” says Alex Michaelides , whose debut, The Silent Patient came out in February. “Now, for my second novel, I have an agent and a really good editor. I’d be lying if I said they weren’t in my head. I think a lot about Would they like this? What would they think about this? , but it’s not helpful to focus on that stuff. You have to try and forget about it and just focus on the story.” Dead Men Should Actually Tell Tales. Dead Women, Too.

“The stories we write should give the victims in the work real standing,” says Laura Lippman , the best-selling author whose latest is The Lady in the Lake . “The biggest trap for a crime novelist to fall into is that the murders themselves are the MacGuffin, that the people who die and the circumstances in which they die aren’t that important, that you’re writing a story where the only thing that matters is what happens to the investigator. I don’t want to write crime novels in which a bunch of people die, but since my main character becomes a better person, it’s all good. I want to write a story in which people die, and their deaths matter because they were living, breathing human beings, and they’re not there anymore.” Let Your Characters Write Themselves

“It sounds insane, but I’ve heard enough writers say it that I guess we’re all collectively insane in the same way if we have fictional people making choices for us,” says Alafair Burke , author of the Ellie Hatcher series and other suspense best sellers . “My book The Wife is about a woman whose husband is accused of sexual misconduct, and she doesn’t know whether she believes him or not. When I started that book, all I knew was who she was. I knew why she didn’t want to be in the spotlight. I knew what her secrets were, and I knew that his scandal was going to drag her secrets out, but I had no […]

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