Tag Archives: mystery writing

Creating Tension in Mysteries

Mysteries are puzzles to be solved. Inherent in that puzzle is the expectation of tension created by the anticipation of a sympathetic sleuth’s ordeal and the promises made by the writer. There are a few points to be kept in mind to create tension in a mystery.

A good mystery writer incites anxiety, stress, dread, worry, speculation, fretting, and curiosity. Experiencing those emotions is what makes a story a page turner. How is this done? By creating sympathetic characters, characters to cheer for, and then throwing in mini-conflicts, obstacles, failures, and reminding us what’s at stake for the protagonist. It can be as simple as personal pride, a need not to be a failure, or as grand as a family member held as hostage. Or, if they know the plan such as a schedule, or if characters reveal an agenda or secrets and the clock is ticking on those, the reader thinks they know what to expect but something gets screwed up, or the plans happen in a manner which propels the story and tension is created.

Characters who are care and can be cared about hook the reader emotionally. When readers care, they perceive tension when information is with held because they are empathizing and sympathizing. They want answers as much as the sleuth does. They worry knowing that the murderer lurks around the corner and the protagonist is headed right for him. Or, it’s about the presumed impact, abstract consequences in which the reader’s anticipation of what could happen escalates. Danger approaches, the sleuth is in peril and tension builds as the reader worries for the sleuth. Tension , however, isn’t all about action scenes. It can also be about the promise of danger.

The promise of danger is equally if not more effective than action itself. The moments between promises, the waiting, not knowing creates tension in mysteries. The false hopes of an answer – that red herring – an answer to a promise which bore no fruit, all of these create tension. As a writer you must ask yourself what you can promise that will go wrong? The rule about promises and action is this: anticipation creates tension while action is payoff and deflates tension and reader attention. Have you ever watched a movie, a television show or read a book where the sexual tension between two characters is high? Create a situation where they consummate that tension and poof! it is gone for the reader too. That is also true of answering the big questions, solving the big pieces of the puzzle too soon.

Red herrings in mystery work because they don’t answer the big questions – they create more. The reader anticipates the conflict, the reasons for a the red herring’s actions, and the tension mounts because we really don’t know the truth, just that so much is implied. Then, we learn that the herring is red, the criminal is on the loose, the clock still ticks, and the mystery still is unresolved. It’s all part of a mystery’s story structure: creating clues that indicate one or more suspects, include red herring clues and suspects, lead the sleuth down specific paths in the maze of the investigation and eventually redirect the sleuth to the criminal. This structure is a framework for creating tension.

Tension in a mystery isn’t created by merely mentioning the crime or the criminal in the beginning, or by asking the great unresolved question in the beginning and then forgetting about it. The reader needs to be reminded, forced back to that unresolved question – what if the criminal isn’t captured? What if the lost jewels aren’t returned? What if? What if? How upsetting will it be if the sleuth loses?

Not answering questions immediately creates tension and in a mystery there are many opportunities for this. Sometimes a question needs to be answered quickly to propel a story forward. The path of the red herring was a dead and in the maze of the puzzle, so we must explore another path. Remember this rule though: If a question is answered immediately, it’s a small surprise with a small payoff. If it’s stretch out over several pages or chapters, it must have a big surprise with a big payoff. Put another way – each time a question is asked, a promise is made. Each time the stakes are raised a promise is made. Readers need you to deliver on those promises. If it’s the biggest crime of the century, then the payoff for the sleuth must be big. And, it can’t be predictable. Readers think they know what will happen, but they want to be surprised by the answer. Knowing that you will deliver on the surprise also creates tension because it leaves readers wondering what will happen next.

An effective, yet seldom talked about tool to create tension, is for the writer to know the antagonist intimately. In a mystery, the antagonist creates the inciting incident, the sleuth reacts, and then they escalate their reactions and actions. Toss in additional obstacles created by others, family, bosses, coworkers, the justice system, and we’re left wondering if our sleuth will succeed or fail.

Tension is also created when a protagonist cares about something other than just the mystery at hand – the son with the unsuitable fiancé, a homeless person, a pet, or a friend’s crisis. Any of these can conflict with and impact the sleuth’s ability to solve the greater mystery. Multiple conflicts lend themselves to a protagonist’s personal theme – we all know that patterns exist in our lives, we’re attracted to the same messes, we have a limited set of skills to approach them – choices must be made and through those decisions and actions, characters reveal themselves. More importantly, multiple conflicts lead to subplot which affects the sleuth and impacts the sleuth’s ability to solve the crime.

Sympathetic characters, a myriad of suspects, conflict both personal and professional, an antagonist who raises the stakes, promises and payoffs, and unresolved questions, these are the staples of creating tension in mysteries.

On Writing Crime Scenes

Guest post by Marta Sprout.

Crime scene

Developing crime scenes that are both intriguing and realistic is a delicate balance. Popular TV shows are notorious for depicting scenes that are dramatic, but anyone in law enforcement would call criminally stupid.

Certainly you know that DNA results don’t come back in an hour or that you can’t snap a picture of a fingerprint, and one minute later have a match and a photo of the perp. NCIS’s Abby Sciuto knows more than a fleet of forensic experts rolled into one. Horatio Caine in CSI: Miami drives a Hummer, which would make a real CSI snort her iced tea. Not only do they not make that kind of dough, they are civilians, who do not carry guns or arrest people.

Here are a few insights I learned from an active crime scene investigator on how to get it right.

Real homicide scenes are messier, smellier, and nastier than anything shown on TV. Decomp is an odor no one ever forgets. Victims often loose more than blood. (I’ll let you use your imagination on that one.) One mistake often seen on TV is that they don’t consider the amount of blood loss that would be normal for each type of injury. They might have a knife wound to the belly and show buckets of blood spatter. Not realistic. Or Hollywood might have a character with a scalp wound and show little or no blood. Scalp wounds bleed profusely.

By the way, spatter is the correct term, not splatter.

The trick for writers is to view every element of the scene from the investigator’s perspective. It helps to draw out your crime scenes in detail so that they are vividly clear in your mind. Then, when you sit down to write, you’ll have all the evidence and elements of the surroundings, which will captivate your readers. It also saves you from discovering ten chapters too late that you had a key piece of evidence in a spot that doesn’t make sense.

So, how does a crime scene investigation work? A patrol officer is normally the first person at the scene. His or her mission is to “show up, call it in, and don’t touch.” Securing the scene is the first vital step. As a writer, this is a great opportunity for conflict. Imagine the possibilities. What if the victim is a superstar? A horde of fans might show up, including thrill-seekers looking to grab evidence that they can sell as murdermobilia online. Now your officers really have their hands full.

Next your lead detective arrives. Mistakes aren’t limited to the TV scripts. Every police department has had someone who did something stupid, even though they knew better.

Let’s imagine a scenario where we have a patrol officer responding to a call about gunfire in the apartment next door to the caller. On scene, the officer finds a deceased male on the bed, calls it in, and guards the door. Perfect, until the detective shows up. He goes straight to the body, checks for an ID, and wanders through the room, searching for clues.

What’s wrong with that? Enough to give a CSI nightmares!

  • He didn’t wait for CSI, who would’ve set down access tarps that would allow for visual inspection of the body without disrupting trace evidence.
  • He didn’t see a casing on the carpet and kicked it out of place. Remember: you only get one shot at a crime scene. Once something is moved, you can’t go back. Location is just as important as the piece of evidence itself. In our scenario (taken from a real scene) the victim had been shot by an intruder standing by the closet, but because the detective kicked the casing, that vital bit of evidence’s value is now greatly diminished. That could throw-off the court case, but for writers it’s an opportunity. What if your detective is the killer? His footprints are expected to be at the scene and he can “accidentally” disrupt evidence to protect himself.
  • When touching the victim, he could have left trace evidence from his own body and clothing behind and he would’ve left fingerprints on the wallet. Gloves, booties, and Tyvek suits are used to prevent scene contamination.
  • Everyone rushes in to view the victim, but many seasoned investigators don’t because it’s too easy to be distracted by the body and miss important details. The investigator I know starts at the outer perimeter and ends at the body. In one case, she found a critical bit of evidence along the side of a house. The victim was in the kitchen.
  • Before anything is touched the entire scene is videotaped, photographed, measured, sketched, and documented in detail.

Investigators are real pros at preserving evidence and knowing which items will give them the most information. Did you know that they almost never test pubic hair? They collect it, but in reality hair that falls out usually doesn’t have the root ball needed for DNA testing.

Have you seen TV detectives using a pen to pick up a pistol by the barrel? Wouldn’t happen, folks. Not only is it an exceptionally dangerous method of holding a firearm, you risk disrupting evidence.

Now to the victim. In most cases, the medical examiner takes charge of the body. Once it’s back in the ME’s autopsy room, the full examination begins.

By the way, dental records are only good for confirming a victim’s ID. Think about it. How are you going to find the dentist, who has the records, if you aren’t fairly sure of the victim’s identity? I saw a show where they used a database to ID a victim through dental records. Nope. I promise that the dental x-rays from your last cleaning didn’t automatically go into a national database.

Research is a lot of work. Why not just make it up as you go along? Two reasons: you want your writing to be credible throughout; and you don’t want to reinforce the “CSI effect” and teach jurors at trial to have unrealistic expectations of seeing a Hollywood style show, where everything is tied up neatly. Real crimes and evidence are rarely so tidy.

I hope you find this helpful. For more information, http://www.crime-scene-investigator.net is a great resource. I went through the Citizen Police Academy and have a hands-on approach to research. If you’re interested in doing the same, check with your local police department for this program.

Best of luck with your writing. Maybe next time we can talk about Killers, Cops, and Fire Power.

 

Version 2MARTA SPROUT is an award-winning author. The Saturday Evening Post published her short story, The Latte Alliance, in their anthology “Best Short Stories of 2014 from The Great American Fiction Contest.” Her essays and articles have been published in newspapers and major magazines such as Antiques Magazine. Known for her thrillers, Marta writes full-time, assists the Corpus Christi Police Department with crime-scene, training scenarios, and enjoys kiteboarding, scuba diving, and snow skiing.

Six Great Take-aways from When Words Collide (2015)

A con is only as good as what you take away from it. When Words Collide 2015 had a fantastic line up of guests and panels to serve it’s 600 attendees. The 2015 guests included Diana Gabaldon (historical), Daniel Abraham (fantasy), C.J. Carmichael (romance), Faith Hunter/Gwen Hunter (urban fantasy/thriller) and Brandon Mull (young adult) as well as literary agents and small/medium press publishers.

Between the workshops and the panels, it was a great weekend to boost the little grey cells. Here are six things I found interesting:

1) On using pen names
Writing is about meeting reader expectations and as a writer you need to be transparent when you set those expectations. So if you use your real name when you write urban romance, it’s best if you use a different name when you write in a different genre like science fiction. Why? Because each name tells the reader what to expect. If they buy a book expecting to read a romance and it’s science fiction, you’ll have one angry fan and you don’t want that. However, each name you use doesn’t need a separate website. Your readers will accept that you have different lines under different names. Beware though, that if you’re writing for vastly different genres, like children’s picture books and erotica, not only are different names appropriate but a different website would be too!

2) Subtext provides depth and foreshadowing
The best foreshadowing is done through subtext. Done well, subtext makes future events more believable, creates mood and adds resonance. Subtext is implied, not said or told. It is the implicit undertone that reinforces an unspoken idea. This whisper campaign plants the seeds of underlying emotions, plots, and things to come in the subconscious mind and gives us deeper levels of hidden meanings within a story. Objects, symbols, actions and character traits are a few ways in which to create subtext.

3) Agents are human!
Whether you’ve got five minutes or two to make your pitch, you still need to start with pleasantries and not simply barrel into the pitch. Make sure you’ve done your research on the agent or publisher you’re pitching to so you can say what’s special about that agency or publishing house and why you think you’d be a good fit with them. Above all, be aware that it’s not just the book they’re assessing, but also if you’d make an adequate partner. The book industry is a team sport but always, the writing has to be great.

4) The business of being published
There are three main areas: Writer (product creation); Marketing (distribution, sales, promotion, platform); and Business (financial, legal, taxes). The key being successful is to know who you are as an individual and to understand how much time you want to spend on each of the three areas. For example, how much strength does your personality have to market? Understand your weaknesses and get help in those areas. Neglect any one and your business suffers BUT above all else, your product is the priority because without a good product, the rest won’t work.

5) Tricks for a successful mystery
This list was long, but here are a few of my favorites: Limit the sleuth’s options by giving him a weaknesses such as emotional, relationship, or physical impairment; tighten the pace with imposed deadlines; raise the stakes, threaten characters; allow characters to make mistakes; understand that the victim is the key catalyst for the story happens because of that person and he is the solution to the crime; readers want to solve the crime with the sleuth so have fun placing and revealing those secrets, clues and red herrings to make the investigation interesting.

6) Those critical first pages
Whether the first page uses the dialogue, narrative style or action, every good opening must contain: an event that will prove pivotal later but isn’t finished; characters in conflict; a writing style that sets the tone of the story; strong, active verbs and words; immediacy or the tension of knowing that something is about to happen; and the bait of a great opening line. In the first five pages, start an event and then don’t finish it – that creates a story within a story such as an internal conflict hinted at and an external conflict implied. Offer a thread of information or evidence to the reader and force the reader to deduce its relevance. Above all else, you will never go wrong by opening with conflict.

Check this con out at: http://www.whenwordscollide.org/

When Words Collide