The Mystery Writer's Toolbox

This post by by Shannon Roberts & Renni Browne originally appeared on The Editorial Department on 4/21/15.

A look at what’s inside and its relevance to all genres

Questions. Motives. Clues. Red herrings. Villains. Suspense.

All of these are elements in any good mystery. And all of them should be elements in your novel—whether it be science fiction, literary fiction, family or historical drama, horror, romance, or something else entirely.

Any good story is driven by QUESTIONS, the most important being: What do the protagonists want? Why can’t they have it? Then there’s the villain—what drives your antagonist? If there’s a MacGuffin, who will find it—and how? Why did the brother do that? What is the secretary hiding? And so on.

This gets us to MOTIVE. It isn’t just for cops and crooks—it’s for every character in every story. All of your characters have (or should have) interesting motivation for what they do, and often those motives are mysterious to the reader. Wanting to figure them out or understand them is part of what keeps us reading, so you want to keep at least some of your characters’ motives hidden. Your protagonist, of course, needs to be highly motivated—and being a hero or a heroine is not a motive.

Protagonists should have a personal stake in events of the story—they or someone close to them is in danger or vanishes, something of great value to them has been lost or stolen, a horrific secret needs to be uncovered or kept secret. Such stakes most often show up in mysteries, but the principle is just as important for fiction in other genres. Make the stakes high and personal for your main character.

On to CLUES—how they work and why you need them.


Read the full post on The Mystery Writer’s Toolbox.