Five Rules for Writing a Mystery

January 15, 2013

I am often asked for advice from young writers who want to break into the mystery genre.

There are, of course, books written on this topic.  But here are five quick rules that I believe are critical:

  1. Pay attention to logic.  Mystery fans want it to all make sense.
  2. Action isn’t as important in a book as it is in a movie, e.g. don’t spend ten pages describing a fight or a car chase.
  3. Don’t be afraid of atmosphere.  There’s a reason why Swedish mysteries are popular.
  4. Give your characters different voices.  They shouldn’t all talk like you.
  5. As Elmore Leonard said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”  How did Cary Grant get off Mount Rushmore at the end of “North by Northwest”?  We don’t know and we don’t care.
The biggest mistake of new writers is to create a detailed outline before starting.  If your story has good bones to begin with, it will tell you where to go next.