Uncategorized My first guest blogger: cozy mystery writer Marni Graff
My first guest blogger: cozy mystery writer Marni Graff
March 30, 2015 0 Comments
The Art of Mystery: It’s Not Just a Puzzle
There’s a reason Agatha Christie’s mysteries are outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. Despite the differing variations within the mystery genre, they all have one thing in common that readers embrace: the solving of a puzzle.
Subgenres are categorized by the level of violence contained in them, and this ranges from the least, such as cozies and amateur sleuths like Miss Marple where the puzzle is the prime factor, to action and thrillers, which up the ante in violence and psychological suspense.
Yet all of these variations can probably be classified into three main categories:
Whodunit: where the identity of the criminal is initially unknown, and discovering that identity is the focus of the story.
Whydunit: where the criminal’s motive is the focus; sometimes their identity is revealed early in the story.
Howcatch’em: where the focus is the means by which the detective/PI/hero catches the killer, and both identity and motive may be revealed earlier.
Devices all of the subgenres will contain are:
Red herrings: a clue or piece of information intended to be misleading, or distracting from the actual question or situation. This can be suspects, physical bits of information and evidence, even misleading lines of inquiry that don’t pan out.
Plot twists: a radical change in the direction or outcome of the plot, used to keep the interest of the reader, surprising them with a revelation, new evidence, or a change in action. Some ‘twists’ are foreshadowed.
Foreshadowing: hints to readers at a possible outcome or twist, within the confinement of the narrative. Can pertain to theme, plot or ending. Can use similes, metaphors, symbolism or dialogue.
Cliffhangers: put a main character in a precarious or difficult position or dilemma, or have them confront a shocking revelation. Used often for chapter endings to push readers to continue on to the next chapter.
These are the usual conventions of crime fiction. But how does the writer distinguish between mystery and suspense and know which they are writing?
When writing true mystery, the reader should discover the mystery (puzzle) along with the protagonist. The reader expects the author to be fair. Many readers hope to figure out the puzzle before it is revealed to the protagonist.
When writing suspense fiction, the reader should know more than the protagonist. The author can show the reader things the protagonist doesn’t know, such as chapters from the antagonist’s point of view, to build suspense and the reader hopes the hero fill figure it out in time.
One caveat: both contain ‘suspenseful’ elements, which is created by increasing tension from the opening and not answering your pivotal question until the end—either whodunit, whydidit, or howcatch’em. Writers need to build on small clues, red herrings, cliffhangers, and plot twists to answer some of the minor questions while keeping the reader turning pages to get to the final big answer.
That’s it in a nutshell. But for anyone wanting to take a stab at mystery, be aware that most readers across the subgenres, from the sweetest cozy to the toughest violent action thriller want the same thing at the end: resolution that restores order. This can take the form of the killer being caught or brought to justice (and the manner in which this is accomplished varies widely), or the kidnapped child restored to its parents, or the hidden family secrets revealed, or… whatever your imagination can dream up!