Being an editor is a non-stop education. With every manuscript I read, I learn as much as I correct, suggest, or guide. After years of reading mysteries—from idea to first draft to revision to published book—I’ve learned to recognize flaws that can weaken an otherwise strong or promising draft.
A murder is an unnatural event. It throws chaos into a community. The point of solving a fictional murder is the same as a real one: to find justice for the victim, and return safety and order to the story world. If you treat your characters as you would real people in a real world murder situation, you may avoid some of these habitual boo-boos:
- Forcing the mystery. This means a writer tries too hard, too soon to cry murder. Not every death is a homicide, so a conversation such as this…Joe Character: “Did you hear what happened? Walter died last night!” Jane Character: “Was he murdered?”…forces the mystery. The natural response would be “What happened?” not a giant, presumptive leap to murder.
- Forgetting the victim. Victims run the range from total innocence to deserving their fate. Nevertheless, a character who is killed off for the sake of a story was a person before he or she was a body. Every person has a mother, and probably had family, friends, and a place in the community. It makes a story stronger to show a survivor mourning for the victim, and a character is more realistic if s/he shows empathy for the life that is lost.
- Stalling. A story begins with the world in status quo, but that view should be a brief one once the inciting event happens. Background, backstory, banter are all ways authors avoid getting down to business. Get down to business.
- Not enough suspects. How many characters have the motive, means, and opportunity to commit the crime? In the end, only one person—the murderer—proves to have all three. In the manuscript, a pool of suspects is necessary so the story doesn’t solve itself too soon. Each character in the pool needs to have at least one of the three—motive, means, opportunity—to keep the investigation hopping.
- Too many suspects. Unless you are rewriting Murder on the Orient Express, not every character need be a potential hit man. Too many suspects, each with an individual reason for the murder, can over tax the reader’s brain. A few suspects with very good reasons to kill is, usually, better than lots of people with a pretty good reason to kill.
- Ignoring community. When a person dies, the death creates a hole in a town, a family a workplace, a heart. Murders also mean stories in the newspaper, a funeral to plan, police to investigate, survivors to alert or comfort, fears to be addressed. Not every element will appear in a story, but a murder doesn’t happen in a vacuum. What is the ripple effect of the victim’s death?
- Underused settings. Cops who spend all of their time in the police station, working by phone. Amateur sleuths who park in their kitchens, trying out theories on their cats and dogs. There’s a big world out there, and a puzzle is more entertainingly solved by putting characters in a variety of places, especially if those places reveal something about the history or culture of the town, real or fictional. The same old scene, same old scene gets old…quick.
- Disappearing injuries. Our hero is hit on the head in a dark alley, or gets into a fist fight at a biker bar. The next day, voila! Not a single bruise in sight. No one can miraculously recover from a knock-down, drag-out overnight.
- Super Powers. Characters who are all skills and no weaknesses. Police officers who go days and days with no sleep, food, or bathroom breaks. Sleuths who just so happen to have read the exact article about the exact poison used to kill the gardener. A mild-mannered librarian who is a Black Belt, but karate is not once mentioned until the climax, when she’s cornered by a gang of teenage vampires.
- Cops Committing Felonies. When a retired, or ex, or former, police officer makes a call or flashes his/her old badge and claims to be “with” the local department, that’s impersonating a police officer. That’s also a felony. The same applies to cops conducting searches without warrants, beating a confession out of a witness, or warning a person of interest not to leave town. Unless you’re writing a bad cop, don’t make your fictional good cop do bad deeds.
- Coincidences. Coincidences happen in real life, but fiction requires a higher standard. If you can’t figure out how to solve a plot point without using luck or happenstance, you need to build a stronger plot, not pull the proverbial plot rabbit out of a hat.
- Blow by blow fights. Action is actiony because it is quick and decisive. A fight that goes on and on, with every blow, maneuver, plan, and punch considered and decided upon before being acted out, robs the fight of its drama. In a fight, a person doesn’t think about the next move, they just make the next move. The longer a fight lasts, the more tedious it reads.
- Loose ends. Red herrings, dead leads, false tips, twists and turns all make a mystery fun to read. In the end, however, if a line of inquiry is not resolved, that’s the work of a sloppy writer.
- Sleuths with no life. Even in the midst of a crime spree in a seaside town hosting a knitters convention, an amateur sleuth had to have a raison d’etre before the body dropped–as does the cop or PI or whoever is solving the puzzle. So: Job? Family? Health? Love life? The world doesn’t stop, the bills don’t stop coming, while he or she solves a crime.
- Stupid police. If law enforcement did their jobs perfectly, every mystery would be solved by chapter 2 and there would be no books to read. There are many reasons why a murder can’t be solved pronto: no evidence, no witnesses, compromised crime scenes, conflicting reports, delays, clever criminals, corruption, single-mindedness, over burdens. The easy way out is to portray the cops as simpletons. A better story puts valid obstacles between the police and the solution.
- Edge of the cliff confessions. It’s a standard in many mysteries that the killer confesses all. This allows the reader the satisfaction of hearing the bad guy give up the ghost. That’s okay. But the good guy holding onto the bad guy’s hand at the edge of a cliff while sirens get louder and louder from the background is not a unique or believable moment for the killer to tell his life story.
- Deux ex machina. In Latin, this means “god from the machine.” In ancient plays, a god would appear on the stage to solve the plights of the characters. In modern usage, it means employing a contrived or outlandish solution to the story problem. If you’ve killed a person to create a murder mystery, you owe it to that character to provide a logical and emotionally satisfying explanation, not a magical way out.
Have you committed any of these blunders?
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