Carolyn Wheat explores the twin genres of mystery and suspense novels in her insightful guide, How to Write Killer Fiction.
This book was on the resource list for one of the Odyssey Workshops I took in January (highly recommended).
It’s a great companion to one of my go-to resources, Conflict & Suspense, by James Scott Bell.
- The central problem of a mystery is not “who killed X,” but who covered up the killing of X and how did [they] succeed in creating the illusion that [they] did not kill X.
- The central question of the suspense novel is: will our hero survive. Will she prevail?
- A mystery is an intellectual puzzle with a skilled detective and multiple suspects with means, motive, and opportunity.
- A suspense story is an emotional nightmare with a struggling hero and multiple betrayals.
- A mystery is a power fantasy: the Great Detective is in control, unaffected by the powerful emotions around [them]
- Suspense is a victim fantasy: the hero is buffeted by the winds of fate--but she will prevail in the end thanks to the skills she hardly knew she possessed. In suspense, emotions are up-front and dominant.
- Every scene in the book must start from a position of wanting.
- A scene must involve some level of conflict and tension.
- Every scene must produce change [for the main character].
- The writer must know exactly what the scene goal is and convey that to the reader.
- One scene goal and one resolution of that goal per scene, no more.
- Give the scene a beginning, middle, and snappy end that doesn’t just trail off.
- Cut extraneous little words and go for straightforward sentences.
- Let go of plotlines and characters that don’t advance the book as a whole.
- Focus on what turns you on right now, no matter what you loved before [in the first draft].
- Build to a strong climax and then give that climax its full value.
- If a subplot seems unconnected to the main story, then you have two choices: connect it or lost it.
- Create full-bodied scenes with deep character development, realistic dialogue, and dead-on description
- Write narrative connectors that sparkle with wit and contain closely observed details
- And keep…hurtling toward a take-no-prisoners ending
You tell yourself you’re reading it over one more time just to make sure there’s nothing more to fix, but that isn’t true. You’re reading it over one more time because it’s so damn good. That, my friends, is “finished.”