Four Keys to writing better mysteries and thrillers

I have written a lot of fiction over the years. My greatest improvement came when I realized the power behind these fiction Truths when writing Mysteries and Thrillers. I want to pass them along to any would-be authors so they don’t make the same mistakes I made. As a college professor for twenty-five years, passing along information is now part of my genetic make-up.

Keep the Conflict Going.

At first glance, this may sound obvious. However, when understood at the deeper levels to which I refer, it becomes clearer to a writing craft-person. After all, writing is a craft. Mistakes and risks are part of this game, as in any real craft, whether it’s mental or physical.

As an author, I must picture the conflict in all that I build. Whether it’s the setting, the dialogue between my characters, or the actions of those characters (plotting), I must see how I can improve the conflict at every juncture. Why? Because I was a reader before I was a writer. As a writer, I must create what I enjoyed most while I read. Simple to state, but much more difficult to put into practice.

I must be honest with you at this point. Some writers learn this part of the craft early because they have an innate “talent.” If you are not a natural, then you must learn this skill by experimenting with many stories, and then with many novels. It requires a unique vision, and I can give an example from the contents of each of the four fiction elements mentioned above, but I can never give this overall “vision” to you. Only God can. If you don’t believe in a Higher Power, then only Fate can. If you don’t believe in Fate, then I can’t say anything. You must be a Nihilist.

Example 1: Setting.

Say your scene is set inside a jail cell. You are meeting the client. If there are no problems with this being a prison, you must create these problems. Believe it or not, simply having it take place inside a jail is not enough conflict. Why? Because readers have read about jails many times, and they want something extra added to spice it up beyond a stereotypical jailhouse setting.

So, I make my client a woman. She is not Caucasian, even though her married name is Fulbright. She is Chinese. It is 1887, in a jail outside San Francisco called Ingleside. She is a midwife and an abortionist who works in Chinatown. One of her clients died, and, since abortion is illegal in 1887, she has been arrested and charged with manslaughter.

To increase the conflict at the jail, I make the Superintendent a Mexican-American who is prejudiced against the Chinese, as a race, because, as a Catholic, he is against abortion and birth control. More conflict is added to the the scene when I place the prisoner in steel shackles when her attorney arrives. The cell is also stifling and hot. Insects buzz and rats scurry. So, you get the idea?

I recommend that you do not create detailed outlines. I don’t use any, but it may be best to have a general outline when you first begin crafting scenes. The reason I don’t use outlines (called “pantsing”) is because I want to be able to add stuff as I go to increase the conflict.

Example 2: Dialogue

Speech is one of the easiest ways to increase the conflict between your characters if you do it properly. Let’s take the jail cell scene. The lawyer, whose name is Laura de Force Gordon, is furious about her client being in shackles. Does she blow-up and shout down the guards? Does she ask to file a complaint? What she says at this point is especially important. My lawyer is very intelligent. She uses sarcasm and innuendo to increase the conflict and yet get her way.

I’ve made the Sergeant-at-Arms of the jail an extremely portly gentleman who is Mexican-American. His name is Sergeant Robles. Like his boss, the Superintendent, he is also prejudiced.

She says to the sergeant, “Tell me, Sergeant. Do they make these shackles in your size?”

The conflict is increased without using a more bombastic and cliched approach. He is criticized on a personal level, so he can see she is angry, but she can always increase the sarcasm until he is truly able to see what is wrong with the picture.

Always craft dialogue with argument in mind. If it’s not directly controversial, it still must be inferred, as in this scene.

Example 3: Characters

As you can see, I have already created characters who are in conflict because of who they are. Of course, with the main characters, you want their purpose in the mystery and/or thriller to be their motivation. In this case, the attorney, Laura Gordon, wants to protect her client and, eventually, argue her out of the criminal manslaughter charge. Therefore (very important point here), all the minor characters you create along the way must be there to conflict with your main character(s)’ main purpose. Now do you see why I’m a “pantser”? I must be free to slot-in any minor (or even major) character of my choosing to fit the scene!

Thus, I create a Mexican-American Superintendent who is Catholic and prejudiced, as is his Sergeant-at-Arms. Their purposes are counter-opposed to my attorney’s purpose. Even their inner belief systems are in conflict. You must do this with each and every scene you construct, or you won’t maintain the page-turning conflict that you need for your reader to stay with you.

Example 4: Plotting

In a mystery and/or a thriller, your action must be moving toward an end of some kind. In a literary-type novel, that conclusion must come full-circle, in that it seems to the reader that everything has been answered to his/her satisfaction–both on a surface (active) level and at an (inner) psychological level.

Since most mysteries and thrillers don’t aspire to “high art,” you can create plots that simply escalate the conflict until a grand climax or denouement is reached. In a mystery, that’s a bit trickier, in that the reader has been attempting to solve the logical puzzle (mystery) along with your main sleuthing characters. So, the eventual solutions must be explained in your concluding chapter, through dialogue and action.

In thrillers, the main plotting points are created to rescue whomever is in peril and go through many conflicting hazards in order to successfully achieve that rescue. A book like Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, is an excellent resource to study for superb plotting skills, which dynamically and slowly escalate the conflict, and twist the events, for even more conflict just as nicely.

So, when you remain a “pantser,” in my humble opinion, once you’ve achieved the overall “conflict author’s vision,” you can accomplish your tasks more easily. You can thus craft each of the four crucial items, with some amount of flair and gusto. And, you won’t get bored! Frankly, I can usually spot a novel that’s been too carefully plotted, characterized, and outlined, a mile away. Why? Because I usually lose interest by the second chapter! How about you?

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