The Author Chronicles gives a warm October welcome and thanks to Jon McGoran, our fourth Mystery Month author guest, who comments on what makes mysteries different from other novels and the balancing of story elements that makes a mystery novel shine.
To enter the contest to win a signed copy of his book Blood Poison, written under the pen name D. H. Dublin simply leave a comment at the end of the post – just saying ‘hi’ is fine.
MAKING YOUR MYSTERY STORY SHINE
by Jon McGoran
Some writers like to say that character is everything. I hate that. It reminds me of some parties I’ve been to: a bunch of characters standing around not saying or doing anything. It’s boring. Character may be the most important aspect of a story, but setting and plot must be present as well, and must be executed just as masterfully as character in order for a story to shine.
Some writers also like to say that, at heart, all novels are mysteries, because even if the story is not about a murder or a heist, every novel has some type of mystery at its core. True, in a way, but mystery novels are different. The mystery at the center of a mystery novel usually is a murder or a heist, and it must be stark, compelling and real. But mystery novels are different in another way as well. One reason readers love mysteries is that, in addition to the plot and setting and characters, there is the intellectual challenge of solving a puzzle. And there is an implicit compact between the reader and the mystery writer that the puzzle is solvable, that all the information needed to solve the mystery is present on the pages of the book. It doesn’t have to be easy — in fact it shouldn’t be easy — but it has to be possible.
So, in addition to plot structure and character arc, mysteries must have an added framework that defines how and when this information — the clues — are delivered. A good mystery writer knows exactly what he wants the reader to know or have the opportunity to know at any given point in the book. The timing of how this information is revealed can have a huge impact on the pacing of the book. One need only look at the conclusion of a classic drawing room mystery, where the protagonist pieces together the solution in a scene that, in some ways, is not too dissimilar from the boring parties I mentioned earlier. But the rapid-fire stream of revelation, deduction and analysis can keep readers on the edge of their seats, with all the excitement of any action sequence.
So, how do you plan out how to put down your clues? As with so many nuts-and-bolts writing questions, I find my answer in outlines. I outline everything I write, even if it is just making a rough sketch for a short story. An outline is an enormously useful tool for organizing any writing project, whatever the genre. But for mysteries, I find it an absolute necessity. Planning out how that information is discovered and revealed, and weaving those revelations organically into the plot, would be almost impossible without a serious outline. This is especially true for forensic mysteries, where the information must not only be discovered, it must be studied and interpreted (as opposed to a P.I. novel, where your protagonist can just go bust a few heads to get the info you need), but it is true for any mystery.
To be sure, not everyone agrees with this. I was on a panel once with a fellow mystery writer who said that she had completed 85,000 words of her latest mystery before she knew who had done it. Didn’t bother her a bit. I almost got sick on the dais just thinking about it. That’s an extreme example, but many writers say they don’t outline, and I can see the appeal of letting characters reveal themselves as you write them, the excitement of exploring undiscovered territory the same way your readers will. But in my mind, that’s nothing compared to the horror of finishing a ninety thousand-word manuscript and realizing that you didn’t foreshadow the ending or layer in clues, that you didn’t give the reader a fair shot at solving the mystery because you didn’t know the solution yourself, and that you now have to go back and rewrite eighty-five thousand words of it.
Writing as D. H. Dublin, Jon McGoran is the author of the forensic crime thrillers BODY TRACE, BLOOD POISON, and FREEZER BURN, from Penguin Books. He is also the author of several short stories and is currently working on a stand-alone thriller. As Jon McGoran, his fiction has appeared in several anthologies, including LIAR, LIAR, written by the members of the Philadelphia Liars Club, and the upcoming ZOMBIES VERSUS ROBOTS anthology from IDW. A member of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and the Philadelphia Liars Club, McGoran is also communications director at Weavers Way Co-op and editor of The Shuttle, a monthly newspaper in Northwest Philadelphia.
Jon says of his short stories: “As a kid, I got a huge kick out of G. I. Joe, but I was the youngest child, so they were pretty battle-scarred by the time they got to me. I enjoyed writing ‘Unfriendly Fire’ because I got to pit state-of-the-art weapons against ancient ones, but also because I finally got to spend some time with Joes that were still intact, which was a lot of fun. ‘The Gun Show’ allowed me to indulge both my fascination with military history and my love of GI Joe (I owned the original 12 Joe when it was first released in 1964, when I was five). The story hinged on some pretty arcane weapons technologies, but the real fun was connecting the characters to genuine episodes in American military history.”