It’s no mystery that I’m a huge fan of crime stories. As a kid I was a total Agatha Christie addict, and currently devour any new books or movies involving murder and someone trying to find the killer. This summer I enjoyed reading THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, and the hardboiled Ross MacDonald book THE CHILL.
In this genre, plot seems to be the main event, but just as important is creating an amazing main character. Hello Sherlock Holmes, king of deductive reasoning, disguises, and COCAINE ADDICT. Hello Clarice Starling, ordinary girl with a dead cop dad and a gut instinct to rival that of the most cannabalistic bad guy ever.
So what does it take to come up with a great character and mystery plot?
Here are some things to consider as you brainstorm the beginnings of your mystery novel or screenplay…
Who is your main character? What is their emotional “problem” and how will they have to face this issue in solving the crime? Can the crime somehow be reflective of or related to this character issue? Create a main character who is complex, specific and has flaws. Check out Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch in the Michael Connelly books and Rachel in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN as great examples of mystery protagonists who are firing on all cylinders.
What’s the crime? Sometimes it’s useful to actually write the pages involving the crime FIRST, this way you already know what happened and can lay in the clues more easily up front as the protagonist follows them. Start with the crime. What happened? Why did it happen? Lay out the timeline and figure out all the character motivations.
How can you get the conflict started as soon as possible in your pages? Do we start with the death? Is the hero jolted out of his or her ordinary world quickly and called to the scene? Hook your reader swiftly. It’s the crime that will grab them. Don’t lollygag around too much with setting things up. We want blood!
Why does the main character HAVE to solve the crime? What’s at stake for him or her? What will he/she lose if he/she fails to discover the truth? Setting up stakes is key to creating tension and suspense in both your plot and character.
Is there a red herring? Some clue or person that leads the main character away from the truth? Red herrings are really useful to help create twists and turns in the narrative.
How can you make the conflict in the story rise? As your hero gets deeper and deeper into following clues and solving the mystery, how can the danger increase? Is the monster activated by the hero’s search? Does the killer start to go after the hero? Is a new victim taken? As the story progresses, the stakes need to get higher. How can you jack them up?
Create a low point for your main character. Is there a moment where it seems that he or she has failed? Does the hero decide to quit the case, give up? Is someone going to die? How can you bring your protagonist into the darkness to prepare for the final twist that gives him or her one more shot to find out the truth?
Save the reveal of who the killer is until the last possible moment. Could this be the twist/discovery that after the low point, drives the hero toward the climax?
What’s your climax? How can the hero face the killer in an interesting unusual way? How can the full truth come out about why the person did what they did and what happened without having a bunch of cheesy expositional dialogue? What’s the setting? And how can the hero face his or her “emotional issue” in this scene and overcome it?
Is this a one-off mystery? Or can you create a franchise around this character? If you decide upon the latter, how will you leave the reader at the end of the book or movie wanting to be with this person for the next crime?
While it seems that plot rules the day in mysteries (and the plot definitely needs to be smart and curvy and shocking,) having a great main character is what creates a great STORY.
Take action! As you plan your mystery, ask yourself the following questions…. Who’s your main character? Why do they HAVE to solve the crime? How specifically did the crime happen? Why did it happen? How can you get the conflict started as quickly as possible in your pages? How can you make the conflict rise for your hero as he/she tries to find the killer? Is there a low point? What’s the final twist where the killer is revealed, and how can the main character have to face this person and deal with his or her own emotional issue in the climax?
Read lots of mysteries! The best ones always have a main character who is interesting, and somehow messed up. See how the most talented writers lay out their characters, twists and turns. Here are some of my favorites– Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly, Ross Macdonald, James M. Cain, James Ellroy, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, and Dashiell Hammet.
Have fun writing your mystery! And don’t forget your flashlight…
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