Curiosity is King
Readers choose mystery because they want to know what will happen next. Throughout every page—indeed from the very first—readers need a question in their minds. What’s going to happen to the character? Who is the murderer? Why is this happening? Your job as the author is to pose that question.
When you think about mysteries, you naturally think about withholding information. After all, readers are in it for the journey. You don’t want to reveal too much, too soon. However, you have to let them know enough about the characters or the situation to spark that curiosity. Make sure you get the reader emotionally invested in what happens next. Dangle questions and remember to raise new ones as you answer old ones.
Mysteries can be cozy, dark, scary, or horrifying. Often there are highly dramatic moments. Even if you are writing something spooky, remember to occasionally let in the light. Give your readers a breather with humor or a light-hearted moment. Or, if you want to stay super dark, you can use something innocuous, everyday, or otherwise “normal” to lull your reader into complacency before knocking them upside the head.
I used to watch Murder, She Wrote with my grandma. Angela Lansbury’s character is heart-warming, but the worst crimes happened in her coastal Maine community of Cabot Cove. The juxtaposition here was that this seemingly safe little town was filled with murderous criminals—you didn’t see it coming. Here, the tranquil setting is the contrast. How could crime occur in such a bucolic place?
Another option is to have a humorous crime solver. Think Columbo. (Wow, I watched too many re-runs as a kid.) Columbo seems bumbling and forgetful and easy to snow. Oh, but he’s not. When he’s got “just one more question,” we the audience know the bad guy is a goner. Your characters can contrast the seriousness of the evil deed.
Start with a Bang
If you’ve read any writing advice, you’ve surely been encouraged to always start your novel at an exciting place. It draws in readers. Never is this more important than with mystery. Begin with a proverbial bang and then keep the tension rising. Always grab the reader’s attention from the get-go.
I’ll never forget reading John Grisham’s, The Client, and getting fully drawn into that opening scene. It starts with a kid, Mark, playing outside with his brother by their trailer park when they see a big black Lincoln park along the shores of a pond. A mob lawyer, Jerome Clifford, has come to the kids’ play area to commit suicide. Before he dies, he ends up telling Mark where a murdered politician’s body is stashed and boom, these kids are drawn into a situation that is well beyond their comprehension.
Starting this way, Grisham does everything I talk about in this post. First, he begins with contrasts. Our narrator is a kid. Are kids allowed to be involved with grownup mysteries and crimes? Is Grisham going to do that? Yes. Next is the setting. It’s a normal, same old type of day for these brothers until the Lincoln shows up in their ratty neighborhood. The contrasts are everywhere. Something major is taking place on an otherwise regular old day. Here’s a mobster getting involved with kids.
Finally, this momentous opening scene sets up all the questions we the reader need to feel curiosity. What is Mark going to do with the information Jerome told him? If Jerome has a hit on him for knowing where the body is buried, will Mark also be threatened for knowing the same information? How are poor Mark and his family going to get out of this mess? This is the driving mystery of the entire novel.
If you start in the right place, draw contrasts, and get your reader to wonder about the essential questions your mystery novel will pose, you’ll write a page turner.