Monday, June 30, 2014


When you start your mystery, do you know who did it, and how do you avoid signaling it to the reader?

This is an interesting pair of questions because it’s both easy to answer and almost impossible to explain in a way others can use as a guide. Every writer develops a rhythm for telling stories, and at least half of us (the “pantsers” – seat of the pants writers) like to improvise as we go along to keep our writing fresh. I start with a protagonist, a victim, a killer and the core reason why the murder happened. I have a setting, a cast of characters, and a sense of the time of year (for some reason, that’s vital to me). That gives me a direction to start off in.

What invariably happens is that the characters make decisions that only make sense as the plot unfolds and the details emerge. A character I thought was only useful in passing leaps into the action. The weather causes a problem for my protagonist and before I know it, someone else is in danger. The killer’s actions back him into a corner I hadn’t anticipated, and what does he do? He kills again – news to me!

If this sounds helter-skelter and not something you’d be comfortable with, know there are an equal number of writers who outline, write chapter summaries, animate every character fully before they even start writing the actual manuscript. Works for them, and might for you. But I’m one of those who likes being on the edge of her seat, who thrives on the excitement of not knowing what the hell happens next until it does. Obviously, these turns and twists aren’t random. My subconscious has been building the story all along, but I was too busy putting words on paper to stop and take note. And at times these serendipitous moments turn out to be dead ends or false trails and, as much fun as they were, they have to be axed and I have to backtrack to solid ground.

The second question is one I think most of us struggle with. We know who did it and every clue seems to scream out, as if we wrote it in ALL CAPS so the reader wouldn’t miss it. Beta readers help here, as does one read in which you seek out and test every red herring and real clue to see how well they’re scattered, flaunted or hidden. I think it was Rhys Bowen who said you hide it in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a paragraph and no one will find it. Given her great success and thousands of ardent fans, I’m guessing that’s good advice.


Dana King said...

Good advice. I'm an outliner, so I know who did it when I begin writing. What I don't know is how it's going to be revealed, as my outlines are only one or two sentence descriptions of what has to happen in each scene. Most often, I find little opportunities present themselves in an otherwise innocuous conversation that can be show to have great significance later.

Barry Knister said...

The problems you discuss are part of the reason I stopped thinking of myself as a mystery writer, and am now a writer of suspense novels. In suspense, the questions isn't "whodonnit," but "what will the catastrophe I know is coming look like?"

RJ Harlick said...

Susan, like you I am a pantser and also thrive on heading into the great unknown of the storyline. Good post.

Catriona McPherson said...

Great post, Susan. I'm a pantser too and wouldn't give up the exhilaration even if it meant escaping the drudgery of the clean-up!

Susan C Shea said...

Dana, sounds as though you have a system that works, and that's the goal!

Barry, LOL - that's one way to skin a cat. And you still have room for some surprises.

Thanks, RJ and Catriona. I take heart because if two such accomplished authors can make it work, there's hope for me.

Kelli Stanley said...

Great post, Susan! PI novels are more concerned with character than the puzzle, so I typically outline a bit but leave plenty of room for surprises ... and am surprised on a regular basis! :)

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I go back and forth between outlining and pantsing in a completely insane way.

I usually know some stuff, get surprised by other stuff, and try to hide things to make them fun for the reader.

It's all about the rewrites for me.

Art Taylor said...

Enjoyed this, Susan—and does seem like the characters and events that surprise you while you're writing are also the ones that are guaranteed surprise the reader too. Same approach I take in my stories!