Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The ABC's of Suspense and Mystery Writing

Before we start, let’s take a look at the difference between mystery and suspense. The traditional definition usually says that a mystery is when you’re trying to discover who murdered someone and suspense is when you’re trying to stop a murder from happening.

It’s a good definition, but I’d like to add a bit more for a little more clarification. I think mysteries keep the main characters in their day-to-day life while suspense thrusts the characters into a running-for-their-life scenario—if not their life, someone’s life has to be in danger.

A good mystery should have elements of suspense and vice-versa so for our purposes I’m going to focus on suspense—since that’s what I write.

A is for ACTION! ACTION!! and more ACTION!!!

Readers today don’t want to read pages of description, backstory, or about a characters everyday life. They want action and lots of it. And that needs to start on the first page but…

It doesn’t mean the action on the first page has to necessarily have anything to do with the main plot of the book. Often I start my story with the end of some other incident—catching a bad guy; a car accident; an odd phone call from a child.

 Whatever opening you choose it needs to make the reader curious about what will happen next so that they keep reading.

 In one of my books, REDEMPTION, I start the story out with an argument between twin sisters.

My opening line is: “You’re retired from the spy business. Remember!” to which the other twin responds with, “I was never a spy.”

So action doesn’t necessarily have to mean BIG action—but people need to be moving, doing something—anything! They can’t be sitting at the beach reflecting on the failures or successes of their life—unless you’re planning on having a huge shark come out of the water and chase them!
And you can’t pull a bait and switch on your readers either. You don’t get to start with a gripping action scene in the first chapter and then spend the next hundred pages giving them backstory about why it happened.

That’s not suspense. That’s just… boring!

So the action needs to continue throughout the story and it should be escalating in nature. Don’t use all the great action up front and then let the story end with a whimper. Keep raising the stakes with each incident.

Quick Review:

1.    Start the story with action.
2.    Keep the story moving forward with more action.
3.    Escalate the danger with more action.


Writers love backstory!

Readers hate backstory!

At least suspense readers, hate backstory. They don’t want to know what happened to a character fifteen years ago that makes them do what they do now.

The rule of all stories is to move the story forward. This is even more true for suspense/mystery novels. Refer back to A! Readers want action—not history.

But…as I said writers love backstory. And I’m a writer. So in my first draft and even into my second draft, I put in backstory. I want to get to know my characters—who they are, where they came from, why they do what they do. It helps me to understand the story and the characters.

Even in my first and second drafts I don’t put in pages and pages of backstory or even a paragraph at a time. I sneak it in. One thought here another there. A comment that adds to the reader’s knowledge.  A question from another character that will let the other character reveal just a bit about himself.

But as I said, I do that in my first few drafts. During the third and all subsequent drafts, I make a point to cut out as much of the backstory as I can. Some stays, but most of it gets cut.

Does it hurt? Sometimes, it does. Sometimes, I’ll sit and stare and stare at my backstory sentences for the longest time. Then I hit the delete button and reread the section. If the story still makes sense I don’t add it back in. If it creates some confusion, I’ll add it back in and let my editor decide.

Let’s take another quick look at those opening lines in REDEMPTION

“You’re retired from the spy business. Remember!” to which the other twin responds with, “I was never a spy.” Yeah, right—that’s what my brother-in-law used to try to tell me, too.

Did you pick up on the backstory? Right there in the first lines. But back story that makes you wonder—was she a spy or not a spy?

Remember—keep the story moving forward. For the most part, backstory stops the story. It doesn’t move it forward. What we writers think is crucial is usually not!

Quick Review:

1.    Readers hate backstory!
2.    Backstory should be necessary to understanding the present story.
3.    Sneak it in—a little bit at a time.
4.    Cut-cut-cut as much of the backstory as possible!


Curiosity may have killed the cat but it won’t kill your readers or make them die of boredom. No matter what genre you write, curiosity is a necessary part of creating a great story!

Your goal as a writer should be to make your reader want to read just a little bit more even though they have something else to do—like go to work or make dinner! You want them to say, “just one more page…”

So, how do you do that?

Create surprises! Don’t let your reader get bored or too comfortable. Just when they think they know what’s going to happen—mix it up. Back to REDEMPTION-again.

As I was writing the story, I was at the point of what many writers refer to as the sagging middle. Where you’re struggling to find enough to write about so that you can reach your target word count.

I was writing and I was bored. My character was in a motel room and planning on meeting her partner at a restaurant but… as I said, I was getting that bored—ho-hum feeling…so when she opened the door…I had someone knock her down.

It shocked me…and my readers! And that was the end of the chapter so, of course, my readers had to keep reading and I had to keep writing to see who knocked her down and why.

And I’m happy to say, that little surprise really got the story moving. I love when that happens—it’s what makes writing fun!

That brings us to another strategy. Each chapter should end with something that will make the reader want to know what’s going to happen. Sort of think of it as a literal hook that you place around their neck and will pull them into the next chapter.

Another technique for keeping the reader’s curiosity and interest level sparked comes from James Scott Bell. If you don’t know who that is, you should. He not only writes mystery and suspense but has awesome writing books and workshops.

Anyway, his advice is to have something in every scene that will surprise the reader. It doesn’t have to be the BIG shocker like opening the door and getting knocked down. It can be something that will bring a smile to the reader, or just a widening of the eyes.

After I finish the first draft of a book and begin editing, revising, and polishing, I go through each chapter and try to follow his advice. I’m not saying I’m successful in every scene but I do my best.

Quick review:

1.    Mix it up—keep your readers on their toes.
2.    If you the writer is bored so will your readers be.
3.    End each chapter with a hook.
4.    Add something surprising into every scene.

So…there you have my ABCs of writing suspense/mystery novels. I could keep going… D is for Danger… E is for… but, alas, no time!

Others may think Jamie Jakowski is a hero, but she knows differently.
Haunted by her past, she seeks redemption by helping others in spite of the danger to herself. However, after almost orphaning her daughter, Jamie opts to retire. When a friend needs her, Jamie agrees to one last undercover operation.
She is determined to reunite a heartbroken mother with her kidnapped son. Used to working alone, Jamie’s not happy when she’s assigned a partner. And after a failed operation and their failed romance, Enrique Rodriguez is the last person she wants to work with—ever.
To succeed, Jamie must confront her past as well as the people who want her dead.

Lillian Duncan: stories of faith mingled with murder & mayhem!
Lillian is a multi-published writer with several Amazon bestsellers, including The Christmas Stalking and Betrayed. Lillian writes the types of books she loves to read—fast-paced suspense with a touch or two of romance that demonstrates God’s love for all of us
Whether as an educator, a writer, or a speech pathologist, she believes in the power of words to transform lives, especially God’s Word.
To learn more about Lillian and her books, visit: Tiaras & Tennis Shoes is her personal blog at

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Mystery 101: Course Syllabus

Objective: Students completing this course will be able to identify at least three key elements needed to write a mystery. AND REMEMBER FOLKS...THIS IS ALL IN FUN...BUT YOU WILL LEARN!
See last week's post for glimpse of Whodunnit U by clicking HERE.

Assignments (Bookmark these for future reference)
Read “Top 10 Rules for Mystery Writing” by Ginny Wiehardt This post is a great introduction to mystery writing.
Read Dramatic Structure and Plot…or how to keep your story from circling the drain by Hallie Ephron I like this article because it gives great tips for creating a plot with rising tension and ultimate confrontation.
Taking the Mystery Out of Writing Mysteries by Dennis Palumbo This is a super post about character development. Think about your own protagonist and antagonist. The characters are every bit as important as the plot when it comes to writing a mystery.
Understanding the Essentials of Writing a Murder Mystery Don’t let the title fool you. This post is all about strategy. I have often thought that charting the storyline of a mystery can be likened to solving a maze. Hint: Start with the end. The twists and turns and dead ends are what make the story interesting.
Your assignment is to draft a short story mystery. Play with it. Have fun. Roll the idea around in your brain and let it spill out onto paper. It belongs to you. No one needs to read it except you.  But….we at Whodunnit U expect you to draft a 110 characters or less descriptor of your idea. A few examples are below.

Here are a few examples of your short story assignment:

Example 1: Would let a stranger in your house? What if he were the repairman? And what if he let himself in?

Example 2: The witness said the man had a mustache. The cowhands all have a mustache. Except one. But can he be trusted?

Example 3: Tim stared at the diamond on Jen's hand. Only one ring like it in the world. The one he buried with Susan.

Got it?…now let’s hear those crazy ideas. Leave your descriptor in the comment section below.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Whodunnit U Remains Undefeated- Orientation to this Unique University

The Silver Sleuths at Whodunnit University (WU) are holding tight to their perfect record, remaining undefeated in this, the fifth week of collegiate football.

Whodunnit University prepares writers to put together well-crafted mystery and suspense novels as well as short stories. “Anyone can attend WU for the month of October tuition free,” University President, Dr. Rebecca Waters shared at a recent press conference.

Potential students of mystery and suspense are encouraged to participate each week in the online study program hosted by Whodunnit U during the month of October.

Week one begins today. Participants are asked to name their favorite mystery or suspense character. “The university will accept characters from books, television, movies, or plays. You may also include characters from courtroom thrillers,” Waters said. “Leave the names of the character(s) you’ve chosen in the comments section below.”

One additional assignment for the week requires participants to think about an idea for a short story or novel.  “Next week we’ll be asking you to share your idea in 110 characters or less. You don’t need to give it all away. Be as general as you like for this assignment. We merely want to begin to tap into your creative side and get you thinking. We at Whodunnit University are always looking for new writing talent,” Waters shared.

Writing talent? What about football talent? How has WU managed to not lose a single game in their short history? “It’s easy,” Waters said. “We actually don’t have a team. Of course we don’t’ really have a university, either.”

Ahh…mystery solved.

However, the mythical school will offer an online course over the next three weeks for writers interested in learning more about composing their own mystery or suspense.

October 12th—You will receive your Mystery 101 course syllabus. Take time to read and study the art of writing outlined in the syllabus.

October 19th—Whodunnit U will host visiting professor, Lillian Duncan, whose latest release, Game On, is doing well in the suspense market.

October 26- Final Exam: Have fun with it. It won’t be graded. You’ve already earned your “A.”

By the end of the four weeks, you will have resources, ideas, and the nugget of an idea to develop into a novel during November…whether you participate in NaNoWriMo or not!

*To register for the course, be sure to sign up to receive email notifications of this blog, A Novel Creation. The blog is for writers in all stages of their writing career and offers new posts every Wednesday.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Taking Care of Business in this Writer's World

I generally take the last Wednesday of the month to reflect—on life, writing, or whatever strikes my fancy. Today, however,  I want to address a few business items regarding the blog. Hint: Exciting stuff happening these next two months.

Starting next week, we will engage in a four-week session aimed at setting up a mystery or suspense novel. If you have ever wanted to draft this type of book or if you’re curious to peek behind the scenes to see how writers accomplish weaving those complicated plots—those twists and turns that keep us turning the pages and checking to make sure the front door is locked—then join us on this adventure.

I call it Whodunnit University. The structure of this crash course may look a bit familiar to a few of you. I originally set up Whodunnit U for November 2014.  I loaded the posts into the blog site and hit the button to schedule them. I did this because I intended to participate in NaNoWriMo that year. As many of you know, my husband died on October 29th. I did not participate in—well, much of anything for a long time. Only a few people checked in with the “course” in writing mystery and suspense.

It is time to bring Whodunnit U back to the forefront. If you are thinking about writing for NaNoWriMo in November, these next four posts will help you outline your draft.

Last November I featured an Ohio author each week. You can check those posts out here:

This blog is, and has always been aimed at helping people new to the writing game. In keeping with that mission, this November I am thankful to have four followers preparing a post for A Novel Creation during the month. I can’t wait. I don’t know exactly how these up and coming authors will address the challenge, but I do know some of the ideas they’re kicking around.

First up will be Joshua Curran of Ohio. Joshua has identified three theme songs of his life. After reading his post, you will be challenged to seek the theme songs representing your own life. 
The following Wednesday will feature the writing of artist/author Robin Mason. Robin, a resident of South Carolina, will talk about art. The first two posts, as you can see will challenge us to stretch ourselves creatively.

The remaining writers include Nancy Hallo of Florida and Laura Wood of Nebraska. Nancy will be talking about overcoming obstacles to pursue your dream. Laura will take us along on her writing journey.

Of course, I’ve left the topic and style of presentation up to each contributor. It will be fun to see what they write. In the interim, be sure to check in next week for our first session of Whodunnit U! this is going to be fun! 

Oh and the school colors are black and white and red all over! (In case you want to dress to show your team spirit!) that red or read?