What Writers Can Learn From Reading Mysteries

by Susan Breen

My novels are populated by small, nervous characters who spend their time agonizing over ethical decisions. None of them has yet murdered anyone. Which is why, although I love reading mysteries, I never felt the genre’s rules applied to my own writing. There are no detectives in my pages, no clues, no mystery.
Or so I thought, until one day, I found myself writing a mystery story. It literally jumped into my head as I was trying to think of a birthday present for my brother. What do you get the man who has everything? I was wondering. Then I had an insane idea. Growing up my brother and I had known, very slightly, a serial murderer (long story). What if I wrote a letter to the jail and asked the murderer to send my brother a birthday note?
From that point on, everything went fictional. I didn’t actually contact the murderer, but I did have fun imagining what might have happened if I did, and the resulting story was published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. I found the whole experience transforming. Writing a mystery taught me things I didn’t know. All writers, I realized, had something to learn from this genre.
1. How to build suspense
Every good story is a mystery in some sense. Part of why we engage with a story is because we want to find out what’s going to happen. (Part of why we write a story is because we want to find out what’s going to happen.) How will that unhappy wife react when she finds the diamond earrings under her pillow? What’s that teenager going to do when she gets an F on her poetry paper? What’s Ishmael going to do when he finds that whale?
We engage with a story because we want to find out the answers. But not too soon, or we’ll get bored. Not too late either, or we’ll get bored. We want the writer to keep us in suspense and tell us a good story. But the specifics of creating suspense can be tricky. This is where reading mysteries pays off, because mystery writers are masters of suspense. They have a whole bag of tools at their disposal, tools that the rest of us can swipe.
Clues, for example. Clues are bits of information parceled out throughout the story to help the protagonist solve the mystery. But even if you’re not writing a mystery, you can still use clues. Say you’re writing a novel about a woman who wants to heal her relationship with her mother, but what she doesn’t know is that her mother never wanted her. She tried to give her away as a baby. When the protagonist finds this out, her world will be shaken, and yet, shocking as that moment will be, it will resonate even more if we have some small idea it’s coming. You want to plant little seeds all along, so that when we get to the big moment, we feel the power of the truth. To shift gears for a moment, if you watch a person get hit by a wave, you’re surprised. But if you watch that wave rising, rising, and see the poor, oblivious person playing with a seashell, then you truly feel the power of the moment. Clues are little waves leading to the big one.
2. The importance of plot
Mysteries tend to be plot-oriented, which is to say, things happen. Often bad things. Characters are murdered. A detective is forced into action, or a civilian is enlisted into the search. He must then go out and interview people, and, at the end, trap the killer. Along the way, he’ll be in danger. There may be surprise twists.  He’ll have to be resourceful. He’ll have to be active. Reading through mysteries and looking at plot points can help you beef up your own plot.
Writer Charles Salzberg was actually drawn to the mystery genre for the very reason that he felt he was weak in plotting. He figured if he could master plotting a mystery, he could do anything (and he succeeded so well that his first mystery, Swann’s Last Song, was nominated for a Shamus Award as Best First PI Novel.) One thing Salzberg realized was that when plotting a mystery, you have to “make sure things happen and they make sense. Things have to connect.” For example, in an early version of his mystery, the crime was random. The victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But his publisher wouldn’t let him get away with that. Salzberg had to come up with a reason the crime was committed.
Creating connections is a good way to deepen your own writing. For example, say your character, Leni, decides to change jobs. Think about why that would happen.  Because her boss is mean to her? So Leni takes a job as a fashion designer. Why? Because she used to play dress up with her late mother and she thinks fashion design is beautiful. She decides to steal some designs and copy them. Why? Because Leni needs money, which she spent on taking care of her sick mother. At every step of the way, by asking why and looking at connections, you’re making your writing richer and more interesting.
3. Characters Have Secrets
Characters in mysteries are generally not who they seem to be. That sweet old lady winds up being a serial murderer. The newlywed husband’s the one who put poison in the bride’s drink. Every character in a mystery has a secret, and you can use this technique in non-mystery writing as well.
Even in our age of tweeting and Facebook, most of us have things we would rather not have everyone know. Our weight, for example, or the fact that we accidentally ran over our neighbor’s dog. We want to protect those secrets. Maybe we won’t kill to protect them, but if someone gets close to revealing them, we’d certainly try to shift the course of the conversation, walk out the door, or possibly have another drink. Secrets give even the most passive characters energy.
Imagine one of your characters is secretly in love with her dentist. You’re not writing a love story. You don’t really care about this crush; the character’s secret doesn’t matter in the scheme of things. Except she gets a tooth ache. Now you’re going to write a scene with her at the dentist’s office, and that one small scene is going to have a jolt of energy it wouldn’t have had if we didn’t know this character’s secret. Just wait until he tells her to close her eyes and relax! Multiply the energy from that one secret times all the characters in your story. If everyone has a secret, no matter how small, your writing will crackle with continuous pops of energy.
4. How to raise the stakes
Mysteries are about life and death. It doesn’t get more important than that. Someone almost always dies at the start of a mystery. My bloodthirsty preference is for lots of people to die over the course of the mystery. The point is that the protagonist is going to go up against someone insane or evil or at the least, angry. She’s going to have be resourceful and courageous, no mattered how flawed she may be in other areas of her life. (Recently I’ve read mysteries in which the protagonists are alcoholics, defrocked priests and killers; those are the good guys.) If the protagonist gets things wrong, she’ll die, or the innocent will die. So she’s got to get it right. There’s tension.
The character you’re writing may not be involved in as epic a struggle, but you can almost always make your writing better by raising the stakes. What matters to your character? What would she be willing to suffer for? To die for? Who does she love? If your answer to all these questions is, “Nothing,” then show me how she got to be that way. What experience molded her?
The more the story matters to your character, the more it will matter to your audience and that’s what we want, isn’t it? To write stories that matter, that have tension and fascinating characters and secrets, that are mysteries because they probe the mysterious heart of the human soul.
Suggested Reading
One way to get a better sense of how mysteries can help your writing is to read a bunch of them and take them apart. Outline them. Read them a few times, once for pleasure, then to see how it’s done.
Here are some good ones to start with:
Agatha Christie, The ABC Murders. No one writes a fast paced plot the way Dame Agatha does.
P.D. James, The Dark Tower. Set at a creepy nursing home on the isolated Dorset coast, this mystery is filled with so many secrets that even the location has secrets.
Charles Salzberg, Swann’s Last Song. Salzberg’s resourceful hero leads you through an entertaining plot that both challenges and explores the rules of mystery.
Jo Nesbo, The Leopard. This is a dark, dark book. (Do not read if you’re squeamish!) But he’s a master at creating suspense and surprise.
Fyodor Doestoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. At 800 pages, it’s a little long, and it’s not beach reading, but it is one of the best novels ever written, and it’s a murder mystery.

This article first appeared in The Writer magazine.