Top 10 Rules for Mystery Writing?

Behind the door awaits the dreaded–Top Ten Rules for Mystery Writing! Look out!

I debated whether I wanted to tackle this absurd article, and then finally sighed and capitulated to myself. I can’t help but wonder if the individual who wrote these rules ever wrote, or  had a mystery  published. I can’t imagine the possiblity. The rules are so off and odd, and well, here they are, one by one.

1. In mystery writing, plot is everything.

Because readers are playing a kind of game when they read a detective novel,  plot has to come first, above everything else. Make sure each plot point is plausible, and keep the action moving. Don’t get bogged down in backstory or go off on tangents.

Plot is everything. Maybe, if you are Agatha Christie and wrote in the 1930s. Since that time, writers have found that character plays an important role in the workings of a mystery

And it won’t be, if you don’t follow rule # 4

novel, sometimes to the point where plot isn’t of interest. Is it then a mystery? Depends on how you define mystery novel, but I’d have to say yes, because there is a plot in every book, mystery or straight fiction, but the plot isn’t always the focal point. P. D. James, the celebrated novelist of slews of detective fiction, has a great dislike for the Agatha Christies of the mystery world, because so much emphasis is place on plot, and little or none on character. Yet, I don’t believe anyone can quarrel in my stating that James has written superb plots as well as deep characterizations and sense of place. ‘Don’t get bogged down in backstory.’ I’ve always heard that every thing written in a crime novel should move the plot along–but that doesn’t mean that backstory can’t do that as well. It depends on how and when the history of characters are introduced. You can’t have a book with no glimpse of character and plot history. Bogging down? Not sure what that means. Going off on tangents–I can only guess if you are discussing the method of murder, and it turns out to be bologna, don’t start writing about how good Oscar Meyer wieners are. Maybe?

2. Introduce both the detective and the culprit early on.

As the main character, your detective must obviously appear early in the book. As for the culprit, your reader will feel cheated if the antagonist  or villain, enters too late in the book to be a viable suspect in their minds.

To become a professional murderer, you need to be introduced right away, so the reader is not disappointed.

Whaaaaaat? I’m not sure how to discuss this point, it is so arbitrary and quite frankly silly. A well written novel can introduce the detective a third of the way through the book, or further along. The detective is there to sort clues and come to a conclusion, the characters within the murder situation can continue quite nicely without the detective for some time.  As for the bad guy, when is soon enough for the reader to decide the character is a viable suspect?  This is taking a lot for granted of the reader. Unless the reader is of limited intelligence, I believe they can and will be able to handle a suspect entering whenever it behooves the story for that character to enter. I’ve read many mysteries where the person ending up being responsible for the deed was barely in the book. Or if introduced early,  the importance of that character was not glowing in neon pen light. Part of a mystery is to actually have a mystery, and that means the author can play all sorts of twists and tricks on a reader–unless you are keeping within the old fashioned ‘fair play’ rules.  ‘Fair play’ means every clue as to the murderer has been laid out for the reader, every plot point dotted with an i, every suspect equally guilty, and the detective nods to the invisible reader–‘did you get it? Did you figure it out? It’s Mrs. White in the Conservatory with a Knife.’ If you’re playing  the game of Clue, this rule works.

3. Introduce the crime within the first three chapters of your mystery novel.

The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook your reader. As with any fiction, you want to do that as soon as possible.
Oh good lord. When did this ridiculous rule come into play? The push for writers to get to the murder as quickly as possible is a fairly recent development.  And to do that, many now use the trick of the prologue–the, ‘this is the murder, but it happens later in the book, but I don’t want you to get bored, so I am getting it out of the way for you, OK? Fair Enough?’

Uh oh. I think this book breaks about a zillion different rules, in particular, giving the murderer away too soon.

The crime does not have to be committed within that limited time frame—unless you can’t write to sustain a reader. And I feel, if you can’t write to sustain a reader, murdering the poor slob in the first page, won’t sustain the reader either.  But, today’s editors do demand  a quick death, from what I’ve heard from writers. I suppose only the tried and true pros such as Ruth Rendell can get away with delay. And if I remember correctly, her detective series now usually begins with the murder done. I don’t believe it was always this way  and certainly in the more psychological of her books, under her pen name, Barbara Vine, the murder may not occur until the end.

4. The crime should be sufficiently violent — preferably a murder.

For many readers, only murder really justifies the effort of reading a 300-page book while suitably testing your detective’s powers. However, also note that some types of violence are still taboo including rape, child molestation, and cruelty to animals.
To the first part, well duh!!! The second part–who claims these subjects are taboo??? Rape? You must be kidding. Child molestation? So many crime novels have this as a focal point these days, it’s not only not taboo, it’s almost expected. Again, if all this author is thinking about is puzzle mysteries from the long ago past, then sure, Miss Marple probably won’t be solving the rape and molestation of Billy, and the skinning of his cat. But if in today’s terms, a cosy or traditional mystery can and does have elements of rape, child molestation, and even the killing of pets, although the author does take their life into their hands when the snuff little Puffy. Cat lovers abound in the mystery reader world, and you don’t want to get their dander up about Fluffy’s demise.

5. The crime should be believable.

While the details of the murder — how, where, and why it’s done, as well as how the crime is discovered — are your main opportunities to introduce variety, make sure the crime is plausible. Your reader will feel cheated if the crime is not something that could really happen.
Now remember, don’t fool the reader. Make sure the villain can be discovered.

Oh my word. Believable. Ok. Without rape, and all those other nasty things that are still taboo, what would make the crime believable? You mean that a poisoned dart full of a mystic solution that in reality doesn’t exist shouldn’t be used as a murder weapon? Well, then throw out all those Golden Age Mysteries the author of this article has seemed to be referring to, because they loved nothing more than to create exotic ways to off people. Convoluted and ‘impossible’ crimes abounded. Locked room mysteries were highly popular. By this rule, those types of murders should be avoided, but at the same time all the other rules that compliment the older plot lines a writer is told to adhere to. Mixed messages? The reader will feel cheated–there she goes again, deciding for the reader. I hate to say this, but yes, reality is stranger than fiction, and some of the ways people have murdered other people are not to be believed. I guess they shouldn’t be recounted in a mystery novel for fear of disappointing the skeptical reader.

6. The detective should solve the case using only rational and scientific methods.

Consider this part of the oath written by G.K. Chesterton for the British Detective Club “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow on them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”
Oh brother. Well, that rules out all those talking pet mysteries–they certainly would qualify as either Mumbo Jumbo, or Divine Revelation. And then of course are the mysteries that depend on, ghosts. Ghosts talk to non ghosts, and help solve murders. Witches–they too are now members of the detective squad. Oh, and vampires. I bet Chesterton would have spit his tea all over his mustache if he knew about vampire detectives.

7. The culprit must be capable of committing the crime.

Your reader must believe your villain’s motivation and the villain must be capable of the crime, both physically and emotionally.
??? I can’t come up with anything to even touch this obvious point. That it’s a rule, seems redundant.

8. In mystery writing, don’t try to fool your reader.

Again, it takes the fun out. Don’t use improbable disguises, twins, accidental solutions, or supernatural solutions. The detective should not commit the crime. All clues should be revealed to the reader as the detective finds them.
Huh? Again, I say, Huh???? The whole point of a mystery is to fool the reader!! That’s why people read mysteries, to be outsmarted, out thought, out imagined, out plotted, out characterized, in other words, to be FOOLED.

Be sure to follow these 10 rules, and you will have written, just another murder.

The disappointment for a true mystery reader is when the solution is so obvious it sticks out from chapter 3.  Improbable disguises? Why not–well, the improbable part may not work, but disguises are always a handy way to escape notice. Twins are a great plot twister–even if there is nothing whatever to do with there being twins in the solution–the red herring is enough. Supernatural–well, there you have me. No, I don’t want some ghost having committed the crime, unless it takes place on another plane of existence. Other than the last one, fool me, please!

9. Do your research.

“Readers have to feel you know what you’re talking about,” says author Margaret Murphy. She has a good relationship with the police in her area, and has spent time with the police forensic team. Get all essential details right. Mystery readers will have read a lot of books like yours; regard them as a pretty savvy bunch.
Ok. This is the first one that rings true. As a rule, it also seems a given. But, I suppose there are some people who want to write who think they can pull police procedure out of an old Law and Order episode, with nary a look at recent laws in the area they intend to write about. And if the area has a sheriff, or a ranger, or a team of people, the duties and procedures they follow must be recounted in the book, because yes, we do read many many novels with crime, and can spot a fake cop every time.

10. Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit.

They’re reading to find out, or figure out, whodunit. If you answer this too early in the book, the reader will have no reason to continue reading.
My my, the conventional wisdom here is overwhelming. Has she never seen Columbo? Given the right plot, great writing, and fantastic characters, the killer can be revealed on the first page, and readers will read to the last page. Does this happen often–no, not often, but it does happen.
I suppose my problem with this list, is that there is a list of rules to begin with. If every writer adhered to any list of rules, most of the plot and character innovations of the last 60 years would never have taken place–such as Agatha Christie’s novel where the killer has been the narrator all along–that breaks Rule #8. Again, Christie’s Ten Little–fill in the blanks here–who commits the crime in that one? No one is left alive? Heavens, that must break tons of rules. In the series of books I have read with a female detective, she only enters the story at the end. A couple of the titles are very good indeed. That breaks rule #2. I have read too many novels to recall just one where the murder is not committed until well into the book–hundreds of pages, oh my! That breaks rule #3. I’ve read mysteries where twins have been found to be the solution, where a dog has been killed, where children disappear, and oh my word, even die. And this probably breaks every rule in the book, but that is why we have writers with imaginations–with ideas beyond the mundane, the usual, the expected. And thank goodness, because if everyone who wrote a mystery adhered to these 10 rules, the entire genre would have ceased to exist eons ago.


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  • Every one of those ten rules seems like common sense all on their own.  All together on one list they seem to gain more power and authority.  This is definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  Thanks for the excellent post!

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