What makes for a great mystery novel is something of a mystery to us. So we turned to one of the more successful writers in the genre, Connie Shelton, author of the Charlie Parker and Samantha Sweet series, for some clues on what separates a good thriller from no-thrill-at-all.
According to Shelton, sometimes all that’s lacking is a good plot twist, and she offered some great advice for giving your story that extra bit of oomph which keeps pages turning and readers coming back to you for more. Shelton had a few suggestions on what not to do, how to plan the ‘surprise’ in your story, and how to generate ideas to keep your plot from plodding along.
First, the thrill-killers:
A surprise that comes too early or too late in the story loses impact. Burning down the house with our hero inside would be intense, but this kind of surprise needs to come far enough into the story that something crucial is at stake. If the reader knows our guy has the one incriminating clue hidden under the mattress he’s sleeping on, and the fire starts in his bedroom—much more drama there. Similarly, a surprise after the crime has been solved loses punch. Careful timing of your twists is crucial.
Lack of emotional impact.
Simply, we have to care says Shelton. Maybe the character’s cat gets killed, but if the writer never establishes a close owner/pet relationship the reader can be left feeling sort of so-what. Build strong reader attachment to both the character and the cat and it will be a shocking thing when the pet is killed (who will ever forget the rabbit in Fatal Attraction?).
Next, Shelton suggests designing those plot twists into the story right from the beginning to give your writing direction. “Starting with a plan really helps, but don’t ignore ideas that happen on the fly. It’s great fun to throw in additional surprises when inspiration strikes,” she says.
She’s tactical when it comes to the plan and recommends the following:
- Create a timeline. Yes, an actual line on a sheet of paper. Mark the left-hand end of the line with the incident that sets the whole story in motion (i.e. discovery of a body), and the right-hand end with the conclusion (dramatic confrontation where criminal is caught).
- Now, come up with two plot twists that will happen somewhere in the middle (maybe you want to kill the cat and burn down the house). Place the first surprise roughly at the 1/3 mark on the timeline. The second surprise will happen 2/3 of the way through. So, if your manuscript will be 300 pages in length Twist #1 is around page 100; Twist #2 is at page 200.
- Finish big. A third, highly dramatic moment needs to come in the confrontation scene, usually within the final twenty pages.
Coming up with good plot twists in the first place can be a challenge at times and again Shelton offers practical advice.
First, structure a brainstorm with yourself. Take a blank sheet of paper and write your central story idea in the middle. For instance: “A high-profile woman is being stalked.” Circle it. Now set a timer for ten minutes and start jotting down possible surprise elements (in this case, who the stalker might be and why they are doing it). Don’t edit or critique yourself, and write down all ideas no matter how outlandish. When your timer goes off—stop. Look over your ideas and build upon the best ones.
“For my ninth Charlie Parker mystery, Balloons Can Be Murder, this example was my original plot premise,” says Shelton. “I decided that the stalker was the woman’s father and he’d just gotten out of prison, where her testimony had sent him. Of course a later plot twist revealed that all was not exactly as it seemed . . .”
Shelton also recommends creating a kind of “idea factory.”
“Whenever I’m seeing a lull in the pace, I use this technique to play around with alternate ideas,” says Shelton. By this she means she manufactures a number of possibilities for the action to follow, and then chooses the one that seems to offer the most creative opportunity and gets the story moving again. Here’s an example of how the idea factory works:
Joe and his parents are having drinks in the library and Sally has just walked into the room. On scratch paper, jot down some possibilities—what she does and how each of the others react. List four to six reactions for each of the other characters.
- She says, “I’m pregnant.”
- She has a gun in her hand.
- She’s crying and says, “Joe’s doctor just called.”
- She says, “Two men just drove up.”
Come up with at least three entirely different scenarios before you choose which to use. There are endless possibilities with this technique and the more you work with it the more creative your ideas will become.
Shelton offers one caution: “Obviously, any plot twists must fit logically into the story. Sally can’t reveal that the father of her baby is an extraterrestrial unless you’ve already established some plausibility for this. Surprise your readers but don’t make them throw down your book.”
Plot twists are great fun. Play around with ideas and enjoy the process!
Connie Shelton is the author of eighteen mystery novels and ranks among the Top 100 mystery authors online. She taught for Long Ridge Writers Group for six years and is the creator of the Novel In A Weekend™ writing course.