NOTHING TO SNEEZE ABOUT
Remember the last time you sneezed? There was that little itch that sent your nose into high alert. This could be the big one, you think, a real head-bobber, or it could be a tiny little nothing sneeze. Or it could be a false alarm. You just never know what to expect. There's the build-up, then the sneeze and, finally, the feeling of relief. And then it's over, or at least you hope so. I always sneeze three times in a row, but that's just my thing, a little author trivia.
So, how is a sneeze like reading a mystery? Well, I'm glad you asked. Like a sneeze, the plot of a mystery starts out slowly, the tension gradually builds while the reader wonders, is something about to happen? Is this a clue? Is this a major plot development? Or is it a fake-out? For every build-up of tension in a mystery, there must be a release afterwards, a resolution to the problem and then a period of low-tension. In most books, this pattern will happen many times before the final resolution (the big sneeze!) which signals the end of the story.
Without conflict, there is no story, of course, so the writer wants to keep putting the characters in dangerous or stressful situations. A good writer keeps the reader on edge by dangling the prize in front of the protagonist and then snatching it away at the last minute, or by throwing roadblocks in the way. The author has to be subtle about it, so the obstacles vary constantly. Maybe the protagonist loses faith in herself, or is physically detained. Maybe someone she cares about has a crisis and she has to stop what she's doing to offer help. Or maybe she's sent on a wild goose chase or follows the wrong lead. She may wind up in physical danger, or some other kind of trouble.
Here's an example of a best-selling mystery plot. The novel begins with the murder of a beautiful prosecutor in her apartment. The protagonist, also a prosecutor, was her co-worker, and is assigned the case. Nobody knows that the victim was the protagonist's former lover (raising the stakes). The protagonist's boss is up for re-election and the murder of one of his people is embarrassing. If he loses the election, the protagonist loses his job (raising the stakes some more). The election is lost and suddenly the protagonist finds himself accused of the murder. There's lots of evidence to implicate him: calls made from his home to hers the night of the murder, a glass with his fingerprints on it, carpet fibers, etc. The courtroom drama raises the tension even further; taking many turns along the way. But the expert testimony proves unreliable. The protagonist learns the judge had a relationship with the victim and also that the judge, the victim and his former boss all took bribes from suspects. A crucial piece of evidence for the prosecution disappears and the judge dismisses the case for lack of evidence.
But the reader still doesn't know who killed the prosecutor! Was it the protagonist? He's the narrator, but is he reliable? Yes, he is, and he figures out who murdered his former lover…dun dun dun! It was his angry, betrayed wife who tried to frame him. Recognize the plot? It's Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow.
The challenge for the mystery writer is how to build the tension to a crescendo and timing is everything. Think about that horror movie trick where the girl (and the audience) is terrified because we know something bad is about to happen. We're on the edge of our seats, our hearts are racing, and, suddenly, something scary jumps out at the girl--and it's just a cat. Everyone lets down their guard, shakes off the nervous tension and--WHAM--the bad guy/monster/psycho/alien then attacks the girl. That twist worked great the first time we saw it, but now we've come to expect it.
In my Jamie Quinn mystery series, Jamie is a reluctant family lawyer who keeps finding herself involved in murder cases. In Death by Didgeridoo, her disabled cousin is accused of murdering his music teacher; in The Case of the Killer Divorce, Jamie's client is accused of murdering her husband, and in Peril in the Park, Jamie and her boyfriend are in danger from an evil jester who has already murdered one person. The tension rises and falls in each book while Jamie tries to figure out what's really going on, while, at the same time, there are mysteries to solve in her personal life. Because these books are part of a series, the tension isn't completely resolved at the end of each book. Certain story lines continue through to the next book and, in fact, each book ends with the first chapter of the next book as a teaser.
Now, I think you understand how a good mystery can be just like a sneeze. And who doesn't like a good sneeze? It can be energizing and unexpected. But, at all costs, you want to avoid books which don't have tension; the kind that go on and on, the ones you wish would hurry up and end already. They are like having the hiccups and nobody wants those!
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