I’m working on a mystery. I finally reached the third turning point (three-fourths through the book–and yes, I do construct my plots that way), and I’m heading into the last 80 pages. This is when I look at my remaining plot points and pray that I have enough twists and turns to make it to the The End. If not, a little creativity is in order.
Almost (there must be one out there that breaks the mold, but I can’t think of it) every mystery starts with a dead body. A crime would work, too, but it’s not as common. The body doesn’t have to be on page one. It doesn’t even have to show up by page five. But someone usually stumbles upon it by the end of chapter one. Not always. Mystery readers, especially for cozies or traditionals, know that while they’re hanging out with the protagonist and getting to know her and the book’s setting, a dead body will show up eventually. It’s worth the wait.
Martha Grimes, in her early books, grabbed her readers with a hook–a prologue. They’re frowned upon now, but I liked them. Some nice, oblivious person would be walking along a street or locking her front door, and we KNEW she’d be dead by the end of the chapter. A great way to build tension. A lot of thriller writers use that technique–showing the victim in a way that we know they’re already doomed. It works. If you’re not writing a thriller, though, you have to space out victims more sparingly:) You don’t off somebody whenever the pace slows down, so you have to come up with different devices to keep the tension high enough to turn pages.
The thing I loved about witing urban fantasy is that you could write a battle every time you wanted to up the tension. Pitting your protagonist against someone who could kill her works really well. I just finished reading Ilona Andrews’s MAGIC SHIFTS, and it was a FAST read because there was a battle in almost every chapter. Lots of action. I loved it, but that doesn’t fly in an amateur sleuth mystery. Protags don’t wield swords or shoot magic.
What does work? Having the sleuth at the wrong place at the wrong time. Having her get nosy and digging through a desk that’s not hers when someone walks into the office. I’m halfway through a mystery by an author who’s new to me: A Cutthroat Business by Jenna Bennett. I’m loving it so far! First, her protagonist is a Southern Belle. I haven’t read one of those since the last Sarah Booth Delaney cozy I read by Carolyn Haines. Bennett’s protagonist is a real estate agent…so, of course, she takes a client to a showing and finds a body in the last room they stop to view. See? The nice, bloody corpse comes at the end of the chapter. More fun that way!
Also, of course, the police show up and the client who wanted to see the house doesn’t seem to have any money, but he has done some prison time–and the protag knew him when they were growing up–a smartass, sexy ex-con. Bennett finds one clever way after another to keep her protag involved in the investigation. Eventually, though, (and I hate to say this), another body is needed to boost the pace near the middle of the book. Sacrifices must be made for every novel, and for mysteries, well…. someone must die.
I’m sorry to say (and my daughter wasn’t happy with me, because she fell in love with a certain character when she read the pages I’ve done so far), I had to kill off someone, too, for the second plot twist in my book. And that made me wonder: how many bodies does it take to keep a good book going? In urban fantasy, you’re lucky. Very rarely does one of the good guys have to die, and you can kill bad guys at random, on every other page if you want to. In mysteries, though? Bodies are up for grabs. Good guys die as often as not-so-good guys. I’m thinking–and I haven’t researched this–that it takes at least two bodies to move a mystery plot. The first body happens at the beginning of the book and somewhere later, the pacing and clues start to fizzle, and an author has to stick in another victim.
What do you think? Can you think of a mystery that only has one victim and the entire plot goes from there? Okay, maybe in a P.I., because usually the private eye gets beat up close to the time a second body would pop up in a traditional mystery. LOL. This is probably why it was so hard for me to write romances. I couldn’t kill anybody:)
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