When cleaning out some old files last week, I came across an article I’d saved from the October 2008 issue of The Writer Magazine by Hallie Ephron. It’s titled “The Deadly Dozen Mistakes in Mystery Writing” and it’s as relevant now as it was five years ago. Maybe more, since, as I wrote last week, self-publishing has mushroomed.
In fact, thanks to Amazon’s “Read inside,” I read a portion of a self-published romantic suspense novel that wouldn’t pass Number Twelve of the list below. Ms. Ephron pointed out that many years ago, a group of British mystery writers, including Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, formed the Detective Club, and made a list of things to avoid in their writing. They even swore an oath with dire consequences for ignoring it.
“If you fail to keep our promise, may other writers anticipate your plots, may strangers sue you for libel, may your pages swarm with misprints, and may your sales continually diminish.”
So, here they are: make notes and beware.
* #1. Coincidence or an Act of God. Coincidences happen in real life, but the rules are more stringent in fiction. If your sleuth is in a bathroom stall and overhears two strangers plotting a murder, Rewrite!
* #2. Concealed Clues. Mystery readers want to solve the crime along with your detective, so if your sleuth knows a fact you haven’t revealed to the reader, Rewrite!
* #3. Plot-Herding Characters. Don’t let your characters do things normal people wouldn’t do just because your plot requires that. If your character, all alone and unarmed, goes into a scary place to confront the villain, you’d better give him a darned good reason, or else... Rewrite!
* #4. False starts. Readers need a mystery, or something exciting, to keep reading, so if you give them an immediate information dump, or a “flash forward” instead, Rewrite!
* #5. Narration in dialog form. Sure, there are things you want the reader to know, but if your dialogue is stuffed with “reader feeders,” Rewrite!
* #6. False finish. These days readers expect the sleuth to have a final confrontation with the enemy, or at least a credible, though unexpected, solution. If you’ve picked the least-suspected person to be the villain and it’s not believable, or the sleuth spends pages explaining to the gathering how he put all the clues together, or if good luck, or divine intervention or a sudden rescue party solves the problem... Right. Rewrite!
* #7. Too many viewpoints. There’s a reason so many whodunits are written in first person. Readers have no problem following one person and trying to solve the crime when, or before, he does. Your story may require two viewpoint characters, but if you write more than three, and especially if you switch viewpoints in the middle of a scene, Rewrite!
* #8. Sidekicks as Stereotypes. Please, no heart-of-gold ex-hookers, no eyeglass-wearing, clumsy computer nerds, no incompetent cops. Dream up an interesting original or else, Rewrite!
* #9. Zigzag Timeline. Don’t switch between time periods if it can be avoided. If you make the reader wonder if this is 2013 or 1990 too often, you’ll lose her. Rewrite!
* #10. Fa, la, la, gathering clues. Remember the theme of all fiction is conflict. If your sleuth is brilliant, fearless and cunning at all times, if he always stumbles upon the necessary clues, if witnesses always tell him the truth, let’s face it, it’s boring. Rewrite!
* #11. Overstaying your welcome. If your sleuth reveals a suspect to be the murderer, and then decides he’s not and chooses someone else, or the killer escapes and the last hundred pages are just a “007" chase scene, Rewrite!
* #12. The small stuff. Mystery readers are relentless about wanting things to be accurate, so make sure you have no glaring errors. That applies to punctuation and grammar too. Do it right, or Rewrite!