The Harried Mystery Hero(ine) Or, How to Write a Mystery (Easy)
By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach
firstwriter.com – Monday January 29, 2024
Nothing is so essential to the successful creation of the mystery—from the grittiest work of fiction to the most comedic—as presenting the protagonist’s unrelenting pursuit of the McGuffin* against all possible odds and impossible barriers.
The secret to generating the story’s drama—and, again, even a funny mystery needs plenty of drama—is to never allow your main character a moment’s rest. Even when the hero is relaxing by the pool drinking an expensive wine accompanied by caviar on toast points, he must at the very least, be worrying himself to a veritable frazzle. If he sleeps, he sleeps badly—maybe a sleep interrupted by the ringing of the phone and appalling news (another murder? the suspect has escaped?). If he meets a woman he could love, she’s either a plant working to undermine his investigation, in grave danger herself, or sometimes even the killer (yup).
Though I seem to be making light of your protagonist’s troubles, this is the way the story has to proceed, no matter the subgenre or the tone. Your job is to attach us to the character and then do your best to drive him or her over the edge, literally or figuratively, or both. That, then, is drama.
How does the writer keep this drive toward the McGuffin and its opposition going? In any way possible. The barriers to the protagonist’s success must be continual. Yes, of course, he or she needs to make a little progress toward the goal. After all, eventually, you must come to the end of the novel and the mystery’s conclusion, but in the meantime, those victories absolutely must be terribly hard won.
You don’t want to ever let up on the problems the protagonist must face. She can’t get into the hotel to look at the scene of the crime. She’s warned off from interviewing the grieving widow. The document she thought was real turns out to be a fake. Of course she will have momentary flashes of genius or lightning will strike and she’ll impersonate a housemaid to enter the suite where the doctor was killed, then she’ll send a note to the grieving widow who once loved the protagonist’s father. And, later, the document turns out to be genuine though falsely presented as a forgery.
Still, nothing must ever come easy to your central character—after all, because where is the excitement in that kind of thing? Tension and release from tension constitute drama and form the steps leading forward through the story.
Certainly the incidents that build to the novel’s climax will become ever more fraught, as the major story line advances to create the dazzling bell-curvelike structure of the arc.
In writing this marketable mystery of yours, you’ll have to stay aware of the need to not just start the mystery at a high point, but to ratchet up the internal or external stakes as you go along. That’s why many authors introduce the threat of death to the very protagonist or to a loved one at around the last third of the book. As the ante must rise nearing the climax of the story, often you can’t get any higher a risk than danger to the protagonist, or the protag’s love interest. Of course in a more cerebral story, the ultimate in jeopardy might be a thrust against the investigator’s sense of self. What if he fails? Or seems to? Or is framed by the perpetrator? He might have to quit the police department. Or she might begin her drug use again.
The mystery form, or whatever you call the subgenre you hope to undertake, has become a staple for the reading public exactly because it offers the most extreme elements we will ever find in life or in fiction—the greatest hazards both physical and moral along with the ultimate satisfaction of overcoming terrible odds, and often, evil itself.
If you stay within this set of parameters outlined right here and maintain the conflict unrelentingly despite the main character’s increasing knowledge and advancement toward achieving the McGuffin, you will have just about the whole of your plot settled like that. The plot, in short, doesn’t have to be clever or convoluted or present tremendous wit or elaborate detail, it simply must keep the reader riveted by alternating the carrot of hope and the stick of fear. As flesh and blood, your readers participate in a similar contentious striving daily, but reading about a character in a circumstance of exaggerated tribulation produces the catharsis that art is intended to finally result in.
*McGuffin: That thing being sought—most likely the killer.
About the Author
G. Miki Hayden is a short story Edgar winner. She teaches a mystery writing and a thriller writing and other writing classes at Writer's Digest online university. The third edition of her Writing the Mystery is available through Amazon and other good bookshops. She is also the author of The Naked Writer, a comprehensive, easy-to-read style and composition guide for all levels of writers.