Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Rhys's Rules of Mystery Writing

RHYS BOWEN: Beginning writers often ask me if there are rules for writing mystery novels.  If you check online there are all kinds of 10 Commandments for writing mysteries. Ronald Knox and S.S. Van Dine compiled the most famous ones in the late Nineteen Twenties, in the Golden Age of mysteries. They are mostly concerned with the fairness of the plot, no tricks, no other-worldly intervention. But some of them make me smile, including one rule that says "No Chinamen." Oh dear, do you think I should tell them that the whole plot of Bless the Bride, one of my Molly Murphy books, takes place in New York's Chinatown and is teeming with what they refer to as "Chinamen"?

Another rule of theirs that makes me smile is "Absolutely no romance allowed."
Again, I'm a hopeless failure in this respect. All of my books have a romance going through them. Actually I LOVE books with that hint of romance in them. I LOVE characters who fall in love, have heartaches, disappointments, betrayals AND happy endings--don't you?

And when I read lists of rules I realize that I am not good at keeping most of them.  In fact I'd probably get drummed out of the olden day Detection Circle.

Here are some of the most cited rules. See what you think? Do they still apply today? Should they?

1. In mystery writing, plot is everything.

 This is where the mystery has really evolved from the whodunit to the whydunit. No longer just a puzzle, it's more a psychological drama. If I had to sum up a good mystery in one sentence I'd say IT'S ALL ABOUT THE SLEUTH. If we have an interesting, complex, human character to follow we will happily follow her through any twists and turns of plot. We will worry about her, fear for her and rejoice with her. My fans never say "I can't wait for your next complex plot." They say "When is Molly/Georgie coming back?"

2. Introduce both the detective and the culprit early on.

 I agree with the first, since the story is the detective's story. And I do agree that you have to play fair. You can't introduce a character in the last chapter and say "I knew this serial killer was hiding in the neighborhood but I didn't want to scare anyone."  But sometimes we don't meet my villain until later in the book. we may know of him earlier but not always.

3. Introduce the crime within the first three chapters of your mystery novel.

 Sorry. I fail hopelessly at this one. Most of my crimes take place after we have set up a situation, brought characters together, let the reader see them interacting and tensions building. If we start with the crime it becomes the old fashioned whodunit, when I think the sleuth's life and situation is always equally important. However, I have heard of libraries who will not shelve a book as a mystery if there is no murder in the first three chapters.

4. The crime should be sufficiently violent -- preferably a murder.

 Again I disagree. Where most mysteries involve a murder, I shy away from violence on the page, and I love reading books in which the crime is a clever art theft/forgery/bank heist. It's just that that is harder to pull off. It's awfully easy to kill someone.

5. The crime should be believable.

I agree that the aim of the writer should be to create a believable universe. All the same, any series mystery requires the reader to suspend disbelief. How can so many people be killed in Cabot Cove? Or St. Mary Mead? And we know that real police procedure involves weeks of paperwork and few exciting chases. And real CSI folk are not allowed to do any detective work. We create a semblance of reality but it has to feel real. 

6. The detective should solve the case using only rational and scientific methods.

 I would choose Miss Marple over Sherlock Holmes any day, and she uses good old knowledge of human nature.  My sleuths use observation, intuition and a good sprinkling of luck--being in the right place at the right time. Personally I can't stand know it alls!

7. The culprit must be capable of committing the crime.

 We're all capable of killing, physically. Anyone can pull a trigger, put poison in a tea cup. It's the motivation that's important. Would you or I kill if we were in a similar situation? How far must an ordinary person be pushed before he strikes back? For me we must make the villain a real person, believe in his tormented suffering/anger/jealousy so that we can see, when he is revealed, why he killed.

8. In mystery writing, don't try to fool your reader.

 Isn't that what we try to do all the time? Red herrings, clever clues, a multiple list of suspects, all of whom have a good motive for wanting the victim dead? Personally I love it when I come to the end of the book and I have been fooled--but played fair with at the same time. Don't you?

 9. Do your research.

 This is the one that I completely agree with. I have read so many books about Victorian or Edwardian England that make me cringe in the way that characters address each other, or in their lack of basic knowledge of London. If I find one thing wrong, I give up. How can I believe in the rest of the story now? I just started a book in which they say that the fall term hasn't yet started at Oxford. Sorry--it's the Michaelmas term at Oxford. How can I believe that you've been there if you don't know that?

10. Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit.
 Of course. The plot does tend to fall flat after the murderer has been revealed, but in real life would we summon everyone in the story together, including the murderer--who might have a semi automatic weapon hidden in his socks--and say "I have brought you here to name the killer?"

So my take is--there are no rules. You play fair. You create terrific characters. You make your sleuth have a hard time, both in the case and his private life. You set the story in a real, vibrant place and time. And apart from that it's up to you.

 AND..you add a little romance if you want to!
So Reds and Readers--should there be rules?


  1. With regard to storytelling, some of the “rules” you’ve mentioned make good sense: I’m all for believable and I’m not at all a fan of outrageous solutions that make no sense with what has happened in the story. And research is always good. Plot, I think, is important, but I’m not at all certain that it is everything. Introduce the crime at the beginning? Why? Same goes for introducing the detective and the culprit . . . I don’t really care when in the course of the story they show up. And why does the crime have to be violent? And I'm all for that romance!

    I’m not convinced that “rules” are necessary. I would think that good storytelling would serve quite well . . . .

  2. I once heard a writer say, "Know what the rules are so you know how to break them." Of course, she was referring to grammar rules, but still.

    There needs to be some hook in the first three chapters to get me to keep reading. Late in a series, it can be something a character I already know and love is facing, but early in the series it should be something related to a crime. And, honestly, I would love more adult mysteries that revolved around something other than a murder. The Hardy Boys and Nancy were more creative in certain ways because of that. (They did have their own formulas, of course.)

    I'm reading mysteries, not romance. Obviously, I don't mind romance in my mysteries since it's a factor in just about every book I read. However, it should be a sub-plot (and it is in what I read consistently).

    I do definitely disagree about plot being key. Yes, you need a good plot. But you need good characters, too. I didn't watch Murder, She Wrote or Monk just because of the plots. Yes, I enjoyed those, but I always watched them for the characters I loved so I could spend time with. Same with the books I read.

    So if you (general you, not anyone specific) look at these as guidelines, I think you'll see much of what is written does still fit into them. They shouldn't rule a story, but they aren't bad things to think about as you are writing.

    And, Rhys, when is your next complex plot coming out. ;)

  3. Rhys, it may be that some of the rules are more important for new writers, who may not have the knack of creating a hook and ratcheting up tension.

    The motivation is so key--both for the sleuth and for the criminal. I had a freelance editor early on who reminded me to really picture the scene I was writing, go through it step by step, and see if could happen that way.

  4. Oh, Rhys, am I with you on these! Plot matters but character MUCH more. YES PLAY FAIR! I hate it when authors don't. And I agree, the crime does NOT have to be in the first three chapters. But those early chapters do need to be compelling. Compelling the reader to keep reading.

    As you say, rule are meant to be broken and they do give us something to argue about.

  5. Oh, so interesting..I am a BIG plot person. We all want to hear a good riveting solid unpredictable but realistic story, with characters we care about. I do't see how the two can be separate in a good mystery.

    And yes, motivation--I think about this all the time: WHY would she DO that? I work on it by almost method acting--I put myself in the situation, and try to understand how the character would feel and think. Then I put myself in the skin of the other character in the scene, the non-pov character--and I wonder : what would they be thinking?

    Rules. I think the only rule, if there are rules, is to ignore what someone would really do for the sake of the authors convenience. You don't want readers yelling: COME ON JUST TURN ON THE LIGHT!

  6. There should be rules... but only so you can break them when you need to. :)

    Mysteries have evolved a lot in the past hundred years. They're much more character-driven now than they used to be. It's not that plot isn't as important, because I think it still is. Mystery readers complain about predictable plots all the time, so clearly they appreciate clever ones. But characters have become more important.

    Personally, I like a little romance with my mysteries. And detectives/sleuths with friends and family. It's that character-thing again. Real people with real lives...

  7. I'm totally bookmarking this post.

    Hank, you are too funny - how about "Are you seriously going to go into that dark basement alone in your nightgown to investigate the weird noise?"

    I've come to believe that good plot comes out of good characters. It's Hank's "Why would he/she DO that?" question. And if you can throw in a few unexpected twists, so much the better.

    I'm writing something right now where the body doesn't show up until Chapter 5. But there is crime in those first four chapters.

    And I love some romance. These are real people, after all. Real people must balance all of life, and that includes love and heartbreak - not just solving a crime.

    But yes, I'll follow a favorite character anywhere. No matter how complex the plot, if the character doesn't matter to me, I'll put the book down.

  8. The funny thing about all the rules of writing mysteries posted all over the internet and published in so many books, Rhys, is that many of them contradict each other.

    I'm with you on character rather than plot and motivation, motivation, and play fair. In the end, I think we all need to look at all these rules and decide which ones are important to us and follow only those.

  9. I think my biggest rule for mystery writing would be First Make the Reader Care. Make them care about the protagonist and their friends and all their problems, and understand why everyone in town has good reason to wish Old Man Potter ill. (And then, perhaps, you can go ahead and bump off Mr. Gower instead.)

  10. The only rule I really, really try to follow is to write so that the reader wants to continue to read it. All other "rules" are at best corollaries.

    ~ Jim

  11. FROM JIM JACKSON: And the winner is:

    "Deb Romano gets the random number brass ring. Remember she needs to let me know whether she wants Bad Policy or Cabin Fever."
    And remember Hallie also won..Hallie, let Jim know!

    DebRo, if you need Jim's address, shoot me an email!


  12. I so agree that character is foremost in what keeps me hooked on a book and/or a series. Susan D, I like your rule of First Make the Reader Care. Perfectly stated, and if the reader doesn't care about the people involved, then it's hard to see how plot is going to make up for that. Of course, I enjoy a good plot, but the characters' involvement in it, what they bring to it is essential in my wanting to keep reading it.
    And, I have come to really want the romance aspect, especially in series reading. I cut my mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, so romance wasn't always that important, but I have fallen for it now, and with the continuing woman/man character pairing, I want it.

    The Jungle Red Writers are masters at creating characters who become like family. And, Rhys, you nailed it when you said that fans ask you when the next Molly or Georgie will be out, not when the next complex plot will be. That's not saying that you and the other authors here don't have great plots. You do, and watching the familiar characters work through it all is pure joy.

    Rhys, when you said you knew of some "libraries who will not shelve a book as a mystery if there is no murder in the first three chapters," I was shocked. I think that is an entirely absurd rule. Introducing the crime at the beginning and it being a violent one are two more rules that I disagree with. I have read mysteries with the crime at the beginning and enjoyed them, but it seems a most nonessential rule to me.

    Playing fair is important, but I enjoy some twists and turns and an occasional red herring. I don't want the culprit to suddenly show up at the next to last chapter. I actually enjoy it when there is more than one person who I'm thinking could have done it. Oh, and I agree with you, Rhys, that there isn't a murderer type, that anyone given the right set of circumstances and/or emotions is capable of murder. That's one element that makes mysteries so intriguing.

  13. I love this! I'm a big fan of the new age of mystery in which character and psychology and the why mean as much as the whodunnit plot (if not more).

    I often get annoyed when we start with the body right away. Why should I care? I don't know anyone yet.

  14. Okay, Mark. I agree, I do strive for complex plots, but they are driven by "What would Molly do if..."
    And also the first chapters are really key now that so many people buy their books online and sample the first pages before they buy. No long descriptions of a Dark and Stormy Night!

  15. "I have heard of libraries who will not shelve a book as a mystery if there is no murder in the first three chapters."

    What!?! Who has time to check every mystery?!? I have worked in libraries for over 10 years and if you have enough time to check this fact then your library is doing something wrong. Or maybe these libraries have so much money they can pay someone to sit around and check? I want that job.

    I agree these rules can be taken more as guidelines. Rhys, I think you have done a wonderful job including a little romance. I love that Molly and Daniel's relationship progressed to a natural conclusion. It makes them more 'real' as characters. I felt the bigger mystery in City of Darkness and Light is the disappearance, not the murder. Much more compelling since the reader knows and cares about the people missing.

  16. Good discussion -- and so timely!

    A question for you, readers and writers: In several mysteries I've read recently, I've found myself much more interested in the continuing story of the characters -- spread out over all the books in the series -- than in the plot for that particular book. Often, I have trouble remembering who was killed and how the murder was solved, but no trouble remembering the details of the protagonist's personal story. As a still-new writer, I'm trying hard to make both equally important, but I'm wondering what other readers and writers thing.

  17. Hank,

    I do need Jim Jackson's email address. I sent you an email to request it. And Jim, thanks for picking my name! I look forward to reading the book.

    About "rules":
    As far as I'm concerned, as long as there are no inconsistencies in the mystery, and the characters are people I can care about (and they do not do too many things that are out of character for them), I'm happy. But I don't mind if an ongoing character, or even the protagonist, makes a huge error of judgment. That's something all human beings do at one time or another.

    I don't care whether or not there's a romance. In some books, it seems like the romance has been added in after the book has been written, to satisfy readers who like romance novels. If it doesn't advance the plot in any way, my feeling is that the romance is not needed. The protagonist can have a love life; I just don't want it to take over a huge chunk of the story!

    In recent years, I'm finding that I love to read mysteries that have no murders, just a really good puzzle. I save reading these for when I need a break from murder! Nancy Atherton's Aunt Dimity books are great for satisfying my need for a mystery/puzzle, and they entertain as well. (Also, she has some pretty tasty recipes at the back of each book!)

  18. As ever, a thought provoking post which leaves none of us in any doubt about one thing - whichever rules you do or do not agree with, giving a great deal of thought to the balance between the critical elements of character, psychology, setting, plot, motivation and denouement is absolutely essential.

  19. I love your question, Leslie. I just finished reading a Denise Mina crime novel, and I have to admit she flummoxed me (even though I love her novels) because the novel was so NOT about the crime or its solution. It was about the stories of three characters connected to the crime. It flummoxed me because I was expecting a reveal of the solution. But there wasn't really.

    Her's is a series too. The detective's story was one of the three. Will I read the next one? Probably, but it's not a shoe-in because I DO like a cool reveal of some sort. So for this series, the characters might not be enough to hold me.

    However, Louise Penny? Different story. She balances the character and the mystery lines so well.

    I get bored when the characters don't evolve much over time. I don't care how engaging they are or how great the mystery is. I've quit many a series because of this.

    As an aside, I see something else evolving in the mystery genre too: series that are only loosely connected to each other. Tana French writes like this. She'll base a novel around a detective that only had a walk-on performance in a previous novel.

  20. I recently had a long talk with my husband about why I read mysteries, and also about how within the world of mysteries there are so many sub-genres.

    Like many other commenters here, the character is the most important thing to me. If I don't care about the protagonist, I won't stay with it. That's why I'm a fan of the Reds and a few other similar-in-style mystery writers, and especially why I read so many mystery series. Also why other writers get one try and I never pick them up again.

    The thing I like most about mysteries isn't mentioned overtly in any of these rules: they have a beginning, a middle and an end. I have been very frustrated with modern non-mystery novels that, to me, seemed to start in the middle of nowhere and end nowhere. Sure, the characters had some experiences and growth in between. But I like a mystery because basically, you know a murder or other crime is going to occur; once it does, you will follow your protagonist as he or she figures out what happened; and soon after the crime is solved, the book ends. I like structure.

    Playing fair is important, but honestly, I will tolerate a little "deus ex machine" if it is the only failing of the book. And I have noticed some writers start off a little that way but grow out of it as they write more.

  21. For the record, I do know how to spell Deus ex machina, but autocorrect doesn't like it one bit!

  22. Dear Rhys, Such a great topic - and I loved reading through all of the comments. I completely agree with your feelings about rule #3 - I want to care about characters and story so that I can care about the crime/plot. As much as I love plot, and I do adore it, I also love developing a situation, relationships, etc. But a writer must, as you mention, keep the tension intact, even if the crime has not been committed. That's what really keeps a story going for me.

  23. Lisa, I can tell we'll have quite a chat at Malice!

  24. Rhys, what a great post! And I agree with your summation on the rules--and some of them do seem very outdated.

    I do have a thing about "play fair", however. I think the reader should always have access to the same information as the detective/s. It's up to the writer to use misdirection so that the reader doesn't realize which bits of information are crucial until the "reveal" at the end. The late Reginald Hill was a master at this.

    And I do like at least one story line to be resolved, but am quite happy with multiple continuing story arcs.

  25. I found this intriguing. I'll have to reread it, slowly, and muse it over.

  26. I vote for the swift death of the "murder in the first three chapters" rule. Books in a series need a sense of variety and texture. If you always have a body in the library, then the reader might think, "did I read this book before?" I like the old "country house" mysteries, where people gather for the reading of the will and, after all of the nastiness is revealed, someone is given a drink of lye instead of an after-dinner Drambuie. That way you have suspense --who will the victim be--so many to choose from! A body at the beginning can be a nice hook, but it's not the only one.