E. Michael Helms: “Dissecting the Mystery”

helmsOn mystery: Without a well-paced and intriguing plot (storyline), the mystery is dead in the water.

By E. Michael Helms

Dissecting the Mystery

What makes a good mystery? Could there be a simpler question? On the flipside, could there be a more general, broad-based question? Each reader has his or her tastes and opinions, as does every writer. I can’t—and won’t— presume to have the answers. What I will do is share some aspects of what I believe—as a reader, makes a good mystery—and as a writer, what works for me.

cardboard

In a good mystery no “cardboard” allowed.

(Okay, book covers are the exception.) Characters are foremost! Characters, especially the protagonist/hero and important secondary characters, must be well-rounded and three-dimensional. “Real” characters have good traits. “Real” characters have flaws. Superman may be “faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive,” but he’s also vulnerable to kryptonite (and Lois Lane). Mac McClellan is a Southern gentleman, a combat veteran, and has a wry sense of humor. He’s also suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is bitter toward his ex-wife, drinks too much, and can be bossy. Kate Bell, Mac’s girlfriend and Girl Friday in solving cases, is independent and strong-willed. She also has a slightly shady past that she keeps hidden from Mac until it comes out in the second Mac McClellan Mystery, Deadly Ruse.The villain must also be a complex person. Satan need not apply. Every good (meaning bad) villain should have a redeeming quality or two. In an upcoming Mac McClellan Mystery, Deadly Spirits, the villain suffered abuse as a child. Said villain (no spoilers here) is also intelligent and a great achiever. But the past often overpowers and warps the future despite the best intentions. Even minor characters must be minimally fleshed-out. If they are worth mentioning by name or have a speaking role, they deserve to be more than cardboard cutouts.

In a good mystery no plodding plots allowed.

Without a well-paced and intriguing plot (storyline), the mystery is dead in the water. You’ve heard it a million times, but it’s worth repeating: you must pull the reader into the story, and the sooner the better. In my first Mac McClellan Mystery, Deadly Catch, the opening sentence sets the stage: The first cast of the day turned my dream vacation into a nightmare. Short and sweet, but doesn’t it make you want to read more and find out why?Had I opened with back-story, how Mac had recently retired from the Marine Corps and traveled to the Florida panhandle for a fishing vacation, you might have kept on reading for a while hoping the pace picked up. Personally, I would’ve thought, “Ho-hum.” By the fourteenth page, Mac discovers a body, is suspected of murder, and warned not to leave the area by the local sheriff. Information important to back-story can be fed in piecemeal as the story progress, but keep that plot moving! And speaking of moving, it is the characters who drive the plot! Every scene, every action, every sentence or phrase of dialogue, must be used to reveal character, information, or propel the storyline forward. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong.

murder

In a good mystery the crime must be worthy of the story.

Meaning—almost without exception—murder! Even most cozies have a murder as the catalyst of the plot. Violence and bloodshed should fit the mystery’s sub-genre. Most cozies involve a murder happening “offstage.” And, in most cases, there is little or no blood and gore. The darker the mystery, the more ramped-up the murder and violence can be.Also, the murder should happen fairly early in the story. It’s what draws the hero/heroine into the plot, the driving force behind his/her compulsion to dig deep and solve the mystery. In Deadly Catch a body is discovered in Chapter One. There are/have been exceptions, but today’s reader generally wants things upfront and happening quickly. In this “I want it now!” world, there is way too much competition for an author to chance dragging things out too long.

In a good mystery the killer shouldn’t come from “out of left field.”

Nothing infuriates mystery readers more than having a character introduced late and with little involvement in the story, only to learn that he/she is the real perpetrator of the crime. The bad guy/gal should be inserted into the plot early and often. The perp can be a “friendly” or a suspect, one of few or several. In Deadly Catch Mac is acquainted with the real villain (via back-story, fed-in later) before the opening scene. Of course, Mac is unaware that he/she is the murderer. That info comes later—much later—as it should. Generally, in a good mystery, the later the killer is revealed, the better.A couple of years ago I read a mystery by a well-known author (who shall remain nameless) where the killer turned out to be the brother of a secondary character who wasn’t an important “player” in the story. The problem is, this brother was introduced late in the storyline, with very little information revealed about him. Only near the end (after the case was wrapped) did I learn the brother had a very sordid past. That was a “left field villain” if I ever saw one.

just the facts

In a good mystery authors better get their facts right!

Today’s readers are a savvy bunch. Almost nothing slips by them. If the murder victim has a big hole blown through him, the murder weapon had better not be a .22 caliber rifle or pistol. If the victim dies of poisoning, the poison used better match the dying throes a witness observes, or the autopsy results. Radio transmissions should be accurate. For example, if a cop is taking a break for coffee and doughnuts, he’d better not call in an “11-99!” If the private eye is tailing a suspect in a real location, the streets and landmarks had better be correct. There is no excuse for not getting the facts straight in this day and age of the Internet and computer access.

In a good mystery there are red herrings, dead ends, and clues—oh my!

Tidbits of information and misinformation scattered here and there throughout the story are inherent to a good mystery. Red herrings, dead ends, and clues are key elements to get the reader involved in solving the mystery alongside the protagonist.With apologies for preaching to the choir, a red herring is simply a clue that sends the reader and protagonist in the wrong direction. Think smoke and mirrors, or in football, a misdirection play: offensive linemen pull and block to the right side as the quarterback fakes a handoff to the running back and then slips the ball to the fullback who hits the left side of the line of scrimmage. By faking to the right and running to the left, the offense has just handed the defense a red herring.A dead end is simply a clue that leads nowhere, wasting the sleuth’s time. Or does it? Maybe following the false lead, only to be stymied, allows our hero to cross off a suspect, or points the finger at another possible perp, or leads the protag in an entirely new direction that might prove invaluable as the case unfolds.In a good mystery, when a clue actually points to the real killer, it shouldn’t be obvious. No bells and whistles allowed. Subtlety is the keyword here. Perhaps pursuing a red herring or dead end results in our hero eliminating a suspect from his list, only to realize later, as things play out, that “this” minor clue and “that” subtle clue were telltale signs he’d overlooked earlier.

dead-end-sign

 

 

 

 

 

In a good mystery the hero will face conflict, resistance, danger . . . and prevail!

There is no room in a good mystery for the hero to have a pleasant walk in the park, conveniently find and pocket clues, and waltz to the other end unopposed. There must be conflict and resistance, even from those close to the protagonist. “Yes” people are boring beyond words. The pathway through the park (the plot/storyline) must be strewn with tripwires, stumbling blocks, antagonistic characters, and other dangers. Without these elements, why bother? Will the reader give a hoot? I don’t think so. Above all, our hero must find himself in hot water, the hotter the better. And just when it looks like all is lost, he must use intestinal fortitude, wit, and a bit of (believable) luck to turn the tables.

After all, as Sherlock Holmes would say, it’s “Elementary.”

holmes

 

 

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3 thoughts on “E. Michael Helms: “Dissecting the Mystery”

  1. Excellent blog on how dun it. learned a lot, thanks Mike.

    I recently read a blog post that disputes the character driven story in favor of plot driven. Can’t recall the blog name or the author, but it made for interesting reading. Clearly the technique worked for the writer, and as with point of view, there is no one way to craft a story. I wondered if at some point in the future, the author’s characters were going to stage a coup and take over the story! Wish I could remember the blogger. I would like to pick up a book and see how the technique works for the reader.

    Liked by 1 person

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