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Abstract chimera full of photoshop gizmos

Gizmos and shiny genre-specific elements can give things a cool factor, but can also be a crutch to distract from deeper flaws. (Like the messy drawing of a chimera here.)

I’ve finished the first round of edits for my SpoNoWriMo novel, and while I am letting it sit to gain some distance from it, I am planning my next project. It’s a mystery fantasy, and I’ve decided to outline instead of discovery-write it, for a number of reasons.

  • One, I generally write better with an outline. It helps me write a tighter, more focused story without the wandering of discovery-writing (not that wandering doesn’t work for me, as it sometimes leads to great discoveries).
  • Two, because the story is about solving a mystery, and I want to know all the details up front.

So how does one write a satisfying mystery? David Brin, author of the new novel Existence, brings up an interesting point in the advice he gives new authors:

Whatever their favorite genres, I recommend that new authors make their first major project a murder mystery.

The reason is simple.  All other genres let the author get away with flaws in plotting and suspense, by distracting the reader with genre-specific  razzle-dazzle, e.g. romantic tears or dying dragons or scifi tech-speak. But in a murder mystery, there is only one question; did the dramatic, whodunit revelation pay off?  Was it simultaneously both surprising and well foreshadowed?

Does the reader experience a pleasurable moment of self-loathing? “It was all there but I just missed figuring it out! I’m sooooo stoooopid!”If that’s how your reader feels, at that crucial moment, then she or he will buy your next book. That’s the wonderful, ironic fact.

If the core mystery isn’t solved in a satisfactory way, it won’t carry the kick that gives the reader that revelatory pleasure. And no amount of genre gizmos will make up for that fact.

I love mystery plots in fantasy. Naturally, this leads me to write them. I find it helpful to remember to deal with the core question of my story: Who did it? I want the fantasy to be part of the mystery without overshadowing the mystery itself. I don’t want the gizmos to substitute for a story well told.

So I’ve made myself a little list of things to consider while dealing with the mystery without distracting fantasy gizmos. Let me know what you think, or if you have any to add!

  • Focus on the core question. Who did it? Where are they? What’s going to happen? How do we stop it? For example: It isn’t about the dragon guarding the box, it’s about what’s inside the box. Getting past the dragon is going to be a problem, yes–but don’t let it be more shiny than what’s inside the box or the once-revealed,-now-obvious revelation of what’s inside it.
  • Replace the fantastic with the mundane–at least until you work out the mystery itself. Once you nail the mystery, you can replace the mundane with the fantastic element and make it as awesome as you want, because the mystery itself is handled well. Looking for a magical sword? First look for a normal sword. Trying to figure out what’s in a box behind the guarding dragon? Erase the dragon and deal with the box mystery–then add in the dragon as an extra hitch to their plans–or as an extra clue.
  • Or… Treat the fantasy elements themselves as mundane. If your characters are used to living in this fantasy world, as they are in mine, they will likely be used to the fantasy elements. They won’t be impressed. Remembering that may help reduce the urge to use the fantastic for it’s amazement value.

Other notes…

  • Don’t cheat.  Don’t use the fantasy elements to solve the mystery easier. If anything, they should make things harder.
  • Don’t let the other other guy cheat either. Don’t use fantasy elements to allow the villain to do things that aren’t clearly laid out in the story. Lay down concrete rules. The reader has to be able to figure out the mystery themselves for it to be satisfying–otherwise they will feel cheated. Remember the quote above: “It was all there but I missed figuring it out!”

Those are just a few ideas. Feel free to pitch in below in the comments, I’d love to hear your ideas on how to keep fantasy from interfering in a good mystery story!