Angie Azur is a YA Sci-fi Writer.
Writer for PALEO Magazine.
Former Intern at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
SCBWI & COWG Member.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mystery and Suspense Writing

I've learned a lot from classes on writing. Here is a collection of helpful hints from various teachers, including myself on writing suspense and mystery novels.

There are 4 main mystery & suspense books:
  1. Puzzled Clue: this is for the reader who likes to solve problems and is usually very logical.
  2. Treasure Hunt: this book will have maps - hints - clues. it is usually a race between the goods guys and bad to find the treasure.
  3. Psychologicals: there is always an evil perp. the reader gets a peak into their mind. this book is intentionally spooky.
  4. Super Natural: can be spooky and/or funny. ghosts - demons - angels are some of the main plots or characters here.
The very essence of a mystery is: DISORDER
  • something has gone wrong
  • try to fool the reader
  • escalating crisis
  • in the end - retribution - very important!
RULE: The reader must always know what the main character knows.

PLAN: You, the writer, must plan. 
  1. What really happened?
  2. What you want the reader to believe?
  • All false clues must be logical
  • All false clues must go with what really happened
1st Chapter: The reader must know what has gone wrong and why. And the clock must be ticking. 

Common Flaws:
  • coincidence
  • detectives who rely on luck
  • writing too much
  • dead ends
  • lack of character
  • unlikely oversights
  • hero is too tough (the reader can't relate)
  • tired situations (already done scenes or overly done)
  • foolish bravery (you know the girl who runs outside to check on that scary noise)
  • too much or extra descriptions
  • secondary character takes over (becomes more interesting or believable) 
  • withholding information

Characters : Crime : Motive

Toxicity: how evil / nasty is the act? what level of intensity?

  • low toxicity: unintentional bad things happen, goofy things occur, accidents occur
  • medium: intentional things, but no real harm done. things are easy to fix, no permanent scars.
  • high: intentional death or injury, great harm done
Example: low = losing your keys
                medium = losing your credit cards
                high = losing your wedding ring

  • basic curiosity
  • rascally behavior
  • money
  • revenge
  • jealousy
  • fear
  • anger
  • self-defense
  • mental instability
  • keeping secrets
  • shame
  • hiding flaws
  • obsessions
VILLAIN: The reader must be able to sympathize with he/she. reader must be able to get inside the villain's head. the villain must behave logically based on his/her mental universe.

CHARACTER VOICE: This is a great exercise for any character, but I love to use it for villains.
  • Make a list of words or thoughts only this character would use, think, or say
  • Include: vocabulary, cadence, tempo, slang, tone, etc...
  • Make a list of people you know who have a speech pattern or way of talking, use of words that stands out to you.
  • Give every character a secret
  • Happiness is the goal of your main character: so build up failures and build up rewards
  • What is it specifically that would make your main character happy?

CHARACTERIZATION: What I've learned in my 8+ writing years is the best way to describe a character is by the house, room, closet, car, etc...they live in....including clothing choice.

For instance my closet is:
  • Very organized
  • color coded (I know psycho)
  • I own shirts in every color in the rainbow 
  • Lots of jeans - too many in fact
  • Many moods of clothing
What does this tell you about me? Maybe I don't know who I am because of the many moods? Or I am moody? Maybe I am a happy go lucky person because of all the colors? Maybe I'm "Sleeping with the Enemy" organized? You'll learn more once more is revealed, but your character's closet is a good place to start. 

A note on simile and metaphor: They must arise out of your character's own sensibility and must not over power the subject of your sentence. 

SETTING: Think about the type of mood you want to set. Is it light or dark?
  • Untraditional is better
  • Spooky? Or can become spooky?
  • A good place where things should be good, but something bad happens?
  • Good place with a known bad area
  • Weather? What patters are there?
  • Rain = dark setting
  • Sun = light setting
  • Geography: what is the character's home turf? what is the unknown areas around?
  • History: are there secrets to a house? a place? a town? something hidden? something found?
  • Missing Object: can set your setting depending on who finds it? who is missing it?
CULTURAL EXPECTATIONS: this is tricky because in each decade there is change - which is good - but if you are decades older than the characters you are writing, then you must understand the difference between how and when you grew up and how and when your characters are growing up. So what are your character's cultural expectations, not yours?

  • be sure to live up to your beginnings expectations
  • wrap up loose ends
  • keep the suspense and mystery going until the last page
  • let your mc be happy
  • mc must have learned something
  • keep it real to the novel - no surprises - meaning if no aliens were suspected throughout your novel, no aliens show up in the end.
  • let other characters learn something too
  • the evil perp may change or become worse
  • play with different endings
  • surprise us with a twist that fits in the novel    
I dropped a lot of information on you relatively quickly. I hope it helps in your suspense and mystery writing. But don't stop there. These helpful ideas can push your romance novel forward,  your fantasy novel will get a bigger punch if you add suspense. Good writing --- Angie Azur


  1. Awesome blog post! I'm currently writing a spooky story, and I'm going to use some of the things on this post so I don't forget stuff about the characters in it.

  2. Great!! Good luck to you and let me know how it goes...