By Brady Major
I’m writing a mystery story! Crazy, right? What, did you think I was just pretending to know what I was talking about all this time? Actually, don’t answer that.
Writing anything can be scary for creators of any skill level. It’s work that sometimes demands that you stay locked in a closed-off room, isolated from everyone in your life all so that you can “play” with the characters that live in your head. And to think they burned Joan of Arc at the stake because she said God was speaking to her.
Now, all of this can feel stressful and encumbering, but that’s why I’m here. I’ve done this sorta thing before, and together, with you doing most of the work, we can get through this. The nice guy that I am, I’ve compiled a few tips that have aided my writing process in the past, and hopefully they’ll guide you along a similar path to success.
#1 The Luther Method
Luther is a fantastic BBC series starring Idris Elba as the titular world-weary detective. The show is what would result if a psychological thriller and a mystery story made sweet, sweet love, and it’s riddled with moral qualms with no right answers, especially when the protagonist’s best friend is a serial killer and each antagonist is dripping with slimy villainy.
For those familiar with the show, you know that most of the episodes end with a credit sequence that teases what’s coming next with flashes of shots from that upcoming story. Characters scream or run for their lives, objects are tossed with violent abandon, or the villain of the week smiles a creepy smile only they can smile. In effect, these images make the gears in your head turn as you try to guess how events will unfold next.
Luther’s credits inspired my own creative process. I’d sit down with a barren idea for a story and just let images flow into my head. Maybe I pictured my protagonist walking into a neon-lit bar, then soon after that, he’s driving a car and before he knows it, the passenger’s side gets smashed into by an unseen vehicle. I’d try to string these disparate images together into a cohesive story, making a fun game of it. I was doing what the credits of Luther were always doing, except that while they were teasing future adventures, while I was simply trying to craft one from the ground up with only what was popping into my head.
If you’re a writer starving for ideas, this method could prove successful for you. You might birth a story immediately and produce a book that goes on to be published. Or, you might end up crumpling your notes into a ball and tossing them in the garbage two weeks later. And that’s okay; part of the creative process is about putting yourself out there and pursuing whimsies, even if they lead to dead ends.
#2 Outline, Outline, Outline
In case this second rule wasn’t already obvious, I highly advise you to take the idea you have for a mystery story and plan the hell out of the bastard.
Outlines are one of the most crucial parts of the writing process for me, especially when I’m working in the mystery genre, which is known for its complex and tangled webs of characters, victims, suspects, twists, and turns. Outlines guide me toward the end of the vision I have for a story and give me a clear idea of where I’m headed after each moment, but I compose them such that if I get new ideas and things change, I can adapt and branch off from those revelations. When you complete your beginning outline for a story, it will probably never end up being that vision; over time things will change, but it’s always nice to know where you’re going when you put the keys in the ignition.
Writers who prefer to jump into stories outline-free (bless their brave hearts) start up their literary car fitted with pitch black windows, and take off knowing they largely don’t have a clue where they’re going. These writers say it’s fun to dive right into a story with nothing to hold onto, but sometimes the metaphorical driver with blacked-out windows unknowingly races past a school crossing and, long story short, a bunch of cute little kids get plastered on the front of their car.
Because mystery stories are by their very nature layered and painstakingly plotted, you’ll do yourself and your future readers a great service by outlining your work and ensuring that all the disparate pieces of your story fit together at the end in a satisfying and transparent way. In essence, drive your figurative car without the tinted windows. You may still hit a few kids along the way, but at least you’ll know where you’re going when you do.
#3 Adjusting Your Vision
When you’re being creative and feel the juices of your imagination pumping, it can be unbearably difficult when you’re suddenly faced with an obstacle in the road that makes you rethink all that you’ve been working on.
This is what happened to me when I was writing my current mystery story “Down the Rabbit Hole.” I had my outline done and envisioned the story as a novella-length adventure of maybe 100 pages. All my ideas were flowing and I was progressing without too many issues, until it hit me somewhere around chapter 5: the story was more ambitious than I was letting on. After this epiphany, I had to take some time to rethink exactly what story I wanted to tell, and how I could go about giving the narrative the time to breathe that it needed.
This is a common experience. We all start our work with goals we hope to achieve. Maybe you want your story to be a certain length, or you begin a novel with a certain genre in mind. As time goes on and your creativity flows, however, you may find out that your story needs to be 200 pages, not 100, or that your novel is much more in line with the “rules” of a thriller than a mystery.
All of this is a perfectly normal and inevitable part of the creative process. Ideas gestate in our heads long before they see life on paper, and in each step of the process you’ll add in things that you think are lacking in your story and toss out what proves ineffective or out of place.
It’s only when you stop seeing things to fix that you should be worried. This implies that you believe your work is perfect and that you have nothing to improve on. And let’s face it, not everyone can be me.
I’m curious, dear readers: is any of this helpful, or am I just indulging myself by trying to sound clever? Furthermore, what writing tips do you have to share with The Master me that you’ve stumbled upon while crafting your own stories?