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How to Write a Damn Good Mystery

dramatic title text on a bold yellow field
How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript, by James Frey

n.b. Got this from my library on a whim; the book's social attitudes are about what you'd expect from a genre mystery in the 90s, i.e. it deals in stereotypes. YMMV.


More for my own easy reference than anything, I'm pasting the notes I took when reading this:



James N. Frey

How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript

Notes 7/7/2024


Why People Read Mysteries:

-vicarious thrill of the hunt

--satisfaction of seeing the transgressor punished

-sense of identification with the hero

-sense of conviction about the reality of the story


Hero’s Journey in a Murder Mystery:

The detective receives a mission to find a murderer and goes forth to a place of lies and deception, where they encounter the evil one and use courage and reason in a clever and resourceful way, while suffering greatly, to defeat the evil one. Then the hero returns to the community with justice.


Ideas to Get You Started

Ideas can grow from: an unusual hero, an unusual location, a fresh motive, a clever method, a fantastic opening or climax

The detective must use reason and be admirable, the murderer must be evil, there must be something new and interesting about the story


The Plot Behind the Plot

Start with the time and place the murder is done: this should be a place where dramatic events are happening besides the mystery.

The murderer is the pivotal character and pushes the plot. Write them a bio w/ physiology, background/sociology, psychology. Give them a ruling passion.

The murderer will be evil. They will NOT APPEAR to be evil. They will be clever and resourceful, a worthy opponent. They will have a psychological wound. They will be afraid.


Creating a Murderer

Both murderer and detective should be characters who are on the ends of the bell curve: unusual but possible people.

The murderer’s bio should follow them from family of origin to the time of the murder.


How to Become Intimate with a Murderer

Write a journal from the murderer’s point of view, in their voice, about the events of the murder as well as their life up to that point. Flesh them out


The Hero/Detective

Your reader will identify with the detective.

The detective should: have courage, be good at what they do for a living, have a special talent, be clever and resourceful, be wounded, be an outlaw, be self-sacrificing.

The hero’s wound is often healed, fully or partially, because of their self-sacrifice; the evil one’s wound is a rational for selfish and is never healed

Other common traits: is a loner, may be broke/poor, loyal to old friends and forgotten/lost causes, usually sexually appealing/potent.

Otherwise, may be a dirtbag and will still be appealing to readers


Creating a Damn Good Hero

Same as the murderer: brainstorm; use physiology, sociology, psychology; write a bio and a journal from their POV

Try to make them well-orchestrated with the murderer, i.e. in opposition in many (all) ways. If murderer is tall, detective is short; if murderer is from a small town, detective is from a city. Etc.

The detective should be interesting in the way that if you met them you’d later tell your friends about it.

The detective should not be perfect; should raise eyebrows


The Other Characters: Some Mythic, Some Not / Mythic Motifs of Interest to Mystery Writers

Common mythic characters found in murder mysteries:

-the hero’s sidekick

-the hero’s lover

-the wise one/ hero’s teacher

-the trickster

-the threshold guardian (warns the hero not to go on the journey)

-the armorer (Bond’s Q)

-the magical helper (often computer whizzes in modern mysteries)

-woman as goddess, whore, earth mother, bitch, nymph, femme fatale

-the loved one (who gives the hero a goodbye as they leave on the journey, and a tearful reunion when they return)

-the fool (late in the game the hero suspects they are wise)

-the shape-shifter

-the god with clay feet (the hero looks up to them, but they are unworthy)

Common mythic motifs/scenes:

-hero receives the call to adventure (they are asked to find the murderer)

-the hero declines the call and is pressured by inner and outer forces before accepting it

-the hero seeks advice from the wise one

-the threshold guardian tells the hero not to go

-the hero may capture a prize in addition to unmasking the murder (e.g. recovering a treasure)

-the hero has a showdown with the murderer

-before the showdown the hero receives armor/assistance

-someone close to the hero dies (sidekick or lover)

-hero has a ‘death and rebirth’ scene: the hero is almost killed and/or suffers a symbolic death such as being disgraced/disowned/kicked out of a place; the ‘ah-ha’ moment that follows where the hero realizes the identity of the murderer is a psychological death and rebirth

-hero changes costume, which signifies rebirth, after the ‘death’ scene (could be something like giving up a badge/sign of authority)

-the sidekick rescues the hero

-the hero rescues the sidekick (or lover)

-the hero invades the lair of the murderer

-the hero must learn new rules

-the hero has encounters with women

-the hero falls in love

-the hero suffers a terrible betrayal

-the hero figures out a riddle or conundrum

-the hero comes to see that the fool is no fool


Some characters should be red herring/suspects who are not guilty. Consider their motive, means, and opportunity to commit the murder. Do they have alibis?

Flesh them out with bios/journals


All About Plotting, Stepsheets, Flowcharts, and That Kind of Stuff / How to Get the Hell Out of the Way and Let Your Characters Tell the Story


Block out the plot with a stepsheet (numbered list of plot happenings as they appear in the book, each described in 1-5 sentences) or outline. Keep track of what the reader sees, and what happens behind the scenes

Four pillars of plot:

1. Mystery: something strange has happened that baffles readers

2. Suspense: what is going to happen next? Create both worry and wonder

3. Conflict: characters want something and are blocked from it, by nature or an antagonist; inner feelings are contradictory

4. Surprise: think about what the reader will expect to happen. Do something different


Designing the Plot for Fun and Profit

Five act design:

1. Tells how the detective accepts the mission to find the murderer

a. Create powerful story questions

b. Put characters in dramatic conflict

c. Touch the reader’s emotions, sympathy

2. Tells how the detective is tested and changes, and in the pivotal scene, dies and is reborn

a. They go into the woods, full of shadows

b. They learn new skills, find buried talents, gain insights into their inner nature, become more self-aware

c. The Pivotal Scene: aka the supreme ordeal, a catastrophe for the detective, the nadir of their fortunes. Reverberates through the story as a symbolic death and rebirth. Changes the detective into a different person

3. Tells how the detective is tested again and finally succeeds

a. As the hero progresses, their bafflement increases and the mystery gets more mysterious, until…

b. The Obligatory Scene: the detective discovers the identity of the murderer

4. Tells how the detective traps the murderer

a. The detective has a showdown with the evil one

b. The reader sees the transgressor punished

c. The detective returns to the community with justice

5. Tells how the events of the story impact the major characters

a. Can be brief

b. Should include the resolution of the romantic subplot, if any

c. May reveal behind-the-scenes info about other characters


Plotting Theory / Act One

Picking the opening action: brainstorm, try to come up with all possible ideas before picking one

Know what the reader knows and doesn’t know; have stepsheets for what’s on the page and what’s happening behind the scenes

Must get the reader involved in the story, and raise strong story questions. Should introduce conflicts, suspense and menace


The Hero Gets to Work / Act Two

Some detectives ‘gather’ clues in a browsing way, going from info to info; some detectives ‘hunt’ clues as each clue sends them to the next clue.

Never leave the reader feeling like the detective is ignoring information they’ve uncovered; the detective is never stupid

Ask yourself “If they’re smart, what will they do now?” BUT they won’t succeed, yet—in fact things will get worse to the point of ‘death’


How Our Hero Figures It All Out / Act Three

The cat and mouse game continues, with the detective reinvigorated from their death/rebirth. The detective has experienced a change in psychology that benefits their search

The menace increases, conflicts get more intense, pace quickens

The murderer gets frantic as the detective closes in

The detective realizes the identity of the murderer


All About Bringing Off a Gripping Climax / Act Four

The climactic sequence must include:

-surprise about the identity of the murderer

-other surprises, e.g. the cops have the wrong guy; other characters have secrets

-intense menace: the murderer is cornered and has already killed

-intense conflict

-seeing justice done

-reason does the murderer in (plus courage)

-there should be action! Chases, shooting, fisticuffs, etc. Or, in nonviolent stories, the detective puts the hat on the murderer and it’s a perfect fit

Things to avoid:

-long explanations/monologues

-overdoing the twists and turns/corkscrewing

-things happening because people are careless or slip up in ways the readers don’t believe

-self-destructing/repentant murderers that do the detective’s work for them


Luck should be on the side of the murderer, until they are unmasked in the obligatory scene—after that, they are ‘caught’ in the reader’s mind and should not be lucky enough to escape


Gotcha! Putting the Murderer in the Bag

keep track of loose ends throughout in order to tie them up at the end


Writing Damn Good Prose:

Be clear

Be efficient

Use sensory detail

Make good use of metaphor

Use active verbs

Use the active voice

Be emotional

Use telling details


The Fine Art of Writing the Mystery Scene

Create the fictive dream by raising story questions; get the reader to sympathize/feel bad for characters; get the reader to empathize/feel emotions the characters feel; get the reader to identify with the characters by giving them goals the readers want to see accomplished; exploit inner conflicts/conflicting desires

In each scene, know what each character’s agenda is, and make the lines of conflict clear


All About Viewpoints and Voices / Who’s Telling This Damn Story Anyway – Me or Him? Him or Me?

First-person v. close third v. distant third


Drafting, Rewriting, and Polishing Your Damn Good Mystery

You’re going to have to write and re-write dozens of times


The Killer Attitude / Getting an Agent, Dealing with Editors, Promotion, Book Signings, and Living the Writer’s Life

You must be constantly improving your craft

You must be constantly producing new work

You will be persistent to the point of craziness in getting your work out there, which matters more in becoming An Author than anything else at all.

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