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By Caroline Fardig
Let’s face it—there’s nothing worse than figuring out “who done it” halfway through a novel. It’s irritating, even though it does make you feel pretty smart and detective-y. Once you have it all figured out, don’t you hate it when the main character just can’t seem to put his or her finger on the one connection that could solve the whole mystery? I often find myself shaking my head and muttering, “You idiot,” at the bumbling sleuth (who obviously can’t hear me, but it makes me feel better anyway).
So what can writers do to prevent this tragedy from happening to their readers? How can we keep the suspense for the reader yet throw out enough clues that our lead character can solve the crime? We must model our plot structure after the stories of the greatest crime-fighting force the world has ever known. That’s right—I’m talking about the Scooby-Doo gang.
Rule #1—The bad guy always has to seem like a good guy.
The easiest way to throw suspicion off of a character is to make him or her seem like one of the “good guys”. He should be helpful to the sleuth, providing clues (preferably ones that seem legitimate but ultimately lead our hero or heroine on a wild goose chase) or kindly pointing a finger at another character, especially one who has a bad reputation. On the flip side, if the good-seeming bad guy is too squeaky clean, that could be a red flag for the reader as well. Casting no suspicion on a character can be as obvious as casting too much suspicion. Bottom line, if the reader is convinced that the bad guy is one of the good guys, the “unmasking” at the end will be all the more gasp-worthy.
Rule #2—Always have a red herring.
The red herring in Scooby-Doo was actually named Red Herring. Red wasn’t the red herring in every episode, but it was funny when he was, because he was so obviously not guilty, even though he acted so obviously guilty. When I’m writing, I find it useful to have more than one red herring. It’s fun to cast suspicion on a variety of characters, and in different ways. You can go the direct route, having the main character say things like, “I think this guy is guilty,” or you can be more subtle and let the reader draw conclusions by dropping suspicious-sounding hints or having that character be unaccounted for during a crime. This is very easy to accomplish when telling a story from a first-person point of view. It would not be possible, nor would it be expected, for your main character to know where every other character is at all times. And as for suspicious-sounding hints, let your characters gossip behind each other’s backs!
Rule #3—Keep the motive a secret until the bad guy confesses at the end.
If the “why” of the crime is obvious, so is the “who”. A person’s motive is as telling as his or her fingerprints on the murder weapon. For example, if everyone in town is angry with the victim because he stole money from them, then everyone is a suspect, and you just have to figure out who would actually kill over money. Jinkies, that’s boring! However, if that victim also recently cheated on his girlfriend and broke her heart, NOW you have a real story. I guess that scenario is not quite kid-friendly enough for Scooby-Doo, but you get my point. Also, don’t let too many details of the motive be revealed too soon in the story. If the motive comes out of left field, then the identity of the bad guy (or girl) can stay hidden. Just make sure that the motive isn’t so out there that it sounds unbelievable.
Well gang, I guess that wraps up the mystery of how to keep the “mystery” in your plot. Follow these rules and even those meddling kids couldn’t solve your mystery before your sleuth does.
Wonderful post, Caroline! These are all great rules to follow for any book, not just mystery or suspense. Thanks!
CAROLINE FARDIG was born and raised in a small town in Indiana. Her working career has been rather eclectic thus far, with occupations including school teacher, church organist, insurance agent, funeral parlor associate, and stay-at-home mom. Finally realizing that she wants to be a writer when she grows up, Caroline has completed her first novel, It’s Just a Little Crush, and is currently hard at work churning out a second novel in the series. She still lives in that same small town with an understanding husband, two sweet kids, two energetic dogs, and one malevolent cat.
Caroline's Romantic Suspense novel, It's Just a Little Crush, will be on sale for 99¢ from August 17–21, 2013! Don't forget to pick up your copy!
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