What Do Editors Want, Anyway?

Most beginning writers, especially those who’ve suffered a few rejections, wonder about the answer to this post’s subject question. What do editors want?What Editors Want

I can’t pretend to speak for all editors. I’ve not reached the point where all my stories get accepted. I’ve never worked as an editor myself.

However, a few years ago, one editor* gave me his answer to that question, and it’s a good one. He wrote, “I’m a stickler for a story having not only a clear protagonist, antagonist, and plot, but a resolution of the plot (in which the protagonist participates) and a change in the protagonist on some level. I like stories that, as Twain once said, ‘accomplish something and arrive somewhere.’ Most accomplish nothing and arrive nowhere. It’s dreadful to read through an otherwise good story and have it end without ending.”

Let’s accept that as a working proposition and break it down.

  1. Clear protagonist. The reader shouldn’t have to wonder who the main character is. I believe the editor chose the word ‘protagonist’ rather than ‘hero’ since the main character need not be particularly heroic.
  2. Clear antagonist. Stories must have conflict. There must be some entity against whom the protagonist struggles. The antagonist need not be a person; it could be nature or the environment. Once again, once finished with the story, any reader should be able to name the antagonist.
  3. Clear plot. By this, I believe the editor was saying the story must portray events in a logical order. The events must relate to the conflict and follow each other with a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Some events will escalate tension and others will relieve it. Overall, there needs to be a gradual buildup of tension until the resolution.
  4. Plot resolution in which the protagonist participates. The resolution is that part of the plot where the conflict is resolved (the bad guy is defeated, the two people fall in love, the protagonist overcomes a character flaw, etc.). It’s important that the protagonist take action to bring about this resolution and not be some bystanding witness to the action. Note: the word ‘resolved’ does not imply happily or favorably. Resolution of the conflict could be accomplished by the protagonist’s death or other defeat.
  5. Protagonist changes on some level. If your protagonist is the same person at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, the reader will wonder what the point of the story was. The clause ‘on some level’ refers to the fact that conflicts are generally classed as external (bad-guy antagonist or unforgiving environment) or internal (character flaw, irrational fear, grief, unreasonable guilt, psychological problem, etc.). Many stories impose both internal and external conflicts on the protagonist. For internal conflicts, the change should be an overcoming of the condition, or at least hope of such problem solving. For external conflicts, the protagonist’s change is generally a maturation of some kind.
  6. Story accomplishes something. This is part of the Twain quote, and is a restating of points 4 and 5. The plot and conflicts must resolve and the protagonist must change. A great way for a story to accomplish something is if it says something useful about the human condition.
  7. Story arrives somewhere. By this, I take Twain to mean that the story must end at an appropriate point, not before the conflict resolution, and not too long afterward.

Save your editor some time, and save yourself another bout of rejection-grief. Check if your story meets all of the above criteria before submitting it. If it doesn’t, it’s not ready.

Of course, even if your story does meet these criteria, that’s no guarantee of acceptance. Who can pretend to know what all editors want? Certainly not—

Poseidon’s Scribe

* Note: the editor who wrote that is David M. Fitzpatrick, of Epic Saga Publishing. He accepted one of my stories for an upcoming Epic Saga anthology. David has gone into more detail about what he looks for in submissions; see this wonderful blog post here, which includes some great writing exercises, too.

8 Rules for Writing The End

Writing the ending of your story can be as difficult as coming up with its opening lines. After all, the ending is the part that will (or should) linger in your readers’ minds. It’s important to craft an ending that satisfies, intrigues, and leaves readers hungry for your next book.

The EndWhat should you do to create a memorable and striking ending? Here are 8 rules to follow, distilled from great posts you should also read by Dee White, James V. Smith, Jr., Brian Klems, Crista Rucker, Joanna Penn, and the folks at Creative Writing Now and WikiHow:

 

  1. Resolve the story’s main conflict(s). Even if the external conflict isn’t fully resolved, the protagonist’s internal conflict should demonstrate growth in that character.
  2. Ensure the final events result from the protagonist’s actions and decisions. For better or worse, the hero must bring about the ending, not stand by and watch it happen. Do not allow a Deus Ex Machina.
  3. Strive for an ending that’s inevitable, yet unexpected. I’ve always found Beethoven’s music to be like that. “Yeah,” you’re asking, “but how do I do that?” Take the expected ending and give it a twist; that’s how to give readers something they don’t expect. The way to make that ending inevitable is to go back and drop foreshadowing hints into the story. If these hints are subtle, then your ending can be both inevitable and unexpected.
  4. Allow only a brief resolution after the story’s climax. The end should be a rapid relaxation of tension as I depicted here.
  5. The end should refer to story’s theme, but not be preachy like a morality play.
  6. If you’re unsure how to end your tale, write several draft endings and either choose the best one, or combine elements from two or more of the best. You may end up with as many drafts of the ending as you wrote for the beginning hook.
  7. You needn’t fully wrap up all the story’s loose ends (except those pertaining to the protagonist and the main internal conflict), but they should be addressed or hinted at.
  8. The end should reflect back to beginning, but in a spiral manner, not a circular one. By that I mean that things can never be as they were in the beginning of the story; too much has changed. By referring back to the beginning, that will emphasize this change to the reader.

Adherence to these rules should help you end your stories in a manner satisfying to your readers. At last, riding off into the sunset on his amazing rocket-powered pen, goes—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Well-Written Villain

Villains, or antagonists, have come a long way. During the history of literature, they may have evolved even more than heroes, or protagonists. We’ll discuss that evolution, and show you how to create a well-written villain for your story.

A villain is a character opposed to the protagonist, who is usually cruel and who may be involved with crime. Not all stories have villains. The word ‘villain’ comes from the same root as ‘villa’ and once simply meant ‘farmhand.’ Only later did the word get loaded down with evil connotation baggage.

VillainFor centuries, when much of literature served the purpose of inculcating morality, authors portrayed villains as one-dimensional characters devoted to pure evil. Writers made it easy for the reader to distinguish the villainous characters from the good ones, by appearance, speech, and actions. Authors provided no reason for the villain’s malevolent nature, nor were such reasons expected. The villain was just bad, that’s all.

Then a change occurred in literature, and villains evolved. From the timing, I associate it with the advent of psychology, the study of the human mind and behavior. I may be wrong about that linkage, but it makes sense to me.

Since the early- to mid-Twentieth Century, it has not been enough to portray a villain as purely evil, without explanation. Gone are the black cape, the curled moustache, and the menacing sneer. (Well, maybe you can use such a stereotypical character for comedic effect.)

The modern villain starts out as a normal person, indistinguishable from any other character. Something happens to that person; a disturbing event triggers a change in the way they think. (Rather than a single event, the character could be raised from childhood in a peculiar way, but then that way must have an explanation.) The character twists the event, obsesses about it, and it becomes a driving factor for later behavior.

As this happens, the villain may not change in outward appearance, so he or she will be indistinguishable from other characters. This warping toward villainy occurs only in the antagonist’s mind. The resulting villain will likely have many good, even endearing, traits, all while harboring a secret inner drive toward nefarious ends.

While writing your story, you’ll need to convey this explanation for your villain’s behavior, even if it’s backstory. No modern reader will accept a character who is evil ‘just because.’

Moreover, the chain of events must lead to the villain being opposed to the hero. The protagonist and antagonist are a matched set. Often, the villain’s desired ends have nothing to do with the hero, but the hero becomes the irritant the villain must deal with to achieve his goal.

To ensure your story is interesting and to give your protagonist a worthy problem to solve, the villain must be at least as smart and powerful as the hero. Your hero must strive beyond his or her own perceived limits, and suffer nearly insurmountable hardships to overcome the villain. But neither can your villain be invulnerable. You should depict your villain as being on a quest of his own, contending with problems where not all of his machinations work all the time.

In preparing this post I studied, and villainously stole from, other wonderful posts on this topic, including this one on wikiHow, the Wikipedia article on ‘Villain,’ and Hallie Ephron’s article in Writer’s Digest. I encourage you to read each one for more in-depth information.

Now you should be ready to create your own villain. With this blog post finished, I can get back to my fiendish scheme to take over the internet! Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Soon the entire world will bow down to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

February 7, 2016Permalink

Conflict, the Necessary Evil

Ever notice how fiction seems full of conflict? Characters hate each other, fight each other, struggle with problems, strive to survive, etc. Why can’t they just get along together and have nice, trouble-free lives? After all, that’s what we real people want for ourselves, right?

Necessity

You may go ahead and write stories where nothing bad happens, where characters are always kind and thrive in a stress-free environment.

Just one little problem with that notion…no one is going to read those stories. They’d be boring! There is no reason to care about such characters. Their outcome is not in doubt.

ConflictConflict is, therefore, an essential aspect of all fiction. Conflict drives the plot and creates interest in the characters. Since all fiction is about the human condition, and since conflict is inherent in the human condition, your stories had better include some type of conflict.

You might be objecting as you think about great stories you’ve read that didn’t involve any guns, bombs, swords, spears, knifes, or fistfights. Ah, but think deeper about those stories. Did characters disagree verbally? Did a character struggle to survive against Nature’s fury? Was a character conflicted internally?

Conflict comes in various kinds and need not involve violence at all. At its essence, conflict is two forces in opposition to each other. That’s it.

Types

What are the types or categories of conflict? Here’s my classification schema:

  • External
    • Character vs. Character
    • Character vs. Nature
    • Character vs. Society
  • Internal
    • Character vs. Self

Some people add other external conflict types such as Character vs. Technology, Supernatural forces, Fate, or others. To me, those are all included in the basic four types.

How many types of conflict should you include within a single story? Unless it’s flash fiction, I recommend at least two, with one of them being an internal conflict. We live in a psychological age, and readers want to see characters with some depth, some internal struggles, some flaws. Readers don’t even want antagonists to be pure evil; there needs to be some explanation how they turned so bad.

Resolution

I’ve blogged before about the need to ramp up the level of conflict in your story, but what about the resolution of the conflict at the end?

Although I personally enjoy stories where protagonists overcome their adversity through wit, cunning, and intelligence, it need not be that way. Not all conflicts need to be completely resolved at the end. Or the resolution of one major conflict may spark the start of another. Really, the struggle during the bulk of the story is more important than the resolution.

In fact, the protagonist may lose the struggle, as in Jack London’s famous short story, “To Build a Fire.”  That story illustrates that fiction really is about characters contending with difficulties, not necessarily overcoming them in the end. It truly is about the journey, not the destination.

Resources and Summary

There really are some nice blog posts about conflict out there, including this, this, this, this, and this.

Those are my opinions about conflict. You might disagree, and that disagreement itself would represent a type of conflict between you and—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 21, 2014Permalink

What a Disaster!

Today I’m exploring the world of disaster fiction. There are many, many stories dealing with disasters, from local misadventures to world-wide calamities. I’ll discuss frequently occurring themes in disaster fiction, as well as the reasons people read it. That might help you decide if you want to write such a tale.

DisasterFirst, no disaster story is truly about the disaster. If you want to write about disasters, try non-fiction. As I’ve said before, fiction is about the human condition, so your disaster story is really about the characters, their attempts to cope with the disaster, and how they grow or change as a result.

I’ll make a distinction between disaster stories and post-apocalyptic stories. In the latter, the disaster has already occurred and people are trying to handle the aftermath. In the former, the disaster occurs during the story. I’ll discuss post-apocalyptic fiction in a future blog post.

Types

Though disaster stories are about people, we can still classify them by the type of disaster that occurs, and there are plenty to choose from. You might think all the best disasters have been taken already and the reading public won’t go for one more disaster novel. You’d be wrong; since the stories are about people, there are always infinitely more stories to write.

Disasters can be natural, as with floods or tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, other significant storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, extreme climate change, asteroid or comet collisions, etc.

The disaster could be an accident, such as a shipwreck, airplane crash, train wreck, industrial accident, etc. A car crash probably wouldn’t count, since the disaster really should involve a large number of people.

There are other disasters that aren’t natural, and aren’t really accidents either. Let’s call them calamities, and separate them into plausible and less-plausible scenarios. The plausible ones include pandemics, terrorist attacks, major wars, economic collapse, and loss of electricity.

The less-plausible calamities (my own risk assessment; yours might differ) include: alien invasion, uncontrolled release of technology (such as nanotechnology, robot uprising, creation of a black hole, creation of a super-disease or super-creature, etc.), zombie apocalypse, “return” of vampires or werewolves, and attacks by menacing (usually gigantic) animals.

Themes

You’ll find some common themes in disaster stories. Here’s a partial list.

• Despite how far humans have progressed, we need reminding we are small and weak creatures in a big, dangerous universe.
• As disaster looms, people will react differently, going through the Kübler-Ross ‘Five Stages of Grief’ at different rates.
• A large-scale disaster will collapse the normal societal structure, and other structures will form.
• A disaster brings together strangers who must form a team with a common purpose, such as survival.
• A main character must overcome a personal fear or other psychological flaw and rise to the situation.
• A former leader cannot cope with the disaster; a new and unlikely leader must take charge.
• Often the protagonist’s main goal is either survival (of a group) or rescue of others.
• There are good and bad human reactions to disasters, and the characters who react badly often (though not always) meet a bad end. For example, preparation is better than assuming an unchanging future; clear thinking is better than panic, teamwork is better than uncaring self-centeredness; natural leadership is better than using a chaotic situation to claim power; focusing on the goal is more productive than blaming or finding fault.

Purpose

Why do people read disaster stories? These are among the reasons:

• It’s a chance to “experience” the disaster in a safe way, without having to endure it for real.
• The stories can be taken as metaphors for how we can deal with the smaller-scale mishaps of daily life.
• The tales can be metaphors for some perceived societal defect, as in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
• The stories offer lessons in preparation as old as the ant & grasshopper fable.

Conclusion

51aDCvEwjvLI would classify only one of my stories as a true disaster tale. “The Finality” appeared in the anthology 2012 AD by Severed Press. In it, a scientist discovers that time itself is coming to an end, not just on Earth but throughout the universe, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. But just maybe the Mayans were trying to tell us something about that.

May all your disasters be the written kind; that’s the hope of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 30, 2014Permalink

Ex-Out Deus ex Machina

Strange term, that ‘Deus ex Machina.’ All it means is ‘the god from the machine’ and if your story’s got one, you probably don’t want it.

Deus ex MachinaAlthough the concept comes to us in its Latin wording, it dates from the plays of Ancient Greece. Performed in amphitheaters, these plays sometimes featured an actor playing the part of a Greek god, who would descend into the final scene apparently from the sky by means of a crane with ropes. The ‘god’ would solve the play’s central problem by means of magical powers.

Over time, the phrase came to mean the late and unexpected introduction in a story of a character, ability, or object that seems to resolve the story’s conflict in some miraculous way.

     Not Recommended
You’ll want to avoid Deus ex Machina (DEM) in your stories because it’s the mark of an amateur writer. You get positive points for burdening your protagonist with difficult dilemmas to solve. But you lose those points and more when you’ve painted your hero into a corner and you can’t get her or him out without resorting to some external savior entering the action at the end.

The presence of a DEM cheats the reader, who is expecting a story about the human condition.  The reader has, therefore, invested some emotional energy in your protagonist, following that hero along through all the conflicts, both external and internal. The reader is wondering how your protagonist will prevail. To introduce a DEM, therefore, is jarring and disappointing.

     Difficult to Avoid
Sometimes you’re working along with your manuscript and you find you’ve put your protagonist in such trouble that, try as you might, you can’t think of a way out. You like the story otherwise, and really don’t want to rewrite in a way that lessens the difficulty and allows your hero to win the day through innate virtues.

These are the times you might be tempted to call in the aid of a DEM. Again, for reasons noted above, it’s best not to do so. In most cases.

     When It’s Right
In the hands of a master storyteller, DEMs can work in two situations I’ve discovered: (1) when the author is making a larger point, and (2) in comedies.

For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the French army conquers the town, enters the Inquisition, and frees the narrator from his horrible prison. But Poe is making a larger point about life and the freeing of the soul to enter heaven when the clock (pendulum) of life ceases.

In H.G. Wells’ novel, The War of the Worlds, it’s true the invading Martians are defeated by tiny bacteria. But Wells is making a statement about Britain’s encounters with cultures having primitive technology. He’s saying that, but for the microbes, even mighty Britain would have been annihilated.

In Monty Python’s movie “Life of Brian,” Brian is saved from a deadly fall by a passing alien spaceship. The DEM literary device is used here for comedic effect.

     A Final Example
If you’re really, really good, go ahead and use a Deus ex Machina. Otherwise, best to avoid them. Let your characters figure their own way out of their jams.

Hmm, as I write this, I have no idea how to end this blog post.

Enter Poseidon, appearing out of nowhere.
Poseidon: “Silly mortal. Just write ‘Poseidon’s Scribe’ below your other babbling text, the way you’ve signed off every other post.”
Me: “Oh, hehe. Thanks Poseidon. You mean like this:

Poseidon’s Scribe.”

When Your Protagonist Meets You

It saddens me to report that author Ann (A.C.) Crispin died a few days ago, on September 6.  Before I discuss my connection with her, I should give you a brief bio.

ac-crispinA.C. Crispin was a science fiction writer who established herself with “tie-in” novels delving into the characters of established universes of Star Trek, Star Wars, the V miniseries, and others.  She also created her own Starbridge series of novels.

Angered at how some agents, editors, and publishers cheat beginning writers, Crispin co-founded a group called Writer Beware in 1998 to both warn writers and to help law enforcement agencies prosecute scam artists.

I don’t know exactly when, perhaps ten or fifteen years ago, I enrolled in a creative writing course at my local community college.  A.C. Crispin taught it.  I recall her being a tough teacher, direct and honest with those whom she thought should consider non-writing pursuits.  She usually said encouraging things to me about the homework I submitted, though.

A.C. Cripsin’s lectures contained references to the great works of literature, and she’d look around the class for flashes of recognition.  When she didn’t see any, she admonished us to read the classics if we wanted to write well.

She asked us all a question on the first day of class that has stuck with me.  None of us answered it correctly, and she’s written about the question in her essay, “The Key to Making Your Characters Believable.”

If the protagonist of any of your stories saw you walking along the street, and recognized you as the writer, what would he or she do upon meeting you?  The answer, if you’ve done your job properly, is  the protagonist would punch you in the nose.  After all, your story drags that protagonist through bad and progressively worse situations.  You’ve challenged that protagonist with tests of character that force him or her to confront deep, inner beliefs or fears.  Perhaps in addition, you’ve pitted the world against your protagonist, multiplying the external problems that character must face.  No wonder that protagonist is furious with you!

While you cowered from the rain of your creation’s blows, your nose bleeding, you’d be blubbering that you had to do it, you were forced put the protagonist through Hell for the readers’ benefit, to make a compelling story.  That would probably sound pretty hollow to your character, I suspect.

Luckily, your fictional creations won’t be meeting you on the street or in any dark alleys.  You are free to force them to crawl through mud and gore, to confront giant monsters, to face their deepest terrors, to suffer the despair of lost love.  All with complete impunity.  Go ahead; they can’t strike back, and your readers expect you to write stories like that.  That was A.C. Crispin’s message to the class.

Goodbye, Ann Crispin, and thank you.  Not only did you touch readers with your novels, you protected budding authors through your Writer Beware group, and inspired many beginning scribblers, like—                                            

                                             Poseidon’s Scribe

September 15, 2013Permalink

Ay, Now the Plot Thickens

When George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham wrote those words for his play “The Rehearsal” in 1663, I believe he had today’s blog post in mind.  For, ay, I intend to discuss how to plot a story.

First, what is a plot?  It is simply a series of connected fictional events.  Here are two rules about these events:

1.  In a non-humorous story, the connections between events should be logical, with a minimum of lucky coincidences; the events should be related by cause and effect.

2.  To make your story appealing to readers, there should be a certain structure to these events.  That is, experience has shown this particular plot structure (sometimes called a “dramatic arc”) to have a maximum emotional impact.

But how are rules 1 and 2 related?  What does it mean to have a cause-and-effect chain of events that rises and falls?  Think of it this way.  Your story must have a protagonist with a problem, a conflict of some kind.  Often there is both an external and internal conflict.

I’ve said before that stories are about the human condition.  More specifically, stories show human ways of dealing with problems.  It may seem strange to generalize that way, but without a problem or conflict, you have no story.  Even if there are no humans in your tale, your non-human characters are really just standing in for people.

Plotting diagramsBack to plotting.  Think of the series of events (Rule 1) as events showing your protagonist encountering an initial obstacle, overcoming it, then encountering a worse one, overcoming that one, etc.  Each obstacle thrown at her causes her to struggle against it.  Her struggle causes the antagonist (which may be a person or nature or anything) to oppose her even more.  That’s what Villiers described as a plot thickening.

Think of the dramatic arc (Rule 2) as a portrayal of the increasing difficulties for your protagonist as she contends with her problems. Tensions should increase in this section, culminating in a climactic turning point.  There she must confront both her external and internal problems.  The remaining events convey the resolution of the conflict and represent a decrease in tension.

Although I’ve geared this discussion to short stories, all fiction is similar.  Screenwriter H. R. D’Costa has written a wonderful blog post providing the secrets of movie plot structures.

Oh, one more thing about problems and resolutions—if you have a problem with what I’ve said in this blog post, leave a comment and I’ll try to resolve it.  I also accept praise by the heapful.  I’ll close by saying, Ay, now the plot’s been thickened by—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

September 1, 2013Permalink

Giving and Receiving…Critiques

‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, so I thought I’d discuss critiques of fiction manuscripts.  Last time I did so, I said I’d let you know how to give and receive critiques.  My critique group meeting 2experience is based solely on twenty years of being in small, amateur, face-to-face critique groups; not writing workshops, classes, or online critique groups; so the following advice is tuned to that sort of critique.

First of all, to give the critique, keep the following points in mind:

  • Read the submitted manuscript straight through once, and just note where you were “thrown out of the story” for some reason.  Jot down why and come back to those points later.
  • Re-read the manuscript again. You could mark some of the grammar or spelling problems, but don’t concentrate on those.  The author wants you to find the bigger stuff.
  • Where there are stand-out positives (“Eyeball kicks” in TCL parlance) note those and praise the author.  The word critique should not have solely negative connotations.  A positive comment from you could keep the author from later deleting a really good description, metaphor, or turn of phrase.
  • Be clear and specific in the comments you write; avoid ambiguity.
  • Look for the following story elements and comment if they’re not present or they’re weak:

1.  Strong opening or hook

2.  Compelling, multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical protagonist with human flaws

3.  A problem or conflict for the protagonist to resolve

4.  Worthy secondary characters, different from the protagonist, who do not steal the show

5.  Vivid settings, not overly described

6.  Consistent and appropriate point of view

7.  Appropriate dialogue that moves the plot and breaks up narration

8.  Narration that shows and doesn’t tell.

9.  A plot that builds in a logical way, events stemming from actions that stem from understandable motivations

10.  A story structure complete with Aristotle’s Prostasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe (beginning, middle, and end)

11.  Appeals to all five senses

12.  Active sentence structure, using passive only when appropriate

13.  Appropriate symbolism, metaphors, similes

14.  A building of tension as the protagonist’s situation worsens, followed by brief relaxing of tension before building again

15.  An appropriate resolution of the conflict, without deus ex machina, resulting from the striving of the protagonist, and indicative of a change in the protagonist

  • If your group shares comments verbally, do so in a helpful, humble way.

You think all that sounds pretty difficult?  Ha!  It’s much harder to receive a critique.  When doing so, here are the considerations:

  • Submit your work early enough to allow sufficient time for thorough critiques.  Be considerate of your group members’ time.
  • While being critiqued, sit there and take it.  No comments.  No defensiveness.  Just listen to the honest comments of a person who not only represents many potential readers, but who wants you to get published.

So, when it comes to critiques, is it better to give than to receive?  In contrast to most gifts, it’s harder to receive them, but it’s still a toss-up which is better overall.  But perhaps both are just a bit easier for you to deal with now, thanks to this post by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

December 30, 2012Permalink

A Mystery to Me

Do you love reading mysteries?  Ever think of writing one?

The genre was invented by Edgar Allan Poe and popularized by Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories.  It remains a popular genre with a devoted readership.

The mystery genre is hard to define.  All fiction involves an element of mystery, since there’s always a conflict and the reader doesn’t know how the protagonist will resolve that conflict.  Here we’ll speak of stories where the focus is on the puzzling aspects of the conflict, which is often a crime or some unexplained phenomena.  In addition, the sleuth in the story uses attention to detail and deductive logic to solve the mystery.

In your mystery story, make sure the mystery itself is something important, something the reader will care about.  That’s why there are so many murder mysteries, and so few involving a missing 99¢ comb.

Before writing your story, develop various timelines or storylines:

1.  First is the actual timeline of events in which the real perpetrator commits the act.  This must be logical and in accordance with various character’s motivations.  As author, you’ll be the only one who knows this one.

2.a., 2.b, 2.c, etc.  You may need a series of fake timelines, in each of which one of the other suspects could commit the act.  These need not be completely logical or reflect character motivations exactly, but at first your sleuth won’t know that.

3.  A timeline pieced together by your sleuth, formed through evidence and logical deduction.

4.  You might even have a separate timeline that is revealed to the reader.  However, Timeline 4 usually matches Timeline 3.

Most mysteries involve the commission of a crime.  To do so, a criminal must have means, motive, and opportunity (MMO).  The challenge for the sleuth is that either (1) several people seem to have all three, or (2) nobody seems to have all three.  Of the three necessary parts of MMO, motive is often the first part presented to the reader.

Among frequent readers of the genre it’s considered unfair to (1) withhold evidence from the reader that the sleuth knows, including specialized skills or knowledge, or (2) have the sleuth confront the guilty suspect with insufficient evidence (that wouldn’t gain a conviction in court) but still the criminal breaks down and confesses.

Your writing challenge is to present the reader with all the evidence needed to solve the mystery, but to make the puzzle difficult enough that the reader would rather just read to the end to see how the sleuth cracks the case.  Bear in mind the necessary evidence need not be emphasized in your story, just present.  It could be buried in the middle of a paragraph.  Or you could distract the reader’s attention with some dramatic action that happens to include a piece of evidence easy to gloss over.

The genre has been so well explored, it’s difficult to think of mysteries that haven’t been done.  For example, I wish you luck in thinking up a new version of the locked-room mystery, where a crime is committed in a sealed enclosure where the only entries are locked from the inside.

For that reason, writers of mysteries these days seem to be focusing on the character of the sleuth, or the setting.  In today’s market, the way to set your mystery apart is to have a very compelling sleuth.  The minimum attributes for this character are: (1) attention to detail, and (2) an ability to deduce a chain of events from disparate facts.  Or you could have two sleuths working together, each of which has one of these traits.

Another way to distinguish your mysteries from others is to use a historical or unusual setting.  Depending on how far back a time you choose, it could present a real challenge for your sleuth due to the lack of modern crime investigation technologies.

Did this blog entry inspire you to write a mystery story?  Leave me a comment and let me know about it.  Just make sure the answer to whodunit isn’t–

                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe