Do you have a mystery or a whodunnit taking form in your mind? Alex Pavesi, crime novelist and ex-bookseller, has some words of wisdom on how to make your crime novel really pull in the reader.
1 Most crime novels – whether they’re police procedurals, psychological thrillers or cosy mysteries – revolve around an unanswered question of some kind. Often this will relate to the identity of a murderer, but not always. It’s worth getting this question completely clear in your mind and making sure the structure of the story fits around it. Is the question introduced early enough? And when the answer comes, does it provide a sense of satisfaction? You should consider this from the reader’s perspective too. Suspicion, atmosphere and intrigue are all good, but your book will be more effective at keeping them hooked if they know exactly what question they’re seeking an answer to.
2 A crime novel can fall down if its mysteries are too easy to guess. Readers are looking to be outsmarted. This means you might need to give the reader some information in the hope that they’ll misinterpret it, which can be hard to get right. As a general rule, your mystery should hinge not on the reader making an assumption when in fact the opposite is true, but on them making an assumption when the actual truth wouldn’t even have occurred to them as a possibility. If a character has gone missing and later the police find a body, we’ll probably wonder whether the body in fact belongs to someone else. We’re less likely to wonder whether the police were lying about their discovery.
3 The central mystery is just one part of a crime novel. As your characters strive to solve it, there needs to be conflict and drama as well. And it’s important for those two strands to tie together. Once you’re clear on the nature of your mystery, ask yourself how you can break it down into a series of small conflicts. The solution to the mystery will have consequences. Some characters will want those answers to be found, while others won’t.
4 Be careful not to overload the reader with information. At some point you might need to explain why the murderer did what they did, or how their plan unfolded. And in the lead up to this you’ll have multiple characters telling the reader what they know about the crime. It’s worth thinking about whether any of this can be dramatised, maybe via a flashback or something more visual. Show-don’t-tell is widespread as a piece of writing advice, but it’s particularly important in crime fiction where there is often a wealth of factual information to convey.
5 It’s important to fit the format of the book to its theme. Crime novels can be written in the third person, or have one or more narrators. They can be written in the present or past tense, or you can mix and match as you like. The present tense can add a sense of unpredictability, whereas the past tense can confer a feeling of factual authority. First person narration creates a kind of trust between narrator and reader. Think carefully about the impact of these stylistic choices.
Alex Pavesi is a former Waterstones bookseller and has studied mathematics to PhD level. His first novel, Eight Detectives, is available to buy now. All murder mysteries follow a simple set of rules. Grant McAllister, an author of crime fiction and professor of mathematics, once sat down and worked them all out. But that was thirty years ago. Now he’s living a life of seclusion on a quiet Mediterranean island – until Julia Hart, a sharp, ambitious editor, knocks on his door…