43 Ways to Ruin a Mystery Novel: Part 3‚ Storylines
Many tools tell you how to construct a mesmerizing mystery with intriguing characters, interesting storylines, and enough red herrings to keep you guessing till the end.
Since we represent the readers you write for, we would like to share with you all the ways you can ruin a potentially good story and cause us to put down your book and ban you from our reading list forever.
- Don’t waste time bothering with an outline; that will make it easier to forget where you are and where you’re supposed to be heading. More fun surprises that way.
- Omit a climax — end the story in a summary paragraph. Better yet, paint yourself into a corner on who the murderer can’t be, so that you have to invent a new character on the last page and reveal they are the murderer (see #3).
- Do not tie up loose ends: how did the killer’s sworn-enemy put the cyanide in a pot of the victim’s coffee in the kitchen, then induce their victim to drink it out on the porch so they could die there? Why would the victim have even let their enemy into the house and offer to make a pot of coffee? Death was supposed to be instantaneous — did the killer tell the victim, “You sit here on the porch while I grab you a cup of coffee from your kitchen and then I’ll even wash your cup for you”? Just leave those strings dangling because answering those questions would only distract from the main focus of the mystery.
- Use timeworn clichés, formulas, and wrong words: protagonist returns reluctantly (not “reticently”) to the hometown (after death/divorce/job loss/relationship breakup) to manage the dead mother’s/grandmother’s/aunt’s house/store/B&B and falls in love with hometown sheriff/government agent despite their initial confrontations. Above all, make sure the protagonist does all this ‘reticently’, not ‘reluctantly’.
- Move the story along by characters repeating to each other what’s transpired so far so that it sounds like a summary paragraph, not a conversation. Your readers will appreciate periodic recaps in case they’ve forgotten any key detail.
- Make sure your characters never communicate with each other so you can justifiably thrust everyone further into danger. If someone had just said, “Hey, I saw Jack around here yesterday,” the whole mystery would be wrapped up in seconds, end of book. Great way to make a story when there isn’t one.
- The protagonist is released from a six year prison sentence as a computer illiterate, unable to even open a browser; but by the next day, with only fifteen seconds to work, they successfully crack the password of a high security computer and have transferred all the encrypted files to themselves. One fast learner.
- Forget your point of view and switch, for example from first person to third mid-book — readers love to be disoriented.
- The well-liked school teacher who had been fired from their previous teaching job for child pornography tells the police their past may become known, and will lose the current beloved job, too. Ignore the circumstances of how they got the job in the first place when the person should have been a registered sex offender and automatically disqualified from teaching children. This shouldn’t have your readers scratching their heads.
- The killer stages their own death and frames the spouse for the ‘murder’ and runs away with a new romantic interest. But the new partner mysteriously dies a couple of years later in a suspicious fire. We are led to believe the new lover was also murdered, but why? Drop any further mention of this detouring subplot because it’s not important. Just remember that subplots are useful tools.
- Create a series with built-in inconsistencies: e.g., bakery owners invests their entire inheritance into renovating the business, and is so consumed with attaining #1 baker status, they actively sabotages competitors. But in the next book, install a new bakery owner without mentioning what happened to the obsessive and nefarious first owners. Your readers will love theorizing on the unsolved mystery you didn’t write.
Stay tuned for our final installment where we’ll have your eyes rolling over the illogical nonsense we have encountered — worthy of mockery and one-star reviews, not the devout fandom every author craves!
Gretchen and Anne are a mother/daughter reading/writing team. Daughter Gretchen Schneider has been (secretly) writing a fantasy book spurred by her childhood memories of She-Ra and Xena Warrior Princess and inspired by Scribbler. When not at her job (and sometimes even then!) she can be found with book in hand. Mom is Anne Rose who has always been a nerd; proof is that her favorite childhood game was playing school with her playing teacher of course. The other kids didn't share her enthusiasm.