43 Ways to Ruin a Mystery Novel: Part 4‚ Nonsense
In our final installment of how to ruin your mystery, we have bundled our greatest collection of examples from actual books we have tried to read. They showcase the utter nonsense, the ridiculous, the inane, and downright contrived ploys that authors have used to propel their story, only to have merely lost us along the way.
- A seemingly all-American, wholesome girl is murdered. But it turns out she led a double life of ill-repute and drugs which she hid well from family and friends; the protagonist and police are grateful that the tragic truth of this girl’s double life will never be revealed (??). Don’t explain how her killer (to whom we are introduced on the book’s last page) would get convicted without revealing a motive (he supposedly killed her because she was pregnant with his child and was going to blackmail him, and nobody knew she was pregnant—and of course the coroner did not notice the pregnancy on autopsy). It’s sufficient that you, the reader, knows who did it and why; no one else, not the family, not the justice system, needs resolution on this crime.
- Do not let your characters ask the obvious questions: the protagonist never asks their ghost-mother — whose murder was never solved — who killed her but remembers to ask Dead Mom for her scone recipe?!?!?
- Your characters omit relaying critical info: ‘forgetting’ to tell cops very important things, like “Oh yeah, it slipped my mind that my house was broken into and trashed yesterday, searching for the missing jewels; is that relevant?”
- Forget things that are extremely important to the protagonist: “My name is Frann with two n’s”, she said over and over, correcting everyone throughout the book, yet introduced herself as Frances at the book’s end. Everyone forgets their own name at some point, right?
- Create irreconcilable qualities in your character. Your protagonist wishes to be fitter and eat less corn chips and cakes to be able to crawl through a window, but being an avid yogi, can bend like a pretzel and extricate from all manner of restraints.… whaaa???
- Your protagonist is threatened with losing custody of their child if they insist on a company audit. Never mind that the spouse was convicted of this same company’s embezzlement, which means there already was an audit to obtain the conviction! Despite being ridiculous and illogical, your reader will understand that this silly ploy is necessary to insert an imagined obstacle for our protagonist.
- Throw in some quirky or irrational behaviors that do not add to the storyline or character development — just for fun. For example, write a zany scene where your murderer does a striptease at a funeral for no discernible reason.
- Shush someone for no apparent reason when they announce they know who the killer is. Of course that person is murdered before being allowed to talk. Not contrived at all.
- Do not understand the difference between a plucky protagonist and a stupid, careless one (“I know who the killer is, but the cops will insist on evidence, so I will go alone to the murderer’s house in the remote countryside with a concealed recorder, confront the murderer and get a taped confession that I can take to the cops.”). Your readers will applaud such courage, not condemn their stupidity or recognize the implausibility of such a scenario.
- Extra points for mixing up which characters can do what: Only two little girls can see the resident ghost. No, it’s the two girls and, oh, didn’t we say, a cousin as well. No, it’s nobody. Wait — it’s everyone. Forget that — now back to only the original two girls. These changing personality attributes will stimulate your readers’ intellect as they try to keep track of your changes. Clever way to add intrigue and complexity.
There you have it: surefire ways to antagonize your readers and guarantee you’ll be added to their ‘banned author’ list. Definitely heed the professionals who can teach you how to craft a perfect murder mystery. But elicit feedback from your readers on what doesn’t work. By listening to the pros’ suggestions on what to do, and your readers’ suggestions on what not to do, your next mystery will be on its way to earning an Agatha award.
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.