Want to write a mystery?

I’ve recently read How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N Frey (ISBN: 9780312304461) and I must say it’s one of the best books I’ve read on writing. He lays out in clear steps how to construct a mystery. This process might seem too clinical for some writers, but I found the methodical approach appealing because it made the task seem doable. Until now, although I’ve written a number of novels, I’ve always found the task daunting and floundered in a sea of uncertainty, wondering where to begin and how to proceed once I have begun. As James Frey so aptly says, you end up writing loads of superfluous waffle until you find the right path, whereas if you know where you’re going from the beginning, this cuts out a lot of unnecessary work.

The most important points I gleaned from this book were:

  • Lists of the most important mythic characters found in mysteries. This isn’t what it sounds like. Mythic characters here stand for types, not actual characters. And from the dog-ears dogging this book, I would say most readers found this part the most valuable.
  • A list of the various stages of a mystery. Frey equates these stages to a five-act play, whereas many other writing teachers speak about a three-act play, so this was interesting and different.
  • What readers of mysteries expect of the writer and how to meet those expectations.
  • What to avoid so that your reader will be satisfied with your book and will want to read more of your novels.
  • To type out passages written by writers you admire. James Frey is not advocating plagiarism, but he does stress that to learn to write well, one needs to emulate the masters, so typing out their work helps new writers learn rhythm, pace, dialogue, setting, whatever it is you feel makes up a great piece of writing. In this way you can learn to write in many different voices and styles and eventually develop a style of your own.


All useful stuff, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

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