How Important Is the Mystery in a Mystery Novel?

I’m not asking this question with complete seriousness (because a thoughtfully written mystery is important). But when I’m reading these novels, I’ve noticed that a lot of times I’m most interested in things that aren’t directly about the crime. I tend to care less about who the murderer is and more about a dozen other things.

For instance, the two most recent mystery novels I’ve read are Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan and Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten. The first one is set in the Philippines, and the second one in Sweden. With both novels, I wasn’t on the edge of my seat about who committed the murders. I found the novels absorbing for other reasons.

In Smaller and Smaller Circles, the two main investigators are Jesuit priests who are trained in forensic sciences; they’re unusual lead characters for a mystery novel. What stayed with me most about the novel was the exploration of corruption – in law enforcement, government, high society, and the Catholic Church. In Detective Inspector Huss, I enjoyed the peek into Sweden (specifically Gothenburg in the late 1990s) and the way the author portrays the methodical work of a police detective and her colleagues.

Other mystery novels I’ve read in recent years, like some of P.D. James’s books, were most memorable to me because of some of the psychological insights and beautiful descriptions. Even if I’d found out the murderer’s identity in advance, I would have kept reading.

A “shocking reveal” often doesn’t turn out to be that shocking, because readers have seen it all (or feel as if they have). Other things can suck the reader in. An exploration of richly detailed settings, other cultures, ethical issues, psychological states, and character dilemmas make the story more compelling. So that even if I’ve figured out who used the garrote in the attic, I still don’t want to put the book down.

A mix of hopeful and bleak: the ending of If I Had Your Face

The endings of some novels are unambiguously happy, while others are overshadowed with tragedy. What about endings that occupy a more ambiguous space?

I recently read If I had Your Face by Frances Cha, a novel focusing on the lives of a group of young women in South Korea. They all live in the same apartment building, and each has her own struggles.

These struggles involve their job or career, appearance, relationships, and some of the paths they’ve gone down on (based on decisions they made before they knew better). Their problems are also connected to their precarious position in society – they aren’t wealthy or born into elite families. Their missteps aren’t as easily forgiven or recovered from.

By the end of the novel, they’ve generally become more savvy. Their self-awareness has increased. They’ve also helped each other out, and they seem to want to continue giving each other support when necessary. At the same time, their lives continue to be precarious. They’ve pushed disaster away for the time being, but disastrous possibilities still loom in their future or wait for them in the shadows of the paths they’re taking. They may have adapted to dealing more effectively with some of the brutal realities of the world. But the sense of hope at the end of the novel is tempered by some bleakness.

The ending feels more like a pause for breath. They’re breathing a little easier in this moment in time. But it doesn’t feel like a secure happiness.

You may be thinking that this is true of real life, which is one reason the mix of hopeful and bleak works well. However, it takes skill to pull off an ending like this. It doesn’t cater to people’s need for a conclusive answer one way or another. There’s no quick summary about how these women are doing years after the events of the novel.

But there’s still a sense of finality, because of everything that leads to the novel’s closing scene. Some scales have fallen from the characters’ eyes. They’ve stopped lying to themselves in certain ways. At the close of the novel, it’s night, and they’re all back in their apartment building. The sense of solidarity is strong. They’re better able to face the morning, whatever it brings. For the time being, they can count on each other for different kinds of support.

And maybe that’s enough, for now.

An example of reducing redundancy in fiction writing

I recently read The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters, a novel written in first-person POV about a newly minted detective who investigates a suspicious death. Sounds like many other crime novels, but the difference here is that no one seems to care about the investigation, because an asteroid is going to hit Earth in six months.

In the following excerpt, the detective, Henry Palace, is at a suspect’s house. The suspect, whose name is Toussaint, has something on his mantel:

There’s a scale model of the New Hampshire state house on the mantel above the fireplace, six inches high and fastidiously detailed: the white stone facade, the gilded dome, the tiny imperious eagle jutting from the top.

“Like that?” says Toussaint when he comes back in … and I set the model down abruptly.

In this excerpt, the narrator never explicitly says, “I picked up the model of the state house.” He just describes what the model looks like. It’s only at the end, when he tells the reader, “I set the model down,” that you know he even had it in his hands.

This is hardly a pivotal moment in the novel. But it’s still a nice example of how you can cut down on redundancy in fiction writing. A narrator doesn’t need to always share each movement, such as picking things up or opening or closing windows and doors.

It’s like if your narrator said, “The window was closed. I opened it.” Would it be necessary to say that the window was closed? Usually not. (Though, who knows, sometimes you’d want to keep that line, maybe to create a certain effect with your prose or to illustrate something about a character’s thought processes.) In any case, when editing your work, it’s important to be thoughtful about these choices.

[By the way, this is off the main topic of the post, but I do recommend The Last Policeman. It’s a good, absorbing read. One head’s up, though: The novel contains multiple descriptions of suicide and suicidal thoughts, plus it focuses on tragedies that are extremely improbable but happen anyway. Just keep that in mind, because sometimes you need to have a certain frame of mind to enjoy a book; other times, you may want to put off reading it.]

Narrative Point of View (POV): A Lesson From Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. What POV should you choose? Should it be a first-person narration (the “I” or “we” POV)? Or some form of third-person POV (using “he/she/they”)?

There are many reasons to choose one type of POV over another, or even to mix multiple types of POVs in a single work. One example comes from Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones, which is set during the 1979-1981 Atlanta child murders. The novel is divided into three sections, each focusing on a different kid from a fifth-grade glass in an Atlanta elementary school. These kids are struggling with personal problems unconnected to the serial murders going on around them, though the murders will also change them in profound ways.

For each of the three kids, Jones uses a different type of narrative POV: third-person, second-person, and first-person. I don’t know what led her to choose a certain POV for a particular kid, but I’m going to post my own reasons for why I think the choices work well.

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LaTasha Baxter: Third-Person POV

Tasha gets the third-person POV – what’s more, it’s a third-person limited POV. In her section of the book, the reader can experience only what she experiences. None of the action takes places without her present, and the feelings described are only hers (though of course you can guess what other characters are thinking/feeling based on body language, word choice, and other clues). She doesn’t speak in the first-person “I,” but she’s the focus of this part of Leaving Atlanta, and the reader is meant to stick by her side through the events.

I think this POV suits her because she’s an “everyman” character. She isn’t the smartest or most successful student, but she isn’t struggling and failing either. She isn’t the prettiest girl in her class, but she isn’t considered ugly, though she’s sometimes taunted about her looks. Her family is neither the richest nor the poorest among their acquaintances. She definitely isn’t the most popular kid or even among the chosen circle of popular kids, but she also isn’t the class pariah. Although she’s capable of cruelty or thoughtlessness (usually when she cares too much about what the popular kids think), she isn’t mean for the sake of being mean; she isn’t a bully. Her concerns and hopes are typical for a kid her age, and her middling social standing gives her a vantage point from which she can observe a range of kids in her class, including the ones who are regularly trodden on. The reader can easily observe things alongside her.

Rodney Green: Second-Person POV

The second-person POV uses “you.” (From the book: “As you chant nursery rhymes to distract yourself from the news report, Father stacks his breakfast dishes in the sink and shuts off the radio.”)

Rodney is a boy who’s regularly being judged and accused. Most painfully by his own father, but by many others as well. He has no friends and is considered an unintelligible weirdo; only one other kid (see Octavia, below) gets treated worse in class.

He fears scrutiny. He wants to be furtive and unnoticed. The “you, you, you” is like a drumbeat of accusations or a constant reminder that the boy can’t escape from someone’s critical eye. It creates an impression of a character being watched by someone who’s dogging his footsteps.

At the same time, the second-person POV also works because Rodney wants to be understood. It’s as if he’s appealing to the reader and trying to form a connection. He wants you, the reader, to put yourself in his shoes. (The stuff he goes through – you’re the one going through it too as you read the second-person POV.)

By the end of his section of the book, he’s given up on anyone ever caring enough to understand him.

Octavia Fuller: First-Person POV

Octavia, even more than Rodney, is the class pariah. She’s very poor and her skin is also darker than everyone else’s; her classmates, although they’re also black, have made her skin the butt of most of their jokes about her. Her school experience is one of perpetual shunning. Even Rodney is wary about openly associating with her. Aside from an older boy who lives in her neighborhood, no one has been consistently friendly to her.

Generally, Octavia is quiet. But in one scene, when a boy insults her openly, she fights back, lobbing insults and rocks at him. She carries around a lot of hurt and anger, but she isn’t defeated. She has a strength that carries her through day after day of mistreatment and disappointment. The first-person POV suits her, as she’s a person with a firm, distinctive voice and character. She’s also fairly isolated. In multiple ways, she remains apart from the crowd as an “I.”

Not Sure Which POV to Choose for Your Work?

Sometimes authors will try out different POVs for a particular character or story to see which one “rings true.” With each change in POV, the readers’ relationship with the characters and events will change.

Five Things I Learned Writing a Novel

I recently finished writing a novel. (I recently finished writing a novel!) I’ve been working on it for years, on and off, and to see it reach its third draft is amazing.

Now that I’m finally sharing it with people for additional feedback and preparing it for agents and publishers, I’ve been thinking about the work of writing a novel and what I’ve learned during those multiple drafts, including the earliest and most hopeless-looking one.

1) You may need to grow older or go through certain experiences to write a novel

It isn’t impossible to write a novel at a young age. (I wrote one in high school that remains in a plastic bin awaiting massive revisions.) But there are novels that can’t be written until you’re older, more mature, and more aware of what’s going on in your life and the lives of other people. This awareness was underdeveloped in younger me. I couldn’t have written this particular novel in my 20s.

2) The first draft is a mess

I thought I might be able to finish the novel in two drafts. I needed three. The first draft is just ink splatter with potential. The second draft is rough but much more coherent. And the third is finally ready to be seen by other people.

If you struggle with perfectionism, the state of the first draft might destroy your willingness to keep writing. Just keep in mind that it’s ok for the first draft to be deeply discouraging. There will be a gulf between how you envision the story and how it’s actually emerging. Your first draft can make you think that you’ll never finish the novel and that you’re incapable of producing anything but a rag pile of loose ends and flat characters who’ve had all the life wrung out of them. And there will be typos and missing words and sometimes sentences you’ve left unfinished.

3) A certain amount of doubt is productive

Too much doubt, and you’ll never finish your novel. You won’t have enough confidence in yourself and faith in the outcome. But some doubt is useful. Between the first and second drafts of the novel, I made a major change to the plot – for the better – after a couple of weeks spent doubting the believability of what I’d written.

Where you aim your doubt is also important. Doubt aimed at weaknesses in the writing is helpful when you’re rewriting a draft. Massive doubt dumped on yourself (“I’m terrible, I’ll never finish”) can stall you or derail a project.

4) You don’t need a rigid writing regimen, but do mind the gaps

A regimen works for some people. They write at the same time each day. They write in the same location. Or they commit to writing a certain number of words or pages per day. I wrote mostly in the same location, but not at the same time, and the amount I wrote varied considerably day by day. What’s more important than a regimen is continuity. Work on your novel most days of the week. Don’t leave gaps of weeks (or worse, months) where you aren’t looking at it or thinking about it.

5) Writing a novel can make you feel vulnerable

There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the characters in the novel and people in my life, including myself. And many of the things that happen in the novel never happened to me.

But there’s no denying that I’m in the novel – in more than one character and across different settings. The novel contains things I fear or hope for or struggle with. Which makes me uneasy, even as it amazes me – look at what can emerge when you’re creative, when you’re trying hard not to block yourself with falseness and fear.

I wonder what conclusions others may draw about me, accurately or not, based on what I’ve written. There’s an instinct to shy away from scrutiny and hide what I’ve written. I’m ignoring that instinct and taking steps towards sharing the work and publishing it.

Some parts of the novel took me longer to write than others because they caused some emotional turmoil and forced me to think about things I would have preferred to overlook or quickly disregard. I did my best to write through the turmoil, with an effort for greater clarity and honesty. If you’re writing a novel, and you’re stuck or feel reluctant to keep working on a particular scene, one possibility is that you’re writing something that’s psychologically demanding. (Of course, there are other possibilities, such as being tired after hours of work/parenting/school or getting distracted by Twitter.)