The Mystery Novel Versus the Character Novel


The Mystery Novel Versus the Character Novel

Whether it be romance, mystery, fantasy, or character-driven fiction, getting feedback on your writing from those who are also in the same genre, can be useful. They understand the conventions of that genre. A friend once wanted me to read his murder mystery novel. I did my level best to get out of it because I knew that even though I would try not to, I would tend to use the rules of thumb I use in my own writing.

This post discusses the differences between writing a murder mystery and a character-driven novel. (At least from my point of view—there are lots of books on writing for your genre.)

The mystery novel

The plot is all and a very standard one at that. The required components of a mystery:

  • Murder
  • Suspects
  • Detective
  • Identification of murderer

Now, as you know, good mystery writers can weave their way around this formula to make entertaining fiction. But if you remove any of these elements, it’s not a murder mystery (or an unsatisfying one if the murderer isn’t identified).

The characters

The characters are in the service of the story. So you’ll always have a detective of some kind and also usually a sidekick (think Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes, Hastings to Hercule Poirot) to whom she can confide her amazing conclusions. There have to be at least two and maybe more people with motives to kill the victim.

Given this relatively rigid structure, character sometimes gets subordinated to plot so that characters get pushed around to show up at the right place and time so that the next step of the mystery can unfold.

Character-driven fiction

The characters

Character-driven narratives tend to take a character and let it roam where it may. Unless the deviation is explained, characters’ actions and thoughts usually need to be consistent with the personality given.

Typically, at least the main protagonist has to grow or change in some way before the end of the novel. He has to be different in some way at the end compared to who he was at the beginning.

The plot

The plot to some extent gets its shape from the needs of the character. So asking questions like Is the protagonist credible? is much more important for a character-driven novel than a mystery. If the main character isn’t credible, then the plot which unfolds is likely also to be incredible.

Character driven novels might not have endings which tie everything up and still be satisfying but mystery novels must get to the who dun it.

So, this is just an example of how different genres have different conventions which you violate at your peril. You need to understand the particular requirements of your genre to satisfy the readers of that type of fiction.

Should You Turn Your Idea into a Novel?


Should You Turn Your Idea into a Novel?

Usually, new writers gravitate to short stories to try out their wings, so to speak. However, the short story is an art form with quite a different set of expectations from the novel. So, if you are contemplating writing a novel, you might want to reflect on the following points. They are not about the novel form, but considerations before making the commitment.

Is your idea suitable for a novel?

Because novels are longer pieces, you need to be fairly (you can never be completely sure off the top) that your idea has at least some of these characteristics:

  • Has legs. Clearly you’re interested in your idea, but you’re better off if you’re thinking “I’ve always been fascinated by…” rather than “Seems like an okay idea; might work.”
  • Can be expanded. Any idea can be expanded, but is it relatively easy—not necessarily easy but possible—to think about where the narrative might go? Doesn’t have to go there in the long run but at this stage, can you envision your protagonist engaging in a series of actions all of which have their own climax and/or resolution or do you envision more of a short, sharp crisis?
  • A whole world can be created. That is, what you want to write will have the feel of a fully realized world where the reader will be able to imagine how it works even beyond the confines of the novel you are writing. Think of good science fiction. Good science fiction writers can create an alien society which all makes sense within its own context. You need to do the same even if your novel is taking place on Earth in the present day. I realize that this might not be enough so I have more in a post called Creating the Fictional World.

What doesn’t matter so much

  • Geography. Your novel can be confined to a room in a house or cover the great outdoors.
  • Breadth of the canvas. Like geography, you may concentrate intensely on the internal life of one character or plan a whole cast of them. Both can work for a novel.
  • How long it’s going to take to write. Novels generally take longer to write than short stories, if only because there are more words, but don’t make this a determining factor. If the material lends itself to a novel, then give it a try.
  • Novels sell better. Well, they do.But a novel is a significant undertaking in time and effort. And there is no guarantee you can sell it after you’ve invested all that blood, sweat, and tears. I’d be careful about choosing the novel form with future sales in mind—you might be getting into much more than you bargained for.

It’s a personal decision

As with everything else in writing, rules are made to be broken and there is no right answer. As you can see from the examples, there are few if any ideas which demand the novel rather than short story form (okay, sweeping family sagas maybe being the exception).

Make your choice and get cracking.

Plot—Where the Real Story Begins


Plot—Where the Real Story Begins

I’ve done a post on whether to start at the beginning of your memoir or story, but here I want to talk about where the real plot begins. See the classic diagram of a story above? Although the plot may be said to encompass the entire story arc or triangle, I think that where the plot actually starts to engage the reader is in the phase of rising action—that is, where the characters start to do things which will affect their fate.

The plot doesn’t start at exposition

But I find that writers tend to spend more time on the first phase of exposition than necessary or advisable. This can be a particular challenge when writing memoir. Exposition is the background you provide the reader on the setting and characters, and where you can highlight facts or events which will be important to the plot/story later on (if you don’t know what these are when you start writing, you can always go back after you’ve finished the whole narrative to add these).

Exposition is where writers can be led into the following errors:

Too much scene setting. This can include an exhaustive description of the physical setting or defining the time period. If the novel is historical, you certainly need to do some scene setting just as you would in science fiction. But this is not an opportunity to show off how much research you have done, or how expert you are in the family tree. Use the research and expertise to inform the exposition but not to the point of cudgeling the reader with more information than she needs to start the story.

Too much characterization. If, at the beginning of your narrative, you give the reader the full dope on the character (tall, determined, insightful, greedy) before you start engaging the character in events and scenes which illustrate these qualities, you have done a sort of ‘tell’ and make the subsequent show less interesting. Also, doing this can be a way of forcing the reader to judge the character the way you want rather than allowing him to come to his own conclusions.

Why does it matter?

Novels which start with a long exposition phase tend to lose the reader. Because exposition is not plot, no matter how necessary to the final story.

The typical reader starts to perk up when there are events which contribute to the unfolding of the story, i.e. the phase of rising action. You need to start your novel as close to there as possible.

How to get in the background bits

I realize that may leave some of you distressed that you can’t use all the research or background that you know. Get over it. The point is to tell a good story.

And, remember, the reader doesn’t need to know everything you know about the setting or characters before she starts. If a piece of exposition is needed during the story so the reader understands the succeeding event, stick it in close to that event. Thus, you can get the background in but when it is relevant to the reader.

In summary, do as short an exposition as you can and get to the plot—rising action and beyond—as soon as you can.

Explanation in Quotes


Explanation in Quotes

I have already talked about the problems caused by extensive blocks of explanation or exposition. Although a reader needs to know stuff for the plot or memoir to proceed, blocks of explanation can also slow down the action and often is more tell than show.

Some writers believe that they are getting around this problem by having one or more of the characters convey what they want to get across. Here is an example.

The doctor said, “I need to refer you to an ophthalmologist. Not an optometrist. An ophthalmologist is a physician specializing in injuries and diseases affecting the eye. He can do surgery, too. Not that you will necessarily need that but I want to check your field of vision. They have a test where you click on a clicker when you see a bright light. It determines that you have good peripheral vision. It only takes a few minutes.

“Now, I don’t want you to worry. It’s probably nothing but better safe than sorry.”

Actually, explanation in quotes often goes on for much longer but I’m trying to save your time and eyes.

What’s wrong with explanation in quotes (EIQ)?

EIQ differs from our old friend As-You-Know, Bob. If you remember, As-You-Know dialog communicates information to the reader by reminding a character (Bob, in this case) of it even though Bob already knows. But EIQ is communicating information which is news to the speaker’s audience. So, in that way, it could be seen as a step up or a lesser sin. And the problem is not so much an individual incident of EIQ but a multitude of them in a novel or memoir.

Multiple EIQs slow forward action. It is as if we are all poised to start the race and have to stop to listen to a lecture on sportsmanship. Even if we need to know the information, it delays action that the reader/runner was anticipating.

How to do explanation so it doesn’t slow things down

Cut it down to the pertinent facts.

First, you need to decide if this piece of information is critical to your story (e.g. protagonist is going blind) or incidental (e.g. she has hit her eye so she later misses a clue which she would have seen out of the corner of her eye).

If it isn’t critical, you can probably get away with something like:

The doctor said, “I want to refer you to a specialist in eyes. To check your field of vision. Now, I don’t want you to worry. It’s probably nothing but better safe than sorry.”

Break up the explanation

If the information is critical, then give it the prominence it deserves and make it part of the story.

The doctor said, “I’d like to refer you to an ophthalmologist.”

I sat up straighter. “What’s that?”

“Eye specialist. I’d like him to check your peripheral vision.”

“My vision? What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s probably nothing but better safe than sorry.”

“But then why the referral?”

You get across the main information while also communicating your protagonist’s concern/tension. A bonus.

Finding a way to dramatize critical information makes it more likely your reader will take it in and contribute to the forward action rather than slowing it down.

I Love Self-Editing


I Love Self-Editing

In recent posts, I’ve talked a lot about the self-editing you need to do to your draft manuscript. I fear your spirits might be sinking at the amount of work which looms ahead.

It can be a lot of work. Unless, of course, you’ve decided that every word is perfect, every character fully developed. Then we have a problem of a different sort. But assuming you have identified scenes to fix or write, it may be discouraging. It might even disincline you to do anything further which would be a great shame.

So I am here to tell you that actually, self-editing is fun. Yes, fun. I love to do it, maybe not more than writing itself, but it’s right up there.

This post will try to convince you to take on editing as an adventure rather than a drudge.

Editing seems to be largely about taking out stuff and putting other stuff in. Both are fun.

Self-editing: the taking stuff out

This is more often the copy editing phase. You are looking for the normal grammar, punctuation, missed and extra words. But in addition, there is seeking out and destroying the clumsy bits always in a first draft. Like the “hello, how are you”s and the tortured way you got the character out of the room. Rereading makes you realize you could simply stop the scene rather than have her get up from the chair, say her good-byes, move to the door, take the elevator to the ground floor—you get the picture.

Although this may sound weird, I get a positive thrill in lowering the word count. So much so that I actually track the number cut. Useless, no? But it provides a great sense of satisfaction. I don’t know why, it just does. And this is not just the crazy lady talking—many writers really get into this.

Fundamentally, I think self-editing appeals to my latent Napoleon complex. I am in complete control. I can do anything I want. I can push events around wherever I want. I have the power of life and death over my characters. See, Napoleon.

Self-editing: the putting stuff in

The other part of editing is identifying what is missing. Often scenes needed to clarify the plot or develop a character more fully.

While they probably take more brain power and imagination, these putting in parts also have their appeal. For one thing, you usually have a relatively short scene to write. You already know where you want to go so it is much more doable than writing the full sweep of the novel.

Because in these concentrated bits you already know what you want to accomplish, it allows focus on the quality of the writing rather than juggling plot, character, flow, and theme as you typically have to do when you wrote the novel originally.


There is an unexpected pleasure in having all the pieces of your novel and being able to reconstitute it in a way which is stronger, more elegant, and just plain better.