In a previous post I discussed how to manage the tension in the 2 main underlying storylines in creating a series of suspense fiction. In this post I shall try to discuss the stages one goes through in creating a Mystery and Suspense book.
Generally, for me, the core idea of the story for a book comes inextricably interwoven with the main characters in the story in a moment of sudden inspiration. The story is very powerful when this happens. I think for this to happen you have to be a long time reader of crime fiction and viewer of crime fiction on television and in the film media. I have been a classics reader and a crime reader and viewer from early childhood because of the influence of my parents––my mother is an addicted reader of the classics, and my father not only reads crime fiction, but also got me addicted to crime production series like Tales of the Unexpected (based on Roald Dahl’s fiction), Perry Mason (Earle Stanley Gardner’s fiction), Mission Impossible (the TV series), and adventure series like MacGyver as a child. I have read a lot of Agatha Christies among other crime writers I admire such as Patricia Highsmith, Benjamin Black, Ian Rankin, and Micahel Connelly. It is never too late to start reading the leading mystery and suspense writers you admire––in fact I believe it is essential to be a voracious reader. This acclimatizes you into thinking in Suspense subconsciously and increases the chance that a great plot idea will arise from somewhere at the back of your mind when you least expect it.
For example, I woke up late on a warm summer day last June with an image of a fugitive escaping and running away from an overturned van transporting him to court from prison that had met with an accident. Prisoners wear normal clothing in England, not orange jumpsuits, and they are not in chains. He runs into the crowds and a bus parked behind a mall to hide among the people only to find that it is a film set. The actor playing a main character of the movie and the director are having a fight. The actor suddenly punches the director in the face who falls backward. My protagonist fugitive hiding among the supporting film crew catches him and breaks the fall. The director gets up, wipes the blood off his nose, fires the main actor loudly, and asks him to get out of his movie set. He turns to my protagonist and asks: ‘You there, what’s your name?’ ‘Art Miller,’ he gives a fake name. ‘Art, you are playing Michael Fallon. His trailer is yours now. Go with my crew and get dressed.’ And there I have the plot, the main characters, and the first chapter of my standalone book to come, In Plain Sight.
The core plot idea for The Reckless Engineer was derived as a complementary plot from the idea for The Closet that came to me in a moment of sudden inspiration––an image of my protagonist trapped in a closet overhearing the one he loves intensely saying things that break his heart. The Closet is about the troubles my protagonist gets into because he acts blinded by passionate love for the female. In it I am right inside my protagonist’s head, telling the reader how it feels for him––the joys, the angst, and the fears––from his point of view using a very close third person limited POV. While thinking of coming up with a plot for The Reckless Engineer, I decided to explore this same idea, but this time I would explore the impact of the actions of my protagonist blinded by passion and romantic love from the viewpoints of the people around him; i.e. his family, friends, and people at work.
Hence, when you get an inspired idea you can think of different interesting angles of exploring it.
So, when it comes to a murder mystery, someone has to die. Why would someone be driven to kill another person? It has been said that the most common motive for murder is love, or rather the loss of it––many are crimes of passion. Apparently the next most prolific motive is to prevent loss of wealth or to gain wealth. A third common motive is self-preservation or preservation of some aspect of one’s lifestyle when one has done something seriously illegal or wrong and another person knows about it. A fourth is for revenge for some great wrong someone has done; or to escape it if the wrongdoing is ongoing.
Great. So we have a protagonist who is involved in a love affair blinded by romantic love. We immediately have his family around him who will have motives to kill the female for his love. We make our protagonist very rich and there we have the motive for people around him to kill for the wealth involved. We make our victim involved in doing some great wrong to some other characters and there they have motives to kill her for revenge or to escape this wrongdoing. Hence, once you have the main plot idea, you build (generally 4 to 7) characters around the core characters and create a conflict each of the other characters is involved in with your victim. Along with a motive and a conflict you give each of your main characters an overriding psychology and keep each one true to his or her psychology, letting them then drive the story forward from the initial seed idea.
At this stage it helps to have studied drama and plays for the scene setting because each book is fifty or more dramatic scenes. It also helps with your prose to have studied poetry.
Then we get down to how the victim is going to be killed. It has been said that poison was Agatha Christie’s preferred technique, but one could have the victim pushed from a great height, suffocated while sleeping, strangled, bludgeoned with a fatal blow, drowned etc. Since I was writing a story about electronics engineers I knew about the problem of potassium cyanide toxicity in the potassium auro cyanide (Auro or Au is the chemical name and sign for gold respectively) gold electroplating process used in electronics. I had to do some research from this point on to actually find day-to-day used chemicals from which poisonous cyanide can be synthesised in order to give all my suspects (not just the electronics engineers) the means of accessing this murder weapon of choice. You can replace the gold (Auro) in the compound with iron (Ferro) to have a very similar reaction with potassium ferrocynide, which is used as a normal fertilizer, and therefore I now had a murder weapon accessible to all my suspects. (You can read a little more about this on Wikipedia.)
Then you have to select which one of the suspects you are going to make the culprit and think about how the culprit would go about concealing his or her crime. However, he or she must make some mistakes and leave some discreet clues for our hero, the amateur sleuth, and our readers to find.
The above takes care of the Mystery or the Whodunnit, which is an intellectual process––that of detecting and analysing the clues and evidence and arriving at the clever conclusion of who did the deed. You drive your reader through piquing his or her intellectual curiosity to uncover the crime.
Suspense, however, is an emotional process and you have to get your reader emotionally involved or the story is not strong enough. You have to draw your reader in and get them emotionally involved with your characters––make your reader ache for your characters, anxious for them, fear for them, love and feel protective of them, or even hate some of them. You raise the tension through the story primarily by making your reader anxious and fear for a core set of your characters while hating a few others. At the end you relieve your readers’ anxiety and fear sustained through the book by delivering the good characters you make them love to safety and happiness. You relieve the hatred and aversion you build for your bad characters by punishing the wrongdoers in some way. And that I believe is what makes great Suspense Fiction.