4 Ways to Make Your Mystery Thrilling and Drive Your Readers Mad

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You’ve finally finished your novel. It’s time to go back, edit for mistakes and clean up the countless things you didn’t have time to stop for as you were writing. Stopping meant slowing down the action on what you know is a stupendous, magnificent thriller. You’re excited!

As you begin to read though, you wonder, “who wrote this.” Where is your book? Some of it is familiar, but this isn’t what you wrote. Your book was much more exciting. And where did these long, boring passages of exposition come from? Where’s the action?

You read further and wonder how your reader will be able to put up with this … this average story. It’s halfway in, now and you haven’t planted any clues as to who the culprit is. There are no red herrings, and/or you’ve written a road map to the killer’s identity. Now that everybody knows it’s him, there’s no mystery.

If this is true, you’re not alone. We’ve all been there, but what we’ve discovered is that you hold in your hands a great start to your real mystery story. There are four things you need to do from this point forward to make your mystery thrilling.

Open with a Grabber

Thrill us right from the beginning of your story. The introduction to the character, his background and plight is important, but don’t take all day with a lot of exposition. If you’ve done that, change it right now! Pull us in. Writers don’t go around quoting ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ or ‘it was the best of times/it was the worst of times’ for nothing. We love those kinds of openings.

Put a graphic murder in chapter one. It’s thrilling! Introducing the (as yet) unidentified murderer in chapter one and having him explain why his crime is justified is not only thrilling, it gives the reader an advantage over the hero. Now, we’re smarter than him. We’re allowed inside the action to cheer or boo as he finds or ignores important clues.

I cut my early writing-teeth on some of the famous modern, contemporary writers and I learned from their styles. Most begin with the action, and somewhere, inside intervening chapters, they add the details. However, first, they give us the chills, thrills, and shudders.

That muggy morning in July my partner, Rich Conklin and I were on Stakeout in the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s sketchiest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods. We had parked our 1998 gray Chevy sedan where we had a good view of the six-story apartment building on the corner of Leavenworth and Turk.

16th Seduction (Women’s Murder Club) (Kindle Edition) by James Patterson, Maxine Paetro

Oh yeah! I can see some great action about to jump off in that one.

It would be the first kill. The apprentice understood the years or practice, the countless targets destroyed, the training, the hours of study, all led to this moment. This cold, bright afternoon in January 2061 marked the true beginning.”

Apprentice in Death (Kindle Edition) by J. D. Robb

Wow! I’m in the bad guy’s head!

And now that I’ve opened with a grabber, I’ve got to keep the momentum going.

Delete the Slow Parts

If your thriller takes a long time building up to the action, your reader will lose interest. One of the requests I placed on my beta-readers’ list was to please identify places where they’d stopped reading or flipped through, looking for more action.

They also identified places where there was too much character description. The beta-readers all said they’d formed their own opinions about how the characters looked. In places, where I tended to show too much detail of scenery, beta-readers agreed, one more word about the character’s house and they were going to tear the book in half.

They just wanted to know who the killer was, and how and why he did it. Anything that wasn’t building to those conclusions was extraneous BS. Yeah, one of them said BS.

Shock ‘em and Sock ‘em Along the Way

Adding shocks wasn’t hard to do once my mystery was written. I knew the story well enough to know where I could change situations to prolong the mystery or give it a needed twist. I thought my readers would find it thrilling to have my hero rub shoulders with the villain at work or on the street! So, I did that!

If an answer to a question that had been plaguing my hero (and my readers) was going to be answered in the next chapter, I teased that just before I ended the chapter. Another technique that had always thrilled me when reading a mystery was if the author packed the end of chapters with clues or a possible sighting of the villain. As the reader, I’d need to read on to discover the answer.

While editing, I saw places where my main character went home or sat in the car only to think. Readers want more than thinking. So, when the main character went home, he didn’t rest or think. He went home to talk, have sex, dinner, or to discover “aha” moments.

An aha-moment is if while the hero is eating a well-prepared meal, by said sex partner, he’s informed that the vegetable, if not properly prepared, could cause the type of death that has just killed his victim. Aha!

If you, while editing, approach the end of your story and realize who the killer is without much effort, that isn’t very thrilling. How do you fix that? Make the person everybody thinks is the killer, the next victim.

If that causes your readers to put the book down, go make dinner, or wash the dishes while they rethink everything they thought they knew, you’re thrilling them! They’re mad now and they’re coming back to help you find this slick bastard.

Give Them the Thrill of Having the Fun Continue

I didn’t intend for my story to be a series. I’d read the stats about wider sales, greater interest, etc. when an author writes a series, but I didn’t think along those lines until I’d finished editing the last chapter. Suddenly, I was thrilled. This was a sexy, intriguing mystery and I could end it in such a way that it could be the beginning of a series.

You don’t know (well you probably do) the times that I’ve had to say goodbye to characters I absolutely loved. They were smart, goodlooking, utterly cool, kickass people who I’d shared more time with than my family and friends. I wanted to see them and spend time with them, again. Imagine my glee when I turned the final page and saw Book Two, the story continues!

I’m shaking my head here because there’s something awfully important that anyone writing a series should do. Always, always, always have book two ready, or close to ready, before you publish book one. I failed to do that and I’ve lost a lot of momentum and readers for book two.

Anyway, I’m anxious to read your next thriller or the next installment in your series. If there are techniques that you’ve loved as you read your favorite mysteries, please share them here. Sharing information will make our writing better. Our readers’ libraries can support shelves and shelves of GREAT books! There’s room for all of us!



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Educator, Author, Blogger, and supporter of Independent Writers. One mystery novel, The Neon Houses, http://amzn.to/2kSqdPX. Find me on Twitter @boom_lyn.

12 thoughts on “4 Ways to Make Your Mystery Thrilling and Drive Your Readers Mad

  1. Hi, Linda! Anyone who read your book: Neon Houses, will know what you are talking about. I was impressed at how you were able to hold the reader’s attention. It was quite a read! :D. Thank you for the tips.

    1. Thank you, Joy. I appreciate your positive comments. I have also learned from your talent. The character and emotion of the women in Mirror of Our Lives is impactful. You pull us in.

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