My preference in books tends to run to mysteries and suspense stories and, as a writer, those are also what I prefer working on. Not all of my books are mystery or suspense but nearly all of them have an element of mystery or a twist of some sort in the story. I love a good plot twist.
A few years ago I read a book—I forget the name, probably purposefully—that was labeled a mystery about a woman with a young child who was being stalked and terrorized. There were several male characters in the story who could have gone either way as good guys or bad guys. It was a good story but throughout you weren’t sure and I was genuinely mystified. It made for an exciting read—until I got to the climax. It turned out that her stalker was none of the characters so far but rather her ex-husband who had been mentioned very briefly at the beginning of the book and never appeared again. That annoyed the heck out of me.
It is my belief that the essence of good suspense/mystery is if, when the climax is reached, the reader can say, “I should have guessed!” This means that there have to be hints dropped in along the way. I call that scattering breadcrumbs. The reader follows the path and knows there is something going on here—they’re just not sure what.
As a writer what I have learned is much of the breadcrumb scattering has to be massaged into place as the story develops. This requires a lot of writing back and forth. As the plot unfolds I find myself going back and planting clues in places that I hope will be unobtrusive. The story I am working on right now is another in my series of Marienstadt stories and, while it is far from a mystery, there is a little twist that I hope readers will like. I’ve done a tremendous amount of massaging to get it to work.
One of the most useful tools in this process comes in understanding the psychological nature of your characters. Each one has to be created with an eye to them being the sort of person who could do whatever it is that they are ultimately going to do. These days there are a lot of characters who are sociopaths or psychopaths and they can be very compelling to create if you understand their psychological makeup but you can’t fake that knowledge or the whole story falls apart.
We writers are world-builders and our worlds have to make sense. There is an old adage in mystery writing that if you mention a shotgun hanging over the fireplace in the beginning of the book, that shotgun has to come off the wall at some point. We can’t just toss in clues for the sake of confusing the reader; they all have to lead the reader down a path. It is a painstaking process and requires focus and a LOT of revision.
In my most recent novel, The Crazy Old Lady’s Secret, there is a huge twist that comes about two-thirds of the way through the story. I was somewhat apprehensive about doing that because it is not the way stories usually unfold but the results of the twist also make it possible for the story to go where it needs to go. Was my gamble successful? We’ll find out as more people read it.
So, as you work, don’t be afraid to backtrack. Scatter those breadcrumbs but scatter them carefully. You want the reader to come to the climax and think, “How did I miss that?” not “That came out of nowhere.”
Thanks for reading.