The mystery novel has been read for hundreds of years. From Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot, these novels made up of meticulous sleuths have literally sold billions of copies. In fact, Agatha Christie, herself, has sold over one billion copies, out-selling Shakespeare and the Bible. For one to become known like Doyle or Christie, years of effort must be applied. One must discipline himself to use the following special elements. The “elements” of a good mystery are plotting, characterization, and a unique style.
Probably the most important element of mystery writing is the ability to plot the story. The plot is the center or core around which action takes place. It is the theme line of the story. To plot would be to develop the action around the basic plot lines. Plotting is done in advance of writing; sometimes, it is done years in advance. In her autobiography, Agatha Christie tells of an experience in plotting. She was walking in town and passed a hat store. She visioned an elderly spinster wearing one of the magnificent hats and started to plot a story around the hats. This is how The Tuesday Club Murders originated. Plotting is exhilarating. It can be done at any time, during a wild dream or on a walk down the street. The possibilities are literally endless. Plotting in term of composition writing would be brainstorming. They both serve as a use for organization.
Good characterization is the second element of a good mystery. It gives the reader a friend or foe to relate to. It has been proven that if a character is realistic, then the reader will identify with him. A writer’s goal is to do just this. Each character with an active role in a mystery must be unique. Soft characters should only be used for background scenes or as fill-ins. A mystery novelist should never use a soft character as a main figure. A soft character discourages the audience and loses its sense of identity. For a good mystery, there should be an abundance supply of characters; however, the latter theory was disobeyed by Christie when she wrote Cards on the Table, a story about bridge concerning four characters. Christie apologized to some of her readers in the forward of her book. She hinted that it was one of Poirot's favorite cases but his assistant Captain Hastings found it really dull.
The style of a mystery novel is the atmosphere conveyed to the reader through the use of words and subject matter. Another great way to deliver this atmosphere is through the characters. The way the author develops the characters’ behavior and appearance is an example of his style. A fourth way to deliver style is through the author’s use of word choice and sentence structure. The repetition of slang expressions, clichés, and observations are more examples of a writer’s technique. Agatha Christie summed up style in her autobiography when she said, “Style is your own atmosphere coming to life.” She went on to stress the importance of having your own style, not copying it from another writer. That’s what made her so popular. She wasn’t trying to be like someone else; she was being herself.
In order for a struggling mystery writer to become successful in his field, he must develop his own style and appeal. The three elements, good plotting, strong characterizations, and a unique style, must be evident.
On the margin, his instructor scribbled: “Great paper-100x2.”