All writers differ, but those writing their first (and maybe second or third) mystery usually make at least two or three of ten common mistakes. I base this list on what I’ve observed in reading other writers’ works in progress and what they’ve said about my manuscripts.
The mistakes vary in the manuscript’s different sections: two to three opening chapters, twenty to thirty middle chapters, and three to five final chapters.
The opening chapters
The hardest and most important section to perfect is the opening. Most agents and editors tell us they won’t read beyond the third page (some not beyond the first paragraph) if the story doesn’t grab them. From what I’ve heard, a majority of readers will give the writer until the end of the first chapter. If you can’t move the professional or the casual reader past the opening chapters, your exciting middle chapters and dynamic ending won’t matter. Watch out for these problems in your opening chapters.
1. A lengthy backstory
Start your story with a crucial event or action, not your biographical notes on the protagonist. Find the corpse or foreshadow the murder in the first chapter.
Give the necessary backstory in phrases or sentences, not paragraphs or pages. Let actions reveal character and aptitudes. Show your protagonist through others’ eyes.
Set the tone and voice of the entire book in your first chapter.
2. Long descriptions of the setting or the characters
Find the telling details that put the reader in the time and place.
Give thumbnails of the main characters or settings and add information as needed.
3. A prologue revealing a dramatic point late in the book
If an event is critical, make it part of chapter one.
If your beginning lacks action or suspense, write a new one.
4. Multiple characters
Introduce your protagonist immediately so readers identify with that person.
Limit characters to those whom you would remember at a networking event.
The middle chapters
We tend to spend so much time rewriting the opening that we neglect the much longer middle, the heart of the investigation and of character development. By this stage, readers tend to put the book down at the end of a chapter. Each chapter must motivate them to pick up the book again. Writers’ most common mistakes involve pacing.
5. A lack of action
Something must happen in every chapter. Check that by writing a headline for each chapter.
Continue conflict—in solving the crime, in reaching the protagonist’s goals, in personal and professional interactions.
6. Clues or characterizations that reveal too much
Present three or four viable suspects and speculate on at least two motives.
Use gray rather than black and white in portraying suspects.
7. Indistinguishable characters
Give each named character a memorable characteristic—appearance, mannerism, speech pattern, etc.
Make each person’s speech distinctive—vocabulary, grammar, syntax, rhythm.
The final chapters
Those last chapters must evoke emotion and stimulate the intellect. If readers feel cheated because previous chapters haven’t prepared them for the conclusion, confused because the solution lacks clarity, or dissatisfied because characters act out of character, they won’t recommend your book to others or read your next book. Readers’ frustration often comes from the following mistakes.
8. The first indication of the villain and the motive
Give the reader the facts to solve the crime, but don’t make those obvious.
Plant clues and red herrings throughout the book. Don’t bunch them at the end.
9. Illogical, coincidental, or incredible solutions
Surprise but satisfy with your solution. You want readers to say, “Oh, yes. Now I get it.”
In fiction, readers expect to receive all the answers. They also expect justice.
10. Villain reveals all
If the bad guy has to explain why and how, rework your plot.
Wrap up all the loose ends, starting with the subplots. (If you’re writing a series, a loose end or two may help propel the reader into your next book).
Avoiding all ten of these mistakes doesn’t mean the author has produced a good manuscript. Making several of them guarantees the manuscript requires a lot of rewriting.