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5 Things To Remember When Writing A Mystery Or Thriller

Honoured to have bestselling author Paula Daly on the blog today, sharing her tips about Mystery and Thriller. Paula is the writer of Just What Kind Of Mother Are You? (Transworld), one of my favourite mystery books of the last couple of years, so make sure you check it out if you haven’t already. I think Paula’s tips are equally useful to screenwriters as well and as you will notice, Paula mixes books and TV/movies in her examples, so enjoy … Over to you, Paula!


1) It’s All About The Premise

Publishers are after the same but different. They want something original that hasn’t been done before, something that makes the reader sit up, or feel uncomfortable. I would go as far as to say it’s impossible to break through unless you have an original premise for your story. Recent books which have done this well are Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (woman with dementia must turn detective to find her missing friend); and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (woman witnesses something shocking on the morning commute). MORE: 4 Reasons Your Concept Counts Above All Else

2)  Don’t Forget The Plot

Once you have your premise, or your “What If?”, you are ready to start plotting. The easiest way to do this is to write your premise in the middle of a page – for example, What if a woman spends a night with a man in exchange for a million dollars? (Indecent Proposal). Then write down as many things that can go wrong by her taking this action. That’s it! That’s plot. Simple eh? MORE: How NOT To Write A Novel: 5 Mistakes Writers Make

3)   Your Antagonist Must Have a Believable Motivation

Next you want to think about your villain, and you want to spend as long on this character as on your protagonist. Perhaps more. And you want to know if you’re writing mystery or a thriller. Simply put, a mystery has a hidden villain (think Broadchurch, we don’t find out the identity until the end of the series). Whereas a thriller has the villain in plain sight – but no one believes the protagonist that they are the villain. I would say a mystery is less difficult to write because it’s easier to sustain the tension throughout. The reader has an insatiable need to know who did it, or where the missing child is. But the mystery should come with this warning: If the motivation of your villain is not strong or believable, if we don’t understand the reason behind the things they do, the reader will feel duped and will hurl your book across the room. MORE: 2 Things ALL Writers Get Wrong In Early Drafts

 4)   Your Protagonist’s Need Must Be Strong 

With regards to your main character she should be strong but vulnerable to attack. And she should really WANT something. In my book Just What Kind of Mother Are You?, the main character, Lisa Kallisto, wants to find her best friend’s daughter before it’s too late. If your character’s want is not strong enough, or specific enough, the reader won’t stick with them. Notice we don’t have to really like the character to root for them. We just have to feel their need. MORE: Is “Good” Characterisation Really About Change?

5)   Humour Can Help

Finally, I would beg new writers to put some humour into their books. For me, it’s all about ‘the voice’. If I sense you’re enjoying yourself when writing your novel, I will stick with you. Even if your plot is a bit thin. Or the characters do silly, unbelievable things. I don’t care. Make me smile and I will be your fan for life. MORE: 7 Ways Of Showcasing Your Writer’s Voice, plus 5 Steps To Writing A Novel


author_photo_high_reBIO: Paula Daly was born in Lancashire. She was a self-employed physiotherapist before beginning her first novel JUST WHAT KIND OF MOTHER ARE YOU? Her second novel, KEEP YOUR FRIENDS CLOSE was shortlisted for the 2014 CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger Award and her work has been translated into fourteen languages. She lives in the Lake District with her husband, three children and whippet Skippy. You can find her on twitter: @pauladalyauthor and Facebook.

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