If you’re like me, you know the pure enjoyment that comes with a suspense-filled mystery thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat, waiting with anticipation for what will happen next. Whether it’s a movie, a television show or a novel, too often we overlook the common thread that each of these have — a very talented writer.
Be it Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker or James Bond, without the exceptionally imaginative writers who created these characters, and the stories around them, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to enjoin these treasures.
But how do they do it? Creating a tightly-woven story filled with interesting characters and plot twists that, at times, can take our breath away does not just happen overnight. It takes a great deal of time, effort and imagination from these extraordinary men and women we know as writers.
Ever since I first learned the alphabet, I have been a voracious reader. So when I decided to try and write a novel myself, I followed the lead of my favorite authors. In other words, I write the kind of stories that I like to read.
When I seriously started to put pen to paper for my first novel, I was completely overwhelmed. How do you write a novel? Is there a secret formula that has to be followed? Where do you begin? The good news is that there is no “right” way to write a novel. Start with the story. You have to know your story inside and out, and then write it as if you’re telling your story to a friend. It is a process that will take time, patience and an extraordinary amount of re-writing that, frankly, would try the patience of a saint.
The mystery writers who inspire me, and whose stories I enjoy the most, continually amaze me at how they accomplish this over and over again. So I started to study the mechanics of how they do it — what do they do to insure that they’ll be successful time and time again. By carefully reading their work I’ve learned a great deal and still have a lot to learn.
One of the things I learned is that they never waste time with extraneous details, and that’s what I want to focus on here.
Don’t bog your story down with a bunch of details that don’t do anything to enhance or move the plot forward. If you truly pay attention, you’ll see what I’m talking about the next time you watch a show or read a book.
Let’s look at an example of what I’m talking about. For our example, we’ll set our story in a rambling, old mansion that is now a bed a breakfast. It is run by an elderly couple, Bob & Betty, whose family has owned the house for years.
Early in the story, as we are introducing our characters to our reader, we make a point of letting them know that Betty loves to knit. In fact, we illustrate that Betty is well-known throughout the community as being a very talented knitter, but is also known as being rather obsessive about it. So much so that she keeps knitting needles in almost every room in the house so that she can indulge whenever the spirit moves her.
How could this personality quirk possibly be of any importance in a suspenseful mystery? It is because you need it later on. The best writers that I read and enjoy never leave a detail behind. If they’ve gone to all the trouble to point something out to me, then I know it’s going to play a role sometime in the story.
But knitting, where does that fit in?
Well, here’s where: Much later in the book our hero finds himself fighting for his life against one of the bad guys. The fight is not going well for him. He is over-matched. He reaches for his gun, but it is knocked out of his hand and the bad guy hurls him into a wall. Our hero is stunned, slides to the floor, realizing that he’s not going to win this fight.
The bad guy approaches him to finish him off. Our hero finds that his hand is resting on some kind of basket. Out of the corner of his eye he sees that it is one of Betty’s knitting baskets. He sees the two steel knitting needles in basket. Unbeknownst to the bad guy, our hero grips the needles in his hand. When the bad guy pulls our hero to his feet to finish him off, the hero rams the needles into him, saving his life.
Clearly, we’d need to work on this whole scenario, but the point here is that no detail has been left behind. Is it important that Betty is a world class knitter? No. What is important is that early on we established why there would be knitting needles laying around all over the place. The story wouldn’t be as believable if the needles just happened to be where our hero needed them at just the right time.
Know your story and plant the seeds early on that you’ll need to harvest later in the book. (Of course, this is also one situation of many in which a great editor comes in handy.) It will strengthen you writing, and your reader will be ready to accept what you’ve already shown them.