I’ve just finished reading Shannon OCork’s ‘How to Write Mysteries’, one of those random charity shop acquisitions I’m fond of. I’m not a mystery writer, but I like to read widely about writing, as it helps develop a range of skills. And to help some of that learning settle in my head, here are a couple of key lessons I learned from this one.
OCork talks about the real and apparent plot. By her reckoning, every mystery should have these two main plots, if not more. The apparent plot is what seems to be going on. The real plot hides behind it, and is slowly revealed as you go through the apparent plot. This is meant to create curiosity and excitement in the reader, as they recognise what is being exposed. I think this idea has value beyond mystery novels, as it’s a way of both building intrigue and helping your reader feel smart. I have a theory that feeling smart is a big part of what makes us enjoy books, so this sits well with me.
The other top tip I took from this book was to use each success to foster another difficulty. The character might retrieve the magical sword they need, but this will draw the attention of the goblin king, creating a new challenge to overcome. They might succeed in wiping the files they were being blackmailed with, but the hack that let them do this draws the attention of the FBI, putting them on the run. It’s a way of piling on the excitement through new challenges, but making those challenges seem to arise naturally.