No Suspects, No Mystery

man wearing sunglasses smoking a cigar with the word suspect

Suspects Keep Your Reader Guessing

When you serve up your mystery novel, your suspects are the main course. The victim triggers the mystery. The sleuth leads your reader through the puzzle to discover the killer. But, your suspects—through action and dialogue—create the mystery.

Suspects lie, cheat, and steal. By their actions, they thwart your sleuth. Think of your sleuth as the reader. Mystery readers love the puzzle. Secretly, or openly, they want to solve the puzzle before your sleuth does. Your reader experiences your sleuth’s triumphs and failures as their own. 

Your challenge as a mystery writer is to create suspects that challenge your sleuth. Your detective must track down, examine, and determine each suspect’s relationship to the victim. Each interaction with a suspect drives your sleuth—and your reader—toward the ultimate solution.

Setup Suspects for the Payoff

The big payoff in a mystery is the final reveal of the villain. Your sleuth finally discovers who did it. To keep your reader guessing until this climactic scene, each suspect needs the motivation to sustain the sleuth guessing their involvement.

Remember, the villain is one of the suspects during most of the mystery. For most of your equal weight with other suspects, or highlight the others to keep readers guessing. Early in the story—Acts 1-3 in a four-act structure—the villain is one of several suspects. Give your villain story, set up your villain with a clue that will make sense at the end but seems insignificant or irrelevant when first introduced. That’s how setup and payoff work.

As you create your character background for each suspect, think of hints you can plant early on in your mystery, that develop later in the story. What action or dialogue can you use to create a setup for the character?

Give each suspect a secret, and then create the lie they tell to hide the secret. And, give your sleuth, and reader, more to tackle by giving the suspect a backup lie if the sleuth pierces the truth of the first lie. 

As you develop your characters, give each suspect reasons to hide secrets from your sleuth. The secret may have nothing to do with the murder, but the suspect has a personal reason to keep information from your sleuth. That’s their motivation to hide the secret.

Slow Drip Setup Hints

Your sleuth must untangle the misrepresentations and lies of all the suspects, including the villain. Give your sleuth and your reader opportunities to overlook details or focus on misleading statements.

Scatter your setup clues lightly throughout your story. Each time your sleuth encounters a suspect or thinks about the suspect, drop one small setup. Make your sleuth, and your reader, work to put all the pieces into a framework. 

Use suspect replies to provide a variety of details. Your sleuth and your reader must sort through all the information. Make your sleuth sort through the details and evaluate the reliability of each suspect. Create questions in your sleuth’s mind. These create questions for your reader to consider.

As your reader wonders, you build suspense. Your reader wonders, Is she the one? Readers want to be smarter than the sleuth. 

As you head toward the end, uncover each suspect’s motivation until what remains is uncovering the villain.

As you develop your suspects, you give your reader what they want, a difficult puzzle to solve. 

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