Author of mysteries and thrillers
Someone once said (or wrote somewhere) that there are only so many plausible plot lines for writing mysteries and thrillers. When I'm watching TV, I see truth in that statement. Mysteries can be formulaic with similar and overused plot lines.
A while ago, I came across a list of mystery writing "rules" on another blog post, where one of the rules was to "not reveal the bad guy too early on, or the reader will have no reason to continue reading." In this same list of "rules", the writer was also advised to not wait too long for the big reveal, or the reader will feel cheated. It's confusing and a challenge for the mystery writer. Following "rules" can make a book or a movie predictable. I've read plenty of comments about predictability in various negative reviews left by readers.
As a mystery/thriller reader, as well as a writer, I enjoy pitting my wits against the detective and trying to solve the crime first. I also enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the bad guy get his comeuppance. However, I also enjoy reading books by writers who break the "rules" and tell me upfront who the bad guy is, or dare to write their book with mixed 1st and 3rd person points of view. Harlan Coban does this brilliantly.
At my book events, I ask mystery readers what kinds of mysteries they like. Some are clear in their answer and name the sub genre or the authors they enjoy. Others aren't as aware of the sub genres that exist within the mystery/thriller genre, which opens the door for a great discussion. For me, and a lot of readers I talk to at events, the most important part of a mystery is the plot. It has to be plausible and contain lots of fast moving action.
When I wrote Stone Cold, I had the plot in mind, and the sub plot, but I wanted to include chapters in the killer's point of view. I wanted to try something different and reveal the killer's identity early on in the book. This goes against the "rules" I've read for writing mystery, but perhaps not for writing suspense, or a thriller.
The reviews, so far, have been mixed. Some readers I talk to believe if you know who the bad guy is upfront there is no mystery. Knowing who the villain is early on is one of the differences between a mystery, and a suspense or a thriller. Stone Cold is a psychological thriller. It delves into the motivations of each of the characters. It is not a mystery and the detective is not the main character. Not everyone likes it (I knew that would be the case going in).
When we know the bad guy upfront, a book (and a movie) can still be loaded with tension and suspense. It lies partly in the chase; how will the villain be captured? Will he be captured? As one reviewer for Stone Cold wrote: "Justice is a strange commodity and it isn't always served."
Psychology is a fascinating subject. Psychological thrillers are always filled with tension. It isn't always what a villain does that's so shocking, but why they do it. What makes them behave this way? How many lives will be put at risk when they take the law into their own hands? The 'why?' was likely the most fascinating aspect of the Jodie Arias trial. We know upfront what she did. Viewers found it riveting to watch the trial. We all wanted to know why.
Villains have different motivations. Maybe Jodie Arias is plain evil, but not all villains are. When a villain has redeeming qualities, it causes conflict. In fiction, the villain is not always placed in the book to create hurdles for the hero/heroine. In Stone Cold, there are three villains, all with different motivations, and each one provokes a different level of either sympathy or abhorrence in the reader, necessary for the story.
An interesting villain should be able to fool readers into believing there is an element of good in their character. Their true intentions, and the motivations behind them, often lay hidden until much later. This creates complex layers to the story and more suspense, even when we know their identity early on. The hidden traits of the villain are still a mystery. When we know his identity upfront, we can see more easily that he is a skilled and cunning liar, and we can see his determination. He may not always win, but he will test the hero/heroine.
Readers: how do you feel about knowing the identity of the villain early on in a thriller? Do you find the chase compelling?
Writers: do you follow the "rules" when writing mysteries or thrillers?