Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Rules and breaking them

by Jenny Hilborne
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?


  1. Coincidentally, this kind of thing was a topic on an online group yesterday. I made this comment:

    I've come to the conclusion that although surprises are nice, they aren't
    always necessary. Sometimes the path to the conclusion is as satisfactory
    as the conclusion itself.

    1. I agree, Peg. And even when you know the villain, there are often still surprises in store.

  2. Great post, Jenny. I always see your books as less mystery and more thriller anyway. I've read thrillers that reveal the villain early and it doesn't lessen the thrill of wondering when/if they'll get caught. One of the things you do that I admire so much is that you make me like some characters that seem unlikeable. Your victim in Hide and Seek is not a nice girl, but I want justice for her.

    I can't wait to read Stone Cold and see what you've done with a villain.

    As for following rules, I didn't know what the rules were when I wrote Freezer Burn. That turned out okay, so I've kept going with my other books and haven't looked back. I like to write pure mystery, where the reader and the main character are solving the crime together. But I don't mind reading a book where I follow the villain, too. I do sometimes find myself shouting at the protagonist, "No, no, look over there! I saw him put the knife in THAT drawer!"

    1. Totally agree, Gayle. I see it all the time in movies where we as viewers know who the villain is and we watch in horror when he mingles so easily and gets close to his victim. And yes, Freezer Burn did turn out okay - I loved it.

  3. Great post, Jenny! Mysteries and thrillers are so different, with totally different reader expectations. I wrote a blog post here on CFC a few years ago called Thrillers vs. Mysteries, and CFC-ers and our writer & reader followers helped me, through their excellent comments, highlight the differences. So the article that turned into a chapter of my Writing a Killer Thriller was richer for all the input.

    Then of course there are writers who very successfully combine the two genres with their suspenseful mysteries or mystery thrillers, like Robert Crais and Harlan Coben.

    When I give fiction-writing advice, I offer suggestions and guidelines, never rules, which are meant to be broken.

    I say if it works for you, go for it!

    Here's the link to that article here on CFC: July 18, 2011: Thrillers vs. Mysteries,

  4. You're right, Jodie. They are different in a number of ways. I'm downloading your new and expanded Writing a Killer Thriller.

    1. That's great, Jenny! I hope you enjoy my book with tips on writing a compelling thriller!

  5. The "We know who the Killer is but how will the Good Guy catch him" formula by Richard Levinson and William Link made a genuine legend out of Lt. Colombo. I can still watch those when they show up and - no matter how many times I have seen a particular episode - immediately get yanked right into it.

  6. I tend to view books where there's an actual mystery as fitting the mystery genre, but those where you know whodunnit as more suspense or thriller. But, in a more global sense, I mentally catalog them all as "mystery" even though many don't fit the mold. To me, whether they fit the mold or not, it's all about the writing.

  7. Great post, Jen. I'm always irritated when I see a list of "rules". I think it's all about intent and what works. I suppose there may have been a time when using sentence fragments was considered "breaking the rules", until someone did it and found it worked. Then everyone else jumped on board, and then, there went that rule.

    I say, screw rules. If it works, do it.

  8. I like both, as long as it's well written. I love not knowing who the killer is, like in the Sherlock Holmes series, but I also like to know the villain from the start (think Dan Brown with the Langdon series)

    1. Same here, Stéphanie. I like to alternate.

  9. If I had my 'druthers, I'd read only mystery, but the leaning today seems to be to throw in "suspense" with POVs outside the detective. I 'rewrite' them in my head, wondering how I could make this into a true mystery.

    Terry's Place

  10. Been busy the past few days, so I'm catching up.

    Discussions about rules and genre-definitions remind me of Eisenhower's description of battle plans: before the battle, they're everything. Once the battle starts, they're nothing. I see this in many fields. Even literary critics don't necessarily follow the rules they're using to analyze works of literature.

    We tend to forget that the rules don't exist in a vacuum and were not made up from nowhere. Even the rules of grammar are simply a distillation, or formulation, of experience. Rules, I think, are descriptive. They may be pattern-prescriptive, but not item-prescriptive.

    Great post, Jenny. Very thought provoking. I wish I had time to ruminate more. (Looking up Jodie's definitional post, too.)

    1. Thanks for commenting, David. I see a lot of rules broken in so many of the books I read, I think they just constantly evolve until they blur and no one knows what they are any more.


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