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What NOT to do in detective fiction.

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Sat May 26, 2012 2:40 pm
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Paracosm says...

Writing a truly good detective story is hard to pull off. Coming up with twists to rival Agatha Christie or a good episode of Monk takes time and practice. It also means you have to know what you're doing. As it turns out, it also helps to know what not to do.

First and foremost, never let your reader know what's coming next. If a story is predictable, it's because they've read one like it before. Your first instinct will almost always be something predictable, and that's okay. Just twist it a little, and sometimes that one little twist will blow your reader away.

Never hide information from your reader. This is cheating, and it is dirty and evil and conniving and and..... I'll hunt you down have kittens eat your toes off. I remember the first Sherlock Holmes mystery I ever read. I was loving it, up until I realized that overrated son of a dirtbag Doyle cheated. You know what he did? He hid information from me.

How was I to know a little poison sucker device was among the South American artifacts? All he said was "South American artifacts"! If he were still alive today, I would write him a scathing letter. It was such a dirty trick, but even worse, it ruined the rest of the mystery. There was a great twist, and I never saw who the culprit was coming. That didn't matter though, because Doyle cheated. Never cheat your readers.

The third rule is this: Absolutely NO twins. Unless there's a twist. The twin is done to death, and they don't have much of a place in fiction these days. I will tell you this though, if you do it right, I love it. One episode of Monk I remember distinctly involved a twin, and it was done so gracefully, I almost changed my mind about them. So unless you are Agatha Christie reincarnate, no twins.

My fourth rule is, don't bog the reader down with horrible details unless it's a police procedural. I hate it when the writer feels the need to go into every freaking detail about a police detective's job. I'm not reading this because I want it to be realistic, I'm reading it for the entertainment.

This rule doesn't apply to police procedures. People who read those are willing to suffer through the monotonous background checks and bladdy blah blah. That's what they're in it for really. Just remember, there isn't much room in a cozy mystery for all the laws and gathering warrants and stuff like that. Address it once so the reader isn't like, "Oh, he didn't get a warrant! This is so stupid." Then drop it. That way they know you did your research and they don't have to worry anymore.

Rule number five is very cliched and overdone, but it's still a rule. Do not obey every single rule all the time. Most of these rules are set to make sure your writing isn't predictable, but if you always obey the rules, your writing becomes predictable.

Rules are overdone. Don't bother with them all the time. The only rule you can never, ever, under any circumstances, ever break is the one about hiding information. Just remember. Kittens. Toes. This is the only unbreakable rule. It is the avada kedavra of detective fiction rules. It is an unforgivable curse on detective fiction that we must never, ever fall back on.

We as writers cannot fall back into the days of Doyle! We had Christie, we're better than that, we don't need to use cheap tricks like Doyle's stupid Watson. We are good enough to tell the readers, "There's a poison sucker on the wall. They used it to treat snake bites. Walking around in the brush was dangerous, and folks would often be bitten on the legs." See what I did? I waved my hand and took your focus away from the lady who was sucking the kid's neck.

That's all for now, feel free to add your own rules. This is an ever changing thing, our writing has to change with time. DNA evidence is a beatch on detective fiction nowadays. Technology like that, and cellphones, and all of these things kind of put a damper on a good mystery, but we can get past that. Just keep writing!
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