29 February 2016


While teaching classes over the years on how to write a mystery, I've come across other people's rules for how to and how not to write. And there are some fine rules out there. But, let's face it, as writers we are already dancing to the beat of a different drummer. Is it okay to bend some of these rules? Break one or two? Or totally ignore them? To screw up a wonderful quote, “Rules? We don't need no stinky rules!”

Now a man named Resnicow wrote some charming rules on how to write a mystery. He didn't specify – but I must – that these rules are only for the classics, or cozies, or drawing room mysteries.

Number one I agree with, unless you're writing under the name of Carolyn Keene:

1. You're writing a mystery: so kill someone.” That's mostly a keeper.

2. All clues should be presented clearly and preferably more than once.” Unless you're writing a police procedural, hard-boiled, or suspense.

3. The information given the reader must be accurate. Do your research.” Okay, another keeper.

4. All questions must be answered, all loose ends tied up.” Unless, of course, the book is going to have a sequel, or the whole point of the story is unanswered questions.

 That's just some of Mr. Resnicow's rules. But he's not the only one with a list. Back in the day, I found an interesting publication by a group of sci-fi writers out of Houston. They called their opus “The Turkey City Lexicon,” and they divided their rules into groups: Words, Sentences and Paragraphs, Background, and Plot. I'll just recount some of my favorites.

From Words:

“Said” Bookism: Artificial, literary verb used to avoid the perfectly good word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the language; it is almost impossible to overuse. Infinitely less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” or the all time favorite, “he ejaculated.”
And on that subject, my own pet peeve, no identifiers in a discussion involving more than two people. For God's sake, it's two extra words, people! (Now putting soap box away.)

 Tom Swifty: Similar compulsion to follow the word “said” with an adverb. As in, “We'd better hurry,” said Tom swiftly.” Remember, the adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. (I love that last line!)

“Burly Detective” Syndrome: Fear of proper names. This is when you can't call Mike Shayne “Shayne,” but substitute “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” It comes from the entirely wrong-headed conviction that you can't use the same word twice in the same sentence.
From Sentences and Paragraphs:
Laugh-track: Characters giving cues to the reader as to how to react. They laugh at their own jokes, cry at their own pain, and (unintentionally) feel everything so the reader doesn't have to.
Hand Waving: Distracting readers with dazzling prose or other fireworks to keep them from noticing a severe logical flaw.
Fuzz: Element of motivation the author is too lazy to supply. The word “somehow” is an automatic tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story: “Somehow she forgot to bring her gun.”
Info Dump: large chunks of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. This can be overt, as in fake newspaper of “Encyclopedia Glactia” articles inserted in the test, or covert, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures.
As you Know, Bob: A form of info dump in which the characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up to speed.
I've Suffered for My Art And Now It's Your turn: Research dump.
I call this my personal favorite because, if I do the research, by damn, I'm gonna use it! Okay, half the time I have to go back and delete the boring stuff I learned, but please, ask me about it! I'll give you all the details!
And my favorite under Plots:
God-in-the-Box: Miraculous solution to an otherwise insoluble problem. “Look, the Martians all caught cold and died!”
Like I mentioned earlier, rules are meant to be used, edited, adapted or broken, but sometimes it's fun to see what other people think good writing is all about.


  1. The Turkey City group is from Austin, not Houston, although I'm sure Houston would happy to take credit for it. I like their Lexicon.

  2. I HATE RESEARCH DUMPS! I read a mystery a while back in which 1/3 of the book was a totally extraneous history lesson that was clearly there to pad the book and to show us something the author had been interested in. I wasn't.

    Also, the "As you know, Bob," can be a real clunker.

    Although I don't think you always have to kill people. Theft works. Kidnapping. Rape. Embezzlement.

    And as for God-in-the-box - an irritating solution with an ancient provenance. All the way back to Sophocles. Deux ex machina, anyone?

    Great article!

  3. Excellent tutorial, Susan.

    One of your lines also reminded me of Nancy Drew, the titian-haired sleuth.

    >the adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. (I love that last line!)

    I agree. Well said.

    I’d add that any word or word prefix with ‘some’ is fuzzy smithing. I hate it when I come across it in my own writing.

    God-in-the-box… A friend gave me a mystery/thriller by famous #1 New York Times bestselling author. It was humming okay and then before the halfway point, a psychic shows up. Damn, I despise charlatans in real life and I absolutely detest clairvoyants showing up in novels to solve mysteries by ‘second sight’.

  4. Lovely stuff. I checked and Mr. Resnicow's first name is Herbert.

    I have added "somehow" to my personal file of words to search for before sending a story ot the editor.

  5. One of my favorite rules: since we write crime fiction I think it's important to include in a Universal Truth. If you can do that, I think your readers will follow you anywhere no matter how untrue you might write about death. An example of a Universal truth...if you are packing for a trip of five days you absolutely will only have three decent pair of undies or bras or Jocky shorts. You will have to shop before your trip or hand wash often. Including some Universal truth will allow you to kill Aunt Ida with a knitting needle and most readers won't blink an eye, knowing full well it would be almost to kill Aunt Ida with a knitting needle. But you gave the a Universal truth earlier so they'll happily go along with knitting needle story.

  6. Even in the technothrillers I love, it's possible to handle the details adroitly, so that the reader has enough information to understand what's going on, but stays awake. I think different readers have different levels of tolerance for background, but in any case, whatever detail writers include--even the color and shape of a plate--has to have significance in the story, especially in a mystery! "Somehow" we forget that!


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