7 Story Structure Weaknesses that Collapse your Mystery Novel

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A guest post by Nancy Curteman

Story structure is the underlying framework that supports your entire mystery novel. Not everyone agrees on the exact model for story structure, but no one disagrees with the fact that weaknesses in story structure can cause your novel to collapse. Here are 7 weaknesses to avoid:

1. A weak protagonist.

Within the first few pages, mystery readers need to know who the sleuth is. Early in the novel they also need to know that the character’s goal is consistent with her values, thoughts, and actions.

2. Turning points are unrelated to the protagonist’s actions.

For example, a thunderbolt striking the antagonist shouldn’t save the day for a main character who is being held at gunpoint. The “thunderbolt” strategy is a big turnoff to readers. They want the protagonist’s own clever and decisive action to save her.

3. The main character’s goal isn’t important.

The risks are not high. There’s not enough glory in success and the punishment for failure is not painful enough. Think big. The character’s goal might be to stop a serial killer from killing another whole family. Her failure will result in many more needless deaths. That failure will haunt her for the rest of her life. Now your reader has something worth worrying about.

4. A weak antagonist who has little impact on the protagonist.

The actions of the antagonist must force changes in the attitude, values, behavior or actions of the main character. Otherwise, where is the plot?

5. Too many flashbacks. Too much backstory.

Take care when writing flashbacks and backstory. They can destroy the chronological order of story events. The author needs to keep moving the plot forward. Flashbacks and backstory must be short and appropriate to the action taking place in the scene. Consider this scenario: When she chastised him, for a moment he was back in Sister Margaret’s fourth grade class, cowering at his desk. No, he thought, not this time. He stood, swallowed hard, and looked her right in the eye. “Enough, Elizabeth.” And he walked out the door.

6. Subplots that steal the main plot.

Mystery writers enhance their novels with subplots. However, take care not to give so much importance to the subplots that the reader loses interest in the main storyline. Use the subplots to enhance the main plot. For example, a little romance can add a bit of spice to a murder mystery.

7. An effect with no cause.

Remember, things don’t just happen. There is always a causative factor. If you leave out cause, readers will focus on trying to determine it for themselves and lose the gist of the story.

If story structure is strong, it will support a complex mystery puzzle. A weak story structure will collapse your novel and send it whizzing to the slush pile.

For more writing tips:

9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel


4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.”

Nancy Curteman writes Global Mysteries, a blog that blends mystery writing tips with world travel. Find more information on her website. Her latest novel is “Murder Down Under.”

Murder Down Under


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