Alyssa’s Notes on Bestselling Author April Henry’s Presentation on Commit the Perfect Crime: Writing Mysteries & Thrillers

April Henry gave a talk about her knowledge in both writing and editing mystery and thrillers. Having published both Adult and Young adult books, along with a New York Times bestseller, she gladly gave away tips for writing crime. For information on crimes themselves, Henry suggests asking a group on yahoo called “Crime Scene Writers”, made up of people who actually worked in those areas (Police men, fire men, etc.)

Some of the points she made about writing mystery and thriller novels:
• First off, you need to understand the difference between mysteries and Thrillers. Mysteries start out with a “Why?” have a close group of people who solve the mysteries and are usually in a series. Thrillers on the other hand ask “How?” (how will the Main Character make it out, etc.) move out into the world and are usually one shot novels rather than a series.
• When you’re beginning the plot, start with “what if?” What would make you leave your job or loved ones, even if you knew that you could not go back?
• To get ideas for things such as these, Henry will take clippings of news stories or pictures that she likes to help her with inspiration for her stories. Even small stories can help create an entire novel, as long as you keep your mind open.
• One example of stories that Henry used started with the situation of a boy who is playing with his bee-bee gun and accidentally shot a cat. His father tells him that he must kill the cat, to put it out of its misery. Henry then replaces the cat with a human girl. What would be her reaction? How would she survive or even escape?
• Henry suggests looking at the lyrics of songs for ideas as well. There are entire stories in three minute songs, the word choice is specific and easy to gain inspiration from.
• When you start writing the characters, think about how they might react in different situations.
• Give the character a goal, even minor characters. Maybe a store clerk really wants to leave his job, but he’s being prevented by the arrival of your Main Character who wants information. How will this move the plot along?
• The character should succeed in the goal; often to do this the character must face their worst fears. Are they afraid of heights? Well of course they will have to go up high to save someone.
• Revealing the character’s personality in their actions rather than pure descriptions. This is also the best way to understand your character and unlock them from stereotypes.
• Characters are apart of the author: you can only write from your own imagination. Play this to your advantage. Put your own emotions and personal experience into your stories.
• There are a couple of different ways to approach character design. One is to place the character in an alien setting and have them escape with their own personalities. Another is to sit down and make lists of everything they like (Their favorite cheese, the way they write their q’s, etc). Henry tells us that similar to creating plot, character development has many different approaches and there is no correct option, only what feels best for you.
• The line of your story should go along something like: (Character) wants (something) more than anything in the world, but is prevented by (obstacle) until they (do something to overcome obstacle).
• Moving onto plot. Hooks are very important, especially in a mystery or thriller. What would be an opening scene that would be compelling? It doesn’t have to start with a murder, but the reason most do is because it is an interesting beginning. Readers will not continue into your book if you don’t capture them.
• Plot Twists are a great way to catch your readers and keep your plot moving forward. Something like, killing off the person you thought was the killer (proving their innocence), or the heroine questioning if her father is a serial killer.
• Make it clear that the fate of the world of the character a reader likes, is in danger.
• Always figure out how to make it worse. Kill on child? How about an entire kindergarten class. Blind, kidnapped girl? Give her pneumonia.
• Always remember to intergrate subplots into your plot. Romance (New/lack of), problem with the Main Character’s family or friends (Funny/serious), health issues, addiction, day job challenge, unresolved even in character’s past (revisit at the climax), etc.
• It’s important that your audience keeps wondering “what happens next?”
• Keep adding in more and more obstacles, but don’t cheat the reader. Set it up, hint at it, so that the reader shouldn’t undermine the twist.
• It’s good to have issues such as: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society, and man vs. self.
• When talking about violence, there are really only three ways to approach it: Slow the scene down, make every little action important; don’t talk about it, let the reader fill out the blanks, let their imaginations run wild; or underplay it, add in more details, extra thoughts.
• Try starting with action, not an introduction. Create a ticking clock. Every time a character overcomes an obstacle replace it with an even worse one.
• Cut scenes with descriptions are boring. Have the characters ask questions.
• Make the cut scenes interesting, so that the reader will remember. Have someone lie, run away, or throw a punch. Everyone has a secret they want to protect, it just might not be the right secret.
• Create tension. Weather, time of day, etc. Have the Main Character lie.
• Release universal fears into your story (things under the bed, dark tunnels, crowds, disease, cracked doors, small noises, etc).
• Leave boring things out. Dialogue moves the story along much more quickly.
• Keep chapters sort. Henry’s chapters are either 10 pages or less or under 2,000 words.
• Don’t have your character’s agree. The story won’t be interesting if there is never any fighting. Not everything in life is flip-flops and lollipops.
• When deciding who your culprit is, realize that the characters with the clearest motive are too easy to find.
• Leaving clues for your readers is important. They should be able to re-read the story and pick up where the clues are.
• Add in meaningless clues. Make the actual clues appear less important. Don’t let your readers put it together easily, but don’t drop the results without anything to work up to it.
• As for the actual writing or your novel, Henry writes the majority of her stories on 3 x 5 index cards. Quick to write, and easy to organize.
• It’s also great to read all kinds of books, even one’s you don’t like. Henry says that it’s alright to put a book down if it’s not working for you, just identify why it isn’t working.
• Write what is interesting for you, even if you don’t know much about it. Keep researching.
• Make writing a habit, don’t wait for inspiration. You have deadlines to make and if you don’t start, you won’t get anything finished.
• You can always edit bad writing, but you can’t edit writing if you don’t have anything written.
• Henry emphasizes that tenacity is as important as talent. Even if your writing is amazing, you might be rejected and that’s okay. Just continue to persevere.
• Remember to show your audience. Don’t tell them, too much description is boring
• Revision has gotten a bad rap. Already you’ve finished all the hard work, revision is just polishing it up, it can be fun. Best time to revise is when you’ve given yourself space. A month is good. Six is ideal.
• To see what needs fixing read everything out loud.
• Go to readings at bookstores. You’ll always gain new and interesting information. And the author will be happy to see you, even if you don’t buy anything.

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