How to Start Your Mystery Novel

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No pressure, but the opening of your book is the gatekeeper in determining whether your novel will sell. If your opening is weak, it won’t matter if chapter two is a masterpiece. Editors and agents will stop reading before they get to it.

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This column excerpted from Hallie Ephron's
Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel.

Hopefully you’ve already scoped out a dramatic scene to open your novel. You know who’s in the scene and what’s going to happen to propel the novel forward. Your opening scene can be long or short. It can be action packed or moody, rich in description, or skeletal and spare. It may contain a vivid sense of setting or a strong shot of character. Regardless of what’s in that scene, the reader should have some idea what the story is going to be about after reading it, or at least have a good sense of the theme and be eager to turn the page.

Think about:

  • How does the opening sentence set up the scene?
  • What’s the out-of-whack event, and how does it pull the reader forward?
  • In what tense is this told, and from which character’s point of view?
  • What do we know about the setting?
  • What’s the weather and time of day?
  • What do we learn about Russ Van Alstyne?
  • Why does this event matter to this protagonist?
  • What does this opening scene suggest that the book is going to be about?
  • Does this opening develop plot or characters?


THE DRAMATIC OPENING

A good way to start the opening scene is by jumping right into the action. Here are some opening lines that catapult the reader into the story:

"When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter."
- No Second Chance, Harland Coben)

"Gordon Michaels stood in the fountain with all his clothes on."
- Banker, Dick Francis

"The house in Silverlake was dark, its windows as empty as a dead man’s eyes."
- The Concrete Blonde, Michael Connelly

"I was fifteen years old when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him."
- The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Laurie R. King

"They were thirty-five nautical miles off the coast of Rhode Island."
- The Mayday, Bill Eidson

Your opening line is important, but don’t obsess about it. Just write an opening line that puts the reader into the scene, get past it, and keep going. You can make it “perfect” later.

HOW TO WRITE IT

The first scene of your book presents some unique problems. Your primary job is to get your story moving while at the same time introduce your reader to the characters and setting. Keep your eye on the story you’re setting up—something intriguing has to happen. Lay in just enough character and setting description to orient the reader. You have the rest of the book to fill in the blanks. Write the opening scene using the elements you sketched out. You can make revisions later as you learn more about topics such as setting the scene, introducing characters, writing dialogue and internal dialogue, and creating action.

Want more info on writing a great mystery novel? Check out the book.

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