How to Write Killer Fiction: The Funhouse of Mystery & The Roller Coaster of Suspense, by Carolyn Wheat, is one of those must-read books for new authors writing in the genre. Wheat, an accomplished mystery writer, divides the book into three parts.
After describing the differences between mystery and suspense, the first part delves into mysteries and their basic ingredients, such as the “cover-up” (why the killer must continue killing), fair play, hiding clues in plain sight, and when the absence of a clue is a clue itself. She explains the structure of a mystery and different types of endings.
Part 2 looks at suspense novels and how to engineer the “roller-coaster effect.” She looks at the hero’s journey and how this informs suspense writing. There’s an invaluable lesson in these chapters as she deconstructs Robert Crais’ Hostage, using the book’s plot to show how to structure a thriller. Yes, there may be spoilers if you haven’t read Hostage, but it’s a terrific lesson. That alone is worth the price of this book.
Part 3 looks at the writing process, both for those who outline and for pantsers (Wheat calls them blank-pagers). Wheat covers writing scenes, narrative, tension, and even parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs–and when to use them or not use them).
The best part of this book are the examples she uses from various novels, and the summations she includes in easy-to-digest lists and tables. If you’re writing in the genre, this is a worthwhile addition to your library.
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.