The magic of women and mysteries – Dianne Dixon

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By Dianne Dixon

Did you know that the plot of almost every mystery has its roots in the question “What if?” And did you know that most women seem hardwired to be fascinated with mysteries?

As little girls we eagerly dive into “who-dunnits,” everything from Nancy Drew to contemporary series like The Baby-Sitters Club. And as adults we just keep on going. When it comes to watching mysteries on TV we’re seventy-percent of the audience. And when we’re curled up with a book, what do a lot of us love to read? A good mystery.

Some experts say it’s because we’re more empathetic than men, or that it’s because society doesn’t allow women to be aggressive and the mystery genre lets us tap into our darker side. And other experts think women and mysteries go together because women have an innate sense of “What if?”

The “what if?” question is a jumping-off place for almost every mystery writer. And it’s exactly where my new novel The Other Sister started — with me asking myself, “What if a terrible crime suddenly tore apart the obsessively intertwined lives of two sisters? What would happen if the crime took a long time to be solved? And what if it unleashed the darkness that exists on the underside of love and changed the sisters in unimaginable ways?”

As soon as a writer finds a compelling ‘What if” it’s time to begin structuring the plot — what the twists and turns will be, and precisely how the mystery will be resolved. For me, to keep the plot tight, I need to know exactly where I’m going. I lay out the entire story, beat by beat.

Writing down all the details before I start the manuscript lets me figure out which clues will be in the seen-along-the-way category and which ones will be the final, spotlighted keys that unlock the mystery. For example, if a seen-along-the-way clue is a scarf that will later play a role in solving the mystery, the scarf could be introduced in a scene where two characters are having a high-voltage argument. The scarf is shown, the reader is aware of it, but the reader’s attention is distracted by the intensity of the argument. The same would be true for a line of dialog that will ultimately turn out to be meaningful — I might have one of the characters deliver it casually, almost as a joke or a throwaway, so that the reader “hears” it but doesn’t recognize its significance until all the clues begin to fall into place at the end of the story.

The technique of presenting clues so that the reader is aware of them but doesn’t focus on them is almost like a sleight-of-hand magic trick: artful distraction. Without it, it’s impossible to construct a good mystery.

The only thing that destroys a mystery faster than clumsily presented clues is a clumsily written ending — a ‘what you didn’t know’ section, where the writer resolves everything by suddenly talking about events the reader wasn’t allowed to see while the plot was unfolding.

And while the plot is unfolding the reader wants be constantly intrigued by what’s going on. An effective way to do this is to end each chapter on a cliff-hanger, a moment or line of dialog that’s so unexpected that the reader’s reaction is: “Wait, I can’t stop reading now. I have to find out what happens next.” That’s what prompts readers to tell their friends, “I couldn’t put the book down…it was a page-turner.”

When a reader comes to the final “Ah-ha” moment in a mystery, two important things need to happen. Surprise. And then after the moment of surprise, the ability to think back over the story and immediately see that all the clues were there, but were so skillfully presented that the suspense stayed unbroken until the very end. One of the best examples of this kind of writing is the plotting in the film The Sixth Sense. The keys to the story (things like the meaning of the line “I see dead people”) were there all along but we didn’t realize it until the moment the writer chose to reveal it to us.

Creating a good mystery is a kind of literary magic that requires both the writer and the reader to possess intelligence and curiosity — two things women just naturally seem to have.

Maybe that’s because we’re born fascinated with the question, “What if?”

Dianne Dixon is a double Emmy nominee and a recipient of the prestigious Humanitas prize for outstanding accomplishment in writing for television. She was Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Pitzer College and taught screenwriting at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film & Media. The Other Sister is Dianne’s third novel, after The Language of Secrets and The Book of Someday.

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