I've learned more about writing mysteries from the books I put down. Why did I lose interest?
Sometimes the answer is obvious in the first pages – poor writing. But in the last year, I've started a number of books and initially been impressed with the writing quality. But then I quit reading after a few chapters. I usually lose interest for one of two reasons:
First: I simply don't care if the main character succeeds in her goal. In a cozy mystery, the amateur detective has no real reason to be investigating. The crime doesn't directly affect her or her family or friends, and/or there's no reason to think the police can't take care of things.
But it's not enough to make the detective a professional, so it's her job to investigate. The stakes can still feel low if there isn't some reason for me to be interested in seeing this particular crime solved, right now.
That's not to say the stakes have to include the main character being accused of the crime. In the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters, Brother Cadfael cares deeply about justice and protecting the innocent, even people he barely knows. And so, as a reader, I care.
In a similar vein, I've always enjoyed Elaine Orr's Jolie Gentil Series. Jolie doesn't always have a good *practical* reason to investigate. But she has a burning desire to understand the truth. This is shown through her thoughts and actions, so it feels authentic to her character, not something tacked on by the author as an excuse for unbelievable behavior.
Second: Not enough happens. One historical mystery I tried recently started out well, with dramatic action and strong writing. But this was followed by several chapters where the story didn't progress. A couple of new characters were introduced. They talked with the MC about topics that had already been discussed. Nobody had new information. The big mystery was barely acknowledged. The MC hadn't committed to learning more about it yet. Finally I got so bored I gave up. Perhaps things would've picked up again in a few chapters … but by that point, I didn't care enough to wait.
When I critique manuscripts, I often wind up explaining the necessity of having goal-motivation-conflict in every chapter.
Another way to keep your story moving is to focus on your main character's goal in each scene. Even if we know what the overall goal is (gather warriors in order to battle the monster), remind the reader at the beginning of each scene what the scene goal is – and what the main character has to do to achieve it. You can also remind the reader why it is important (motivation) and why it will be difficult (conflict). This way, the reader is waiting to see if the main character will succeed or fail. It's also a way for you to check that your main character is staying active, and not just tagging along for the ride.
Sometimes writers know what the goal is, and why it's important, but forget to put it on the page. Sometimes writers get caught up in their own writing and don't realize they haven't had any conflict in a while. Sometimes writers haven't gotten close to their main characters, so the characters' behavior doesn't seem to come naturally from their personality.
Writing is hard! It's why I recommend making an outline after writing a draft, to see what's really in the story rather than what you meant to include and thought you included. (More on that here.) It's the key to the revision method I discuss in Advanced Plotting.
Chris also writes for adults under the name Kris Bock. Her Furrever Friends Sweet Romance series features the employees and customers at a cat café. Watch as they fall in love with each other and shelter cats. Get a free 10,000-word story set in the world of the Furrever Friends cat café when you sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter. Learn more at www.krisbock.com or visit Kris Bock’s Amazon US page or Amazon UK page. (For other countries click here.)