Posted by: nancycurteman | April 17, 2011

7 Story Structure Weaknesses That Will Collapse Your Mystery Novel

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Story structure is the underlying framework that supports your entire mystery novel. Not everyone agrees on the exact model for story structure but no one disagrees with the fact that weaknesses in story structure can cause your novel to collapse. Here are 7 weaknesses to avoid.

1. A weak protagonist. Within the first few pages, mystery readers need to know who the sleuth is. Early in the novel they also need to know that the character’s goal is consistent with her values, thoughts, and actions.

2. Turning points are unrelated to the protagonist’s actions. For example, a thunderbolt striking the antagonist shouldn’t save the day for a main character who is being held at gunpoint. The “thunderbolt” strategy is a big turnoff to readers. They want the protagonist’s own clever and decisive action to save her.

3. The main character’s goal isn’t important. The risks are not high. There’s not enough glory in success and the punishment for failure is not painful enough. Think big. The character’s goal might be to stop a serial killer from killing another whole family. Her failure will result in many more needless deaths. That failure will haunt her for the rest of her life. Now your reader has something worth worrying about.

4. A weak antagonist who has little impact on the protagonist. The actions of the antagonist must force changes in the attitude, values, behavior or actions of the main character. Otherwise, where is the plot?

5. Too many flashbacks. Too much backstory. Take care when writing flashbacks and backstory. They can destroy the chronological order of story events. The author needs to keep moving the plot forward. Flashbacks and backstory must be short and appropriate to the action taking place in the scene. Consider this scenario: When she chastised him, for a moment he was back in Sister Margaret’s fourth grade class, cowering at his desk. No, he thought, not this time. He stood, swallowed hard, and looked her right in the eye. “Enough, Elizabeth.” And he walked out the door.

6. Subplots that steal the main plot. Mystery writers enhance their novels with subplots. However, take care not to give so much importance to the subplots that the reader loses interest in the main storyline. Use the subplots to enhance the main plot. For example, a little romance can add a bit of spice to a murder mystery.

7. An effect with no cause. Remember, things don’t just happen. There is always a causative factor. If you leave out cause, readers will focus on trying to determine it for themselves and lose the gist of the story.

If story structure is strong, it will support a complex mystery puzzle. A weak story structure will collapse your novel and send it whizzing to the slush pile.

More writing tips:

7 Characteristics of Today’s Modern Mystery Novels
How Subplots Enrich Your Mystery Novel
Backstory: 10 things a Mystery Writer Should Know   


  1. I am told my protagonist is not likeable. :-\ These are good points. I need to just print these out and tape them to the wall. Thanks.


    • Do you want your protagonist to be likable? You can always give her some appealing traits or even some common habits or problems that will make her more sympathetic to your readers.


  2. Number five is my problem. I read it’s also called ‘laying too much pipe.’ Basically, the setup takes forever before you get to the real story, the inciting incident. I’m sure if I shuffled it later in the story, it would translate into too many flashbacks.

    I’ve heard of many of these, but not compiled into such a handy list before. This is fantastic.


    • I like the ‘laying too much pipe.’ Great metaphor. You might review your setup and see if any part of it could come in a later scene maybe as a quick reaction or response to a particular incident.


  3. Good points, NC.

    Characters are terribly important. If I don’t like them, I don’t care what happens to them. I stopped reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman because, after 3-4 chapters, I just didn’t care about the cast of characters.


    • One of the things I always struggle with and worry about is making my main character appealing to readers. I seem to have far less difficulty with my supporting characters which means I have to also be careful to keep their stories subservient to my main character.


  4. Excellent list, Nancy! I am especially fond of #5, which is a weakness of many writers.


  5. Great points! One of my favorite books on story structure and creating empathetic characters is Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias. Starting on p.67, he provides a long list of Techniques for Instant Character Appeal. Chap 7 is devoted to Structure. I find screenwriting books are great for learning structure (much better than novel writing books that tell you to write a beginning, middle & end).

    Thanks for the post Nancy!


    • The Iglesias book sounds like a very good resource. I wonder if it’s downloadable. Thanks for sharing this title with my readers.


  6. I’m enjoying your pointers and taking them all in …for the future.


  7. Another great post Nancy, I commited No. 5 way too much in my first draft. Even up to recently, I had this one chapter with one loooong flashback, which ocurred only a few week’s past in the protagonist’s life. It was important, so instead, I re-wrote it as a proper scene that happens in real time, as opposed to him sitting there, recalling the event…


    • Number 5 seems to be a struggle for most writers. Smart move to rewrite your flashback in real time. It keeps the plot moving forward.


  8. […] 7 Story Structure Weaknesses That Will Collapse Your Mystery Novel – an excellent post by one of my newest friends, Nancy Curteman […]


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  12. I am writing a mystery novel where 2 friends are framed for stealing jewels, and it has to start off of something similar to backstory.Any hints or tips? and does anyone know of a publisher who will accept work from a teen?


    • Colton,
      I’m not certain what you mean by “something similar to backstory.” Consider opening your story with a hook in the present and then scatter bits of backstory as you move the plot forward. Something in the plot can trigger backstory. Things that remind a character of past events.
      You might also consider a prologue if you must start your novel with backstory.


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