By Penny Warner
I didn’t plan to be a writer when I grew up. When I was a kid, I placed writers on pedestals—“writers” like Carolyn Keene, “author” of the Nancy Drew series. Larger than life, they seemed as fictional as their characters. Turns out some of them were—like Carolyn Keene. But not my other favorites like E.B. White, A.A. Milne, L. Frank Baum. With authors like that, I found it hard to believe that an ordinary person like me could become a writer.
Then, when I was in sixth grade, I got mono and missed two months of school. That’s when my mother handed me a copy of my first Nancy Drew mystery—“Secret in the Old Clock.” It wasn’t long before I became obsessed with the girl sleuth. I started wearing a trench coat, made my own sleuth kit, and wrote my first mystery, “The Mystery of Mr. X.” While Nancy Drew was fiction, she inspired me to follow my passion—and that passion turned out to be writing mysteries.
I’ve had 50-plus books published over the years, including eight mysteries and THE O
1. Create unforgettable characters: “You know
All stories are based on interesting characters—there are no exceptions. Introduce us to your character a little at a time, using action and dialogue (showing), rather than a thumbnail sketch (telling). Create realistic characters without using stereotypical traits, and include some surprises about the character that are believable. Finally, give the characters conflict—happy characters make dull characters.
2. Use dialogue: Suddenly the young sleuth snapped her fingers. “I know what I’ll do! I’ll set a trap for that ghost!” ~ The Hidden Staircase
Dialogue makes a story come alive. It also helps move the story along, increases pace and creates drama. Listen to real conversations for realism, then edit and tighten them to make the dialogue readable. Keep attribution simple—use action or “said,” rather than adverbs and euphemisms for “said.” Finally, read your dialogue aloud.
3. Set the scene: Many Colonial houses had secret passageways. “Do you know any entrances a thief could use?” ~The Hidden Staircase
A vivid setting pulls the reader into the story. It also intensifies suspense and becomes a character in itself. Show the setting through the character’s eyes and include all five senses, telling details, and occasional metaphors.
4. Add mood and atmosphere:
Give a sense of foreboding through description. Mood and atmosphere give the story depth and stimulate the emotions of the readers. Use foreshadowing to give the reader a feeling of unease.
5. Outline your plot: Ellen was alarmed. “We must do something to stop him!” “I have a little plan,”
Before you begin writing, outline your plot so you know, generally, where the story is headed. You can keep it simple and just jot down the major plot points of the story—where the story takes a surprising turn and how it ratchets up the suspense. Or you can write a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, with the option of veering off if the story requires an alteration.
6. Start the clock ticking: “Hurry, girls, or we’ll miss the train to
Begin with the inciting incident, which starts the clock ticking. Include not only the situation, but where it takes place, and who’s involved. This is where you ask the story questions: What if….? Think about your goal as start the story and where it will lead.
7. Create conflict:
There is no story without conflict. The protagonist must come up against an antagonist, which can be a person, an idea, a corporation, or some kind of evil. Conflict helps reveal the protagonist’s needs, values, and fears, and causes her to confront her demons, challenge herself, and become a hero of sorts.
8. Pack it with action: “How do we get in?” “Over the top, commando style,” George urged. “Lucky we wore jeans.” ~ Clue in the Crumbling Wall
Today’s reader wants action, so give your protagonist opportunities to do something physical. Give her a choice between fight or flight, and when she fights—make her strong but still vulnerable.
9. Spark reader’s emotions: Nancy was too frightened to think logically. She beat on the door, but the panels would not give way. ~ Secret of the Old Clock
Crank up the reader’s involvement but increasing the character’s emotional risk. This way the reader will care about the story. If she can relate to the protagonist’s emotional jeopardy, she’ll be hooked on finding out what happens.
10. Raise the stakes: In a desperate attempt to break down the door
The story begins with a challenge for the protagonist. But that’s not enough. As the story moves along, something worse must happen. And just when you think it’s safe to go back into the water, things become even worse. Keep raising the stakes to keep those pages turning.
11. Make the situation hopeless: “We’re locked in!”
When all seems lost and the protagonist is about to give up because she’s running out of time and is under extreme pressure, she must find the courage to go on, make another decisions, and get herself out of this devastating trouble.
12. Give the protagonist strength: “Girls don’t faint these days,” George scoffed. ~ Secret of Red Gate Farm
As the protagonist comes face to face with the antagonist, she must pull out all her reserves and use her own skills to change the situation. This heroic attempt must also create growth and change in the protagonist.
13. Don’t give up:
I really believe the reason I’ve had over 50 books published is simply because—like Nancy Drew—I followed my passion and never gave up!
Penny Warner is the author of THE OFFICIAL NANCY DREW HANDBOOK, and the upcoming mystery series, HOW TO HOST A KILLER PARTY, from Penguin. She can be reached at www.pennywarner.com.