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Want to Write a Great Mystery? Read a Great Romance.


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Reading romance novels made me a better mystery writer. 

And I don’t just mean by enhancing the bits of sexy times I wove into my debut, Her Dying Day. Romances and mysteries are mirrors of each other. Sound crazy? Hear me out.

Romances give us the roadmap of how a relationship blossomed. Mysteries are essentially about a relationship rotting. Once you can visualize how your characters initially connected, you can write about their destruction with more nuance. Motives become more believable and complex. 

But how did I, a lover of gritty true crime and eschewer of fluff, come to believe mysteries and romances are two sides of the same coin? COVID. 

During the height of the pandemic, I found it harder to write and read about the topics I usually adored—death and murder. I still tried, of course. Agatha Christie has been my go-to mystery author since the age of twelve. But now I was drawn toward mysteries that were lighter than the dark, gritty true crime thrillers populating my to-be-read stack. 

Even with seeking out humorous mysteries, reading felt dutiful. Comedic mysteries are my jam. They’re what I write. But with so much stress, uncertainty, and inability to break free from the horrorscape of COVID, reading my normal diet of mayhem was a slog, even with the chocolate coating of hilarity.

Then a friend handed me a romance novel by author Sarina Bowen. You want to hear about good things happening to good people? Read a romance. Happily Ever Afters are guaranteed—in fact, they’re a vital “rule” of the genre. 

My friend said I’d enjoy Sarina’s book and she was right. Even though I’d never read a romance before, I didn’t feel as if I were exploring new territory. Instead, it was like being hugged by a fresh chocolate chip cookie. Because good romances are chalk-full of Good Things— with drama. 

NPD reports that sales of romance novels increased by 24% from March 2020 to 2021 while sales of mysteries dropped by 6%. In an article in Forbes, multiple booksellers shared anecdotes about their experiences with people’s quests to escape their COVID lives. 

Just as in mysteries, characters in romance novels are often their own worst enemy. I love yelling at a character in those “Don’t go into the basement!” scenarios. With romances I felt myself wanting to yell, “Just talk to her!” 

More than any other genre, mysteries and romances focus on relationships between people, and their form and structure evolve in very similar ways. Romances start with a meet-cute. Mysteries begin with murder. Then the fun and games begin. In my reading of romances of various kinds, shapes, and forms, I found seven story elements in common between mysteries and romances.

  1. Panic
  2. Things Go Well
  3. Then They Don’t
  4. Tentative Steps Toward Resolution
  5. Major Fall-Out
  6. The Light Dawns
  7. The Mountie Always Gets His Man

 

  1. Panic

After the initial meet-cute/murder, there’s panic. Emotions are roiling around inside our hero as they try to make sense of what happened. Maybe they’re happy, like my novel’s hero June, who has cannonballed herself into her search for missing author Greer Larkin. Maybe they’re sad. Maybe they’re scared about what getting involved could mean. Whatever emotions they’re having, it’s a lot and they want to talk about, or act on, it.

 

  1. Things Go Well

The initial stages of love or investigation start tentatively, but seem to be going … fine. In Her Dying Day, June is lining up her documentary interviews, and the suspects start popping out from dark alleys. The motives are logical and the investigation is proceeding according to plan. In romances, the lovers are getting to know each other. Violins play. Rose petals are strewn across their path. A kiss is impending. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re in danger of having a boring story.

 

  1. Then They Don’t

Just when you think, “Hey, this is easy!” the path our heroes are traveling gets rocky. In romances, there’s a terrible misunderstanding, or there might be secret one of the lovers is desperate to keep, or their potential mate will reject them. In mysteries, a new clue is discovered that blows up our hero’s previous theories. Or, your prime suspect has become a corpse, taking you back to square one. It’s frustrating and makes you want to kick a tree. It’s a problem, but it’s not insurmountable.

 

  1. Gluing the Pieces Back Together

Thankfully our heroes persevere! Even if they try to quit, the universe pushes our lovers together and our intrepid sleuth returns to the investigation. More clues appear. A new suspect emerges. A unignorable plea for help arrives. In the romance novel, the jerk might not be quite as bad as they appear. Rather, the jerk is actually quite sweet and probably rescues puppies in their spare time. 

 

  1. Shit Blows Up

Disaster strikes. The devastating secret is out. The relationship is O-V-E-R. Locks are changed. Clothing is being tossed out of windows. Pictures are burned. In Her Dying Day, June makes a mistake so colossal it gets someone killed. Some in the writing industry call this moment—when the situation is as bad as it can be—The Dark Night of the Soul. Abandon all hope ye who enter here. 

 

  1. The Light Dawns

Our romance and mystery heroes are recovering from heir catastrophes. Licking their wounds. Sheetcaking their trauma. But then the most crucial puzzle piece is uncovered and our hero slots it into place, finally making sense of all the bits of information they’ve been gathering around the periphery of the picture. At last, all the secrecy makes sense. They weren’t betrayed! Their love is legit! In a mystery this is the Ah-Ha moment. Our hero realizes what they witnessed or overheard was only a small part of a larger, crucial conversation. An overlooked clue now makes sense. The clouds clear, the sun shines down, choirs of angles sing. Our hero has Figured It Out.

 

  1. The Mountie Always Gets His Man

Just as Happily Ever Afters are a guarantee in romances novels, the killer is unmasked in a mystery. In her Bromance Bookclub series, Lyssa Kay Adams expertly dissects the tropes of romance. One of them is The Grand Gesture. Whether it involves racing through an airport to stop a plane from taking off, or having Lloyd Dobler hold up a boombox blaring In Your Eyes, the lovers end up together. 

In mysteries, it’s the whodunit moment. Hercule Poirot unveils the murderer at a gathering of all the suspects. The Scooby Gang designs an elaborate trap. Sherlock Holmes races through his clever deductions to apprehend the villain. Sometimes the culprit gets away, but most often they are caught and made to face justice. 

After reading many, many romance novels during the pandemic I found my own understanding of motives was enhanced and I was able to create a deeper relationship structure between all my characters. And I realized once I understood how relationships start, I could rip them apart more effectively for a more thrilling mystery.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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