Grad lecture: Demystifying the mystery novel
Debbie Dunn discussed how to balance the mechanics of the puzzle (or plot) with the back story (or emotional story) in a mystery. She evaluated five different MG/YA mystery novels, including The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwiler, and Chasing Vermeer, to see how they balanced plot and back story.
Of the five she studied, four were commercially and critically sucessful, including the ones above. The unsuccessful one, a novel by a well known YA mystery writer, received some rather harsh reviews.
Mystery readers choose mysteries because they love the puzzle, so plot is very important. Yet a satisfying mystery doesn't necessarily need a complex plot.
Curious is a good example of this, as Debbie demonstrated. The back story about the autistic narrator is even more compelling (to me) than the simple mystery of who killed neighbor's dog with a pitchfork (this happens on page one, I think).
Debbie used Chasing Vermeer as an example of a good mystery that's mostly plot with little back story. I didn't care much for this novel because it was so puzzle oriented.
Debbie also gave some guidelines about finding a balance between plot and balance in your own work. She suggested introducing the back story after the plot is rolling. She quoted someone (sorry, didn't get who) who said to drop a character out of a plane and then tell the readers how she got there.
This is advice I plan to take.