Four Mistakes That Will Doom
Your Mystery. They Did Mine

By PJ Parrish

I’m going to tell tales out of school today. About some of the dumbest mistakes I’ve made in trying to write. Some mistakes died sad deaths in my C-drives. Others got fixed before I made a fool of myself in print. Maybe my confession here will help keep you on the righteous path.

Digression alert: I love idioms. I love their silliness, their creativity, their origins, and the slivers of insight within them. As you’ve read here, I’m trying to bone up on my French via online Babbel courses and yesterday’s lesson was idioms. La fin des haricots (the end of the beans) means “Well, that’s over!” And if you want to say someone is knee-high to a grasshopper, it’s haut comme trois pommes. As high as three apples. To have a hangover is avoir la gueule de bois — to have a wooden face.

So, telling tales out of school? It dates back to 1530, appearing in William Tindale’s The Practyse of Prelates: “What cometh once in may never out, for fear of telling tales out of school.”  It used to refer to kids gossiping about what they heard at school, but now we use it mean divulging secret information.

The tales I am going to tell out of school today all involve mistakes my sister Kelly and I made in our writing journey. Digression two: One of my favorite I Love Lucy episodes is “Lucy Writes A Novel.” She sends it off to a publisher, and he shows up with a check wanting to buy her book. But he wants to change the title to “Don’t Let This Happen To You!”

So pay attention, crime dogs. Don’t let any of these mistakes happen to you.

Introducing Too Many Characters Too Soon.

My sister’s first stab at a novel was a long historical family saga set in the Nevada casino world. She was working in the business back then and had tons of stories, great characters, and had boned up on her history of the birth of gambling. Her first chapter set-up was terrific — the offspring and four ex-wives of a rich patriarch (think Steve Wynn) are gathered at his gravesite at dawn as the lights of the Strip blink off in the distance.  Everyone there has a reason to hate the guy and an even better reason to kill him. Kelly’s mistake? She introduced every single one of the family members, giving each a name, thoughts, dialogue. I think I counted 32 characters in the first ten pages.

The lesson: Don’t flood your stage in the opening moments of act 1. It confuses the reader, makes them feel stupid, like they need a family tree. Give your reader a couple characters to digest at most. Please don’t make their names sound alike. And never wait too long to introduce your hero. From the get-go, readers search for characters to invest their emotions in, and you run the risk of them attaching to what I call a “false hero” if you’re not careful.

Nothing Happens

Flash back to 1989. Miami Vice is on TV and I’m trying to make the switch to mysteries after getting dropped as a romance writer. I had a terrific idea for a character — the lone woman detective working in the homicide division of the Miami PD. Lots of sexism, tokenism, testosterone poisoning. And to make her baggage even heavier, her husband and daughter died in a horrible boat crash in Biscayne Bay (that may have been a revenge murder for her busting a bad guy).  My first chapter opens with my heroine fishing at dusk in the Everglades. And she’s thinking. And remembering. And mourning. And thinking. And sighing. End of chapter. My agent, after reading it, told me to go home and read some Michael Connelly and PJ James.

The lesson? We belabor it here, especially James: Get your characters UP AND DOING in the opening moments. The thinking, remembering, musing, pondering, reflecting….save it for later. Please. I’m begging you. Something must happen. Action, then reaction. Oh, and don’t try to follow the zeitgeist — Miami Vice went off the air before I finished my first draft.

Larding In Backstory

Back to the casino…Kelly and I wanted to take a break from our Louis Kincaid series and we had an idea for this crusty-but-lovable character named Bailey. (The crusty-but-lovable bit should have been our first warning.) She’s a housewife who falls into an amateur detective gig at a run-down Nevada casino owned by her crusty-but-lovable father. We had a pretty good opening graph:

It’s not easy starting your life over when people think you murdered your husband and got away with it. Especially in a place like Morning Sun, Iowa.

But then we got mired in backstory. This is what followed:

The folks in Morning Sun — there’s only about four hundred of them — don’t have much tolerance for weird people, especially a rattlebrained housewife who tries to bail out of her marriage after a couple of little marital “tiffs.”

But I was born and bred in Morning Sun, and on that Fourth of July when my husband Brad came at me with the Ginsu knife we had just bought off a late-night infomercial, I didn’t figure I had a lot of options.

The police believed I killed him on purpose. My neighbors believed the police. My relatives believed the neighbors. But fortunately for me, the jury didn’t believe any of them.

So I walked. Actually, I ran. Three thousand miles to be exact, all the way to Las Vegas. I had to get out of Morning Sun and I figured Las Vegas was a good place to reinvent myself. It’s the kind of town where everyone takes big chances. It’s the kind of place where dwelling on the past is about the only thing that’s really a sin.

Okay, it’s not horrible, but it wasn’t good enough to get published. Our publisher passed. Our agent shopped it around and everyone passed. This, after we had made the New York Times list with our regular series. Why? Because it’s all backstory, it’s all telling. And it goes on this way for almost the entire first chapter. Nothing is happening in the present. Bailey is telling us her past rather than letting it emerge organically as the plot — plot? Now there’s a concept! — begins to unfurl. We tried to rewrite and have something happen earlier — a showgirl eventually falls off the casino tower. But it was bogged down with backstory and thus fatally flawed.

Don’t Take The Weapon Out Of Your Hero’s Hand

Thank God this mistake didn’t make it into print. And I owe it all to my sister’s blood lust. We’re racing to the finish line on our fourth Louis Kincaid mystery Thicker Than Water. We’re riding something of a wave because our second book got an Edgar nomination, and our third, Paint It Black was the one that got us on the Times list and got us nominated for the Shamus and Anthony. Thicker is what I call our “quiet” mystery, since it’s about a cold case and no one dies in the present. It’s heavy on character development, awash in nefarious lawyers and twisted family secrets. I treasure the review of it Ed Gorman gave us in Mystery Scene: “The quiet sadness that underpins it all really got to me, the way Ross Macdonald always does.”

So what was our mistake? In the climax, our hero Louis confronts the villain in a cemetery at the grave of the cold-case dead girl. Louis knows the guy killed her but can’t prove it. The guy, being a slimy but slick lawyer, knows Louis can’t prove it. In the first draft, Louis has to let him just…walk away.

Kelly wouldn’t sit for it. I still remember her words: “He’s has to DO something! Louis would never let him get away with this!” She was right, of course. I had taken the weapon out of Louis’s hands. There was no justice done, no circle closed. Yes, it was true to life, but it felt lifeless. We went back into the plot, rewrote the entire book, and finally figured out a twist that allowed Louis to nail the bad guy through some nifty legal machinations. But that still wasn’t enough for Kelly. Here’s how the conversation went when we got to that grave scene the second time:

“Louis can’t just walk away,” she said.

“But he’s got the evidence on the guy now. The guy’s going to prison,” I said.

“I don’t like it.”

“It’s reality.”

“I don’t care. I’m going to have Louis beat the sh– out of him first.”

And she did. We spent 300 pages building intense sympathy for a dead girl. The guy couldn’t walk away untouched. So Louis lost his temper and wailed on him. The scene gave an emotional catharsis that was missing.

The lesson: Never let your hero fall into passivity. You don’t have to do what we did, but always look for opportunities in your plot to make your protag sound clever, find a special clue, make a vital connection or, literally use the weapon. I’ve seen this flaw in many manuscripts I’ve critiqued wherein a writer allows a secondary character, usually a colorful sidekick, to outshine the hero. Yes, your hero needs to be human and make mistakes. But don’t ever let him or her be a bystander in your plot parade.

Postscript. I was originally going to call this Ten Mistakes That Will Doom Your Novel. I have enough material, believe me. I didn’t even get to my awful attempts at erotica. But I’ve flapped my gums enough for today. Good writing!


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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

33 thoughts on “Four Mistakes That Will Doom
Your Mystery. They Did Mine

  1. Four solid fundamentals, Kris. But where did you get the idea that there are nefarious, slimy, slick lawyers? Please bring more realism to your fiction.

    Your fourth point brings up an interesting conundrum. If your hero has a really bad killer dead to rights, knowing said killer will do it again, but is protected by the law or wealth or class or something like that– should hero dispatch killer? If hero is a cop, like Louis, that seems a bridge too far. But not for a Mac Bolan who operates outside the law. (I bring this up because I’m working on this conundrum in my WIP.)

    • Glad you asked. Because of his deep sense of justice, in the second book, Dead of Winter, Louis does something drastic in a case and is kicked off the police force in Michigan. The attorney general tells him, “you’ll never work in this state again.” This becomes the prime catalyst of his character arc, as being a cop was his life dream. He ends up in Florida in the following book and reluctantly takes work as a PI. The elasticity of the new job becomes a new struggle in his arc — Should he cross the line? Where is the line? I can’t give away the ending of Thicker Than Water because it involves a kernel of this inner struggle. (It goes beyond beating up the lawyer — it’s the plot twist we had to go back and add). This act comes back in a later book because Louis believes it will forever prevent him from wearing a badge again. But then in the final Louis book, The Damage Done, the DA hires him back in Michigan. The circle is complete.

    • I never wrote books that would need this solution, but I’ve always liked the elegant bit of revenge used in real life. Cops will pass along the details of what the criminal did to the jail cops who gossip with the prisoners. If it’s a crime involving kids or innocent women, the other criminals do no make his life easier inside, and he’s lucky to walk out in one piece with a smidgen of sanity left.

  2. Great advice as always, Kris, and I’ve made (and am still making) these mistakes as I get that first draft down. My proof of progress as a writer is that I notice them sooner.
    After hearing a best-selling romance author give the keynote address at a conference, I picked up her most recent book. It opened with a family gathering (Thanksgiving or some other feast celebration) and the author proceeded to bring every character around the table introducing them with what obviously had happened during and since their featured books. I lost count, lost track, lost interest, and stopped reading. Never picked up another one.

    • The family gathering intro is almost a cliche in romance. I don’t get why writers do it. Another book that drove me nuts was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. She introduced too many characters too early, imho. And they were all named Thomas. 🙂 If I recall, she did have the good grace to include a family tree.

    • It’s fan service to her readers who read and reread her novels which are loosely tied together through linking either the hero or the heroine with characters in other books at the beginning of each novel. It works if the hero needs the help of a friend who was the hero in another recent work, but the reader catch ups on Wolf and Monica’s new baby are the worst for most of us.

  3. Introducing too many characters too soon:
    I wrestle with this most when my opening scene involves an organized group. Say an opening scene with a small army detachment. Obviously you want the protag to have most of the limelight. You might highlight or mention a few others in the detachment by name, but then you’ve also got the key opposition force to consider. That’s when you get a headache trying to figure out how much introduction is too much and to what extent you can fill the reader in on details of other characters later. I end up re-writing several times.

    Tend to be guilty of “nothing happens” and “larding in backstory” while first drafting and have to revise (little by little I learn to think of this ahead of time so I don’t have to revise quite as much). Was just thinking about this yesterday with an opening scene a friend and I are working on–it’s too “nothing happening” for me right now but last night I think I finally came up with a way to get us into the action and eliminate some of the throat-clearing writing that we pansted our way into.

    As to “don’t take the weapon out of you’re hero’s hand” — this is definitely a hard one sometimes–you get caught up in the argument with yourself between “what would happen in real life” vs. “yeah but I want justice!” It can be tricky trying to find that solution between satisfying ending and believability for the reader.

    • Good points all BK. The tug of war between reality and what is satisfying reading is a basic one for us in crime fiction. Unlike fantasy or sci-fi, we have to toe closer to the line. We have to play within the “rules” of actual police and legal procedures yet still create compelling fiction. I don’t think readers always expect over-the-top openings. They like it when an “everyday” event morphs into something exciting. The ordinary guy thrust into extraordinary circumstances is a powerful trope for us. (think the police chief in Jaws). The idea that “this could happen to you!” is very powerful.

      But to repeat, if we veer too far from the reality of police/legal protocols, readers will turn on us.

  4. Excellent post. As a reader, each of these mistakes has ruined a book for me. Just last night I started reading a country noir type novel. I was ready to accept a slow burn going into it, however I didn’t expect an entire first chapter of trees and mountains and more trees. Then some porches. Lots of wooden porches. But not too many to distract the reader from the entertainment of trees and mountains.

    • I am laughing as I read this, Philip, because I am seduced (as a writer) by description. I love writing it. But then I have to go back and cut most of it out. Luckily, my sister is always there to say, “enough with the decor, Martha. Move on.”

    • What was the title, if I may be so bold as to ask? Rural noir, southern noir, rough south and grit lit is a genre I aspire to write in.

  5. Thanks, Kris. Great lessons. With four mistakes today, that leaves six more (and hopefully material for two more posts). I hope you write them. I look forward to reading them.

    I struggle with the introductions. With a series, and nine cousins to introduce, I try to spread them out over several chapters and introduce the characters in action. But, I still have readers tell me they need to know the characters right away.

    I like #4 – Don’t take the weapon. It’s a challenge, knowing which way to go before the final confrontation. Strip the MC down to nothing to defend himself vs. satisfy the reader who is looking for JUSTICE. As a reader, I want justice.

    • Another quick tale: In one of our stand alones, we have a trio of good cops commit an illegal act toward the end in the name of justice. Man, we struggled with this plot point but we had to do it. It just felt right. We got a few thoughtful emails saying cops wouldn’t do that. Which was to be expected. Then we were at a book signing and an older guy came up and said, “I’m a retired police chief and I want to talk about the ending of your book.” Well, we waited for the take-down. He said, “I would have done the same thing.” As I have said here before, I don’t like too-tidy endings.

      • Without getting into the politics, I think there is a real and current hunger for “justice.” Isn’t that what we’re striving for? Books that the reader wants to read, and endings that resonate, as the reader fist pumps (then looks for the next book in the series).

      • There’s a Dirty Harry picture that revolves around that question. From Wikipedia:

        Magnum Force (1973) was directed by Ted Post. The main theme of this film is vigilante justice, and the plot revolves around a group of renegade traffic cops who are executing criminals who have avoided conviction in court. Despite Harry’s penchant for strong-arm methods, he does not tolerate coldblooded murder of the accused and resolves to stop the killers. In this film, Harry’s catch-phrase is “A man’s got to know his limitations”.

  6. Thanks for a good summary of mistakes, Kris.

    What is legal vs. what is justice is a favorite theme of mine so that quandary comes up frequently. It’s a struggle to keep from stepping over the line while making sure the bad guy receives what s/he deserves.

    Self-defense always makes a great reason b/c the protagonist is justified in killing the villain who’s trying to kill him/her.

    Terry’s line made me laugh: “My proof of progress as a writer is that I notice them sooner.” Yup!

  7. Great list, Kris. Thank you.

    I’ve committed all of these mistakes, but I’m getting better at spotting them now. But I laughed at “32 characters in the first ten pages.” I could never do that — I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them myself!

    We recently sat at a roundtable with some new authors, each of whom presented the first pages of the manuscript he/she was working on. Their works were all pre-loaded with too much backstory up front. It was a great opportunity to mention the wisdom shared on TKZ to drop characters into action right away.

    I loved the I Love Lucy skit.

    • Maybe someone smarter than me here can answer this: What compels novice writers to make the backstory mistake? I can’t pin it down. Is it a NEED to explain someone’s psychology so the plot set up makes sense going in? Is it because they don’t trust the reader to be patient? If so, I guess the lesson they need to learn is that a carefully doled out history over the course of a story is far more interesting.

      • I’m not smarter than you, Kris, and I’m certainly not as experienced, but I’ll offer my opinion on novice writers making the backstory mistake: I think new authors are telling a story instead of leading the reader on an adventure. Therefore, they tend to dump out facts and history like a teacher lecturing a class rather than providing intriguing clues that a reader wants to know more about.

        IMHO, once the author makes that transition, it’s a major step forward.

  8. This really hit home, Kris. I just received feedback from my editor on my cozy library mystery, and I definitely committed mistakes #1 and #4, with a bit of #3. I had a lot of plot going on in the opening, so much so that she had a little bit of trouble distinguishing my characters. Make your characters stand out (her word was “sparkle”) is my bonus mistake to add to your list.

    She thought the mystery itself solid, which was good to hear, after the months I put into crafting it. The rest is fixable.

    Like Steve, I’d love to read the rest of your “ten” mistakes.

    This was a terrific post, and one I’ll be saving for future reference. Thanks so much!

    • Re make the characters “sparkle.” Perhaps your editor is asking you to make each a little more distinct? Characters must be believable to readers and part of the “magic” in doing that is giving each character idiosyncratic qualities. Also pay close attention to each character’s “voice” in their dialogue. No two characters should sound alike on the page.

  9. “whale, v.: hit, beat, strike hard: whale away at the bully;
    n.: a very large cetacean. Not to be confused with:
    wail, v.: moan or lament; to cry loudly: The toddler is sure to wail when his mother leaves.” –from the Free Dictionary

    The problem with disarming the MC, physically or metaphorically, is that the writer may later find it necessary to disarm the villain, too, something easier said than done. Too many authors do it this way: Then Heinrich von Schnibbel stumbled and dropped his Luger. Stumblers clutch their Luger tighter; they do not drop it.

    There are limits. One well-known author wrapped up a detective novel by having the MC LEO destroy evidence of a crime, saying: “The insurance company can take the loss.” I’ve not read any of his novels since.

    • Ha! Thanks for the wail vs whale, JG. We all need good editors. Alas, I don’t have one for my posts.

      As for the MC LEO: That’s a bridge too far for me. I will say I had a character hide a key piece of evidence once but he wasn’t a cop. And he eventually came clean about it in a later book.

  10. The opening with too many characters is what I call a Cast of a Thousand error, and I’ve always likened it to being at a party where you barely know some people and are introduced to a bunch more. I have a friend who spent her entire, reasonably successful career as a cozy writer doing this in every book. I fussed. She did it anyway. You can survive mistakes like this if you have a good main character voice to gloss over the glossed-over-reader-eyes spots.

    • Cast of a thousand….I like that.

      Another common mistake: Giving the spotlight to a secondary character. Some novice writers (and some experienced ones) make the mistake of giving all the best lines, actions, descriptions to a secondary character (who are often more fun to write than the MC). I call these characters “spear-carriers” — it’s an old opera term and refers to someone with a non-singing or supernumerary role. The name likely came from the spear-carrying soldiers who appear in the background or as walk-ons in plays about ancient Rome or Greece. Never give the spotlight to a spear-carrier.

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