From Kill Zone Blog: Four mistakes that will doom your mystery. They did mine.
And, having read through the post, I would definitely say “novel” rather than mystery. These are mistakes that could doom most novels in any genre except maybe literary.
Here they are:
1) Introducing too many characters too soon.
2) Beginning with a boring opening where nothing happens.
3) Beginning with too much backstory.
4) Letting your protagonist become passive.
You can click through and read the comments about each one. The last is the most interesting, but let me hold onto that one for a minute.
For Point 1, I think introducing too many characters too fast is pretty much the kiss of death. I’m not sure it’s possible to introduce twenty characters, or even five, in chapter one and make it work. I mean important characters; I’m sure it’s possible to have a crowd scene in the opening. But I’m not sure it’s possible to have a crowd scene where you name a lot of characters, far less show them to the reader in any kind of detail.
However, maybe somewhere someone was so good a writer that they pulled this off. If anyone has a counterexample — a great, compelling opening, or a least a reasonably successful opening, where the author introduced a bunch of characters really fast — by all means, drop it in the comments.
For Point 2, I added the word “boring.” It’s definitely possible for talented writers to open a story quietly, with a scene where basically nothing is happening; see for example many books by Georgette Heyer or From All False Doctrine. I’m sure there are quite a few. Quiet is fine, if you can pull that off. But if quiet slides into boring, oops, that’s a novel that’s not likely to find much of a readership.
Point 3 is tough, because you do need to build the world and set the protagonist in place in the world. In SFF, one way to do that is with tidbits of backstory. I’ve seen plenty of advice not to go overboard with that, and I basically agree. Tidbits of backstory are fine. Lots of backstory is likely to push the reader away. This is true even if you’re avoiding the dreaded (well, dreaded by me) history-lesson prologue.
In fact, I suspect too much backstory is a real problem for mysteries and thrillers because there’s a tendency to start book in these genres like this:
EXCITING TWO PARAGRAPHS. Loooooooong chapter explaining backstory.
And while a really talented author can pull that off, it’s a trick and a half to hold onto your readers through a first chapter that’s structured like this. Have you ever hit something like this and skipped ahead to see what happened after the initial two paragraphs? (Raises hand). If you don’t find the section where the present-day story resumes pretty quickly, do you DNF the novel? (Raises hand again.)
I guess I’d say the trick is to make the backstory just as compelling as the exciting present-day scene. If you can do that, go for it. If not, maaaaaybe think twice about this kind of structure for your opening.
Point 4 is interesting because the example used in the post involves a mystery where the bad guy walks away at the end while the hero stands there and watches him go. This would be AWFUL if it also meant that the bad guy got away with the murder. For me, an unjust ending to a mystery or thriller is an absolute dealbreaker that means I’m done with the author forever.
But evidently this was not the case here; in the book cited in the linked post; the wheels of justice were grinding away, but offstage. The bad guy was going to go down, but not right at the moment. For me … I don’t know. That certainly wouldn’t be a dealbreaker in the same way. It might be okay. Nevertheless, I think I agree with the author of the post that adding a physical, active reaction there (the hero apparently beats up the bad guy) is likely to be more satisfying to the reader.
For me, this is not a question of passivity, or I don’t think it is, at least not most of the time. It’s a question of the justice of the ending. There are some books that I really like, but the ending kind of messes with that. An ending that seems unjust (worse: and ending that is clearly and definitely unjust) will sometimes retroactively spoil the book for me, no matter how much I loved it to begin with.
Maybe passivity itself could also be a problem. I’m not sure. I think that if your protagonist’s choices and actions don’t drive the resolution, that could be a problem. But it seems to me that if the protagonist’s choices and actions do drive the resolution, but in some more subtle way than a fistfight, then the reader as well as the protagonist might be satisfied to watch the bad guy walk away, with his doom hovering metaphorically over his head, knowing that in the next scene — whether that’s shown or not — that doom will come crashing down. I think that could be fine. I bet there are mysteries with that kind of ending, though I can’t think of specific examples offhand.