Is There a Formula to Writing a Mystery?






Is there a formula for writing a mystery novel? There are two ways to approach this question: the scholarly and writerly. And these two paths are diametrically opposed. They are like those two paths that the young Proust must take in Remembrance of Things Past, bringing him past radically different scenery—houses, hedges, windows, gardens—until you realize they are one and the same: they have converged.


The scholar would say that there is indeed a formula to the mystery novel; genre fiction—writing that fits squarely into received categories—is by definition formulaic. There are murders; shrewdly observant detectives; smoking guns; antagonists; damsels in distress; secrets. In grad school (where I spent too much of my life) you could take classes on the various formulae. I took a class on the formula Western with the leading scholar on Gay Cowboys. I kid you not. But just because you have the formula down pat doesn’t mean you can actually WRITE the formula. And this, I think, is the problem with critics. This is why writers would like to slap them silly with a rubber hose: there is something inherently condescending about referring to a so-called “formula.”


Oh, you are writing one of those genre fictions, sniffs distinguished Professor Krumpelschmucker, Distinguished Chair of Comparative Douchebaggery. Tallyho, then, my dear friend. There is implicit in the term “formula,” the sensibility that anybody can whip up a narrative cocktail—a literary martini–with just the right shaker and a hint of vermouth.


I often think about this when I drink and I guess this is why that cocktail metaphor is so appropriate.  One night, on the way home from a holiday party, my wife played designated driver and I switched on NPR.  They were talking about Hillary Clinton’s possible bid for the presidency.  All the guests were wondering if she was going to throw her hat in.  There was a lot of conjecture.  Hillary Clinton was coming off a super successful stint as Secretary of State.  But she had suffered a concussion.  She had been working non-stop and people wondered if she could continue the pace without respite.  Everyone agreed that the question of her candidacy was one that did not have to be addressed at least for another two years.

Toward the end of the program, there was an expert holding forth—a professor of Political Science—who made a good point:  “Though we know much about the narrative possibilities, the arc, of a presidential candidate as it pertains to men, we know nothing about that same arc as it pertains to women.  Men created, occupied and controlled the office of the Presidency and so the trajectory they must make toward the highest office in the land is fairly well mapped out.  We know nothing about this same arc for a female president.”


Maybe it was the liquor.  But suddenly, I realized that the real question–is there a formula to the mystery novel?–lies in the deeper question:  Is there a formulaic Asian American novel?  Is there a formulaic trajectory for an Asian American mystery novelist?  Is there even an audience who will support this kind of work?  Or will Asian American mystery readers and writers alike have to wait, like the many women who have waited so many years, patiently, in the wings?



4 thoughts on “Is There a Formula to Writing a Mystery?

  1. Khanh – I’ve read too many crime fiction novels that don’t follow a particular ‘formlua’ to believe there is only one way to create a well-written mysery novel. I really don’t think there is. That said though, I do believe that a novel needs to be structured. That is, I believe a novel has to have a coherent plot, believable chracters and a mystery that makes sense. I just think there are several ways to go about doing that.

    • Some excellent points, Margot. I’m entirely in your camp. Mystery novels have so much lattitude and to think about a formula is to be reductive; it is also to be very condescending. And I think that those people who talk confidently of formulas rarely are writers. This means, of course, that you…you are most probably are darned tooting gifted writer!

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