Pub 1.2 John Lutz: Tips on Writing Mystery and Suspense

By John Lutz

Mystery and suspense author John Lutz
Author John Lutz

We’re honored today to kick off the Writing Craft chapter of Your Writers Journey with a guest post by my St. Louis friend and writing colleague, mystery and suspense author John Lutz.

John Lutz’s work includes political suspense, private eye novels, urban suspense, humor, occult, crime caper, police procedural, espionage, historical, futuristic, amateur detective, thriller; virtually every mystery sub-genre. He is the author of more than forty novels and over 200 short stories and articles.

Among his awards are the MWA Edgar, the PWA Shamus, The Trophee 813 Award for best mystery short story collection translated into the French language, the PWA Life Achievement Award, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer Lifetime Achievement Award.

1. The idea

When asked how I get ideas, I reply that they get me. This is not a joke. If you’re the novel-writing sort, ideas for stories will be popping into your head frequently. It’s the one that won’t let you go that you want to develop into a novel. There are at least two reasons not to hurry to start writing. First, an idea benefits from being turned around and around in your head. Second, this may be the most enjoyable phase of the whole writing process.

2. Outline or not?

Some outline, others wing it. You can go either way and come up with good results. I do write an outline of sorts. But I don’t feel bound to it. For me the outline is a scouting mission into unknown territory. Once I’m actually writing, a better idea may come to me.

3, POV–Point of View

I prefer 3rd person. First person is tempting: it seems like the natural way, to have your main character tell the story him- or herself. But it’s limiting, and it can get you into trouble later on. I like the flexibility of 3rd person.

4. Characterization

This is probably the area where individual writers vary the most. Some write notes and even biographies of the characters, trying to get to know them before starting the book. My characters come to life in the writing of the book. They develop a physical presence, a past, an individuality, a sense of humor (very important for me) as I write about them.

If you’re writing a mystery, the victim (or Victim #1) is going to be one of your most important characters. Even if he is found dead on p. 1, he’s got to be alive for you, because his character and previous actions determine a lot of your story.

If you’re writing a thriller, there’s a tendency to think you’ve got to make your villain as scary and evil as possible in order to generate suspense. I disagree. It would be news to my villains that they’re villains. They think they’re just doing what they have to, or that others have done worse to them. The truly scary villains are the recognizably human ones.

5. Exposition

Just plunge in. Get the ball rolling on Page 1. Burden the reader with only enough background info to understand what’s going on now.

6. Pacing in Mystery and Suspense

Reading novels by beginners, I find again and again that they start out with a big scene of violence and peril, then the book gets slower and slower as they go along. These writers have gotten the idea from TV and movies that you have to “hook” the reader with a slam-bang beginning. I prefer to trust in my characters and story and let the tale unfold naturally. Better to start a little slow and have the pace steadily picking up than start fast and sag later.

7. The Ending

Not to belabor the obvious, but mystery and suspense readers have high expectations of the ending. It’s the solution to the mystery or the “big bang” that the thriller has been building up to. Starting early in the process, I’m building up to a big finish.

Special thanks to John for sharing his hard-won wisdom in mystery and suspense writing. Your land learn more about John Lutz and his work at

Overview of Your Writer’s Journey

Until next time, good words to you!


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