High Stakes in Mysteries

I’m reading Revising Your Novel by Janice Hardy and here’s a bit from the book that made me laugh. It’s from a section dealing with how to fix scenes where stakes might be too high, or not high enough.

“If the protagonist walked away, what would change? This can help spot stakes that seem high, but aren’t really. For example, ‘they could die’ should be the highest stake of all, but if the protagonist walks away she’ll live. Problem solved. Sure, others might die, but do readers really care about a faceless mass of unnamed people? Nah.”

That made me think about something similar, one of the biggest issues for me in reading (and writing) a mystery series.

Those ending scenes when everything’s about to be wrapped up, all will be disclosed, and there will be the final life-or-death battle between the good guy and the bad guy. Yes there are authors out there that kill off the protagonist of a series, but that’s rare. So is there any reader out there who thinks the protagonist might actually die in those scenes? Most commonly, no.

So then how high are the stakes, really? If you know the main character is going to survive, then there isn’t any reason to have that whole final scene. When I’m reading a mystery series and get to that part, to be honest, I skip it and go the ending where all the threads get explained. And even as I write one of those scenes, in the back of my mind I’m thinking ‘how many are going to skip this?’.

What makes those final high stakes scenes work for me as a reader, and that I need to remember as a writer, is to place the risk elsewhere. Since I know the protagonist is going to survive, then what keeps me reading is if the author has taken the one thing that is most important to the protagonist, and put that at risk.

If that character cares deeply about something, and that could be taken away, then I’m going to be hooked as a reader and race through the tense scenes. Think about it. An author may not kill off the protagonist, but it’s way easier to remove something the character cares about. Secondary characters can be mourned and then replaced, right?

I want the risk, the scene that keeps my heart racing, to be something where I don’t know what the author is going to do. Something where I don’t sit back and scoff and say, ‘go ahead and pull the trigger; you’re not going to kill off the main guy in your series’.

As an additional thought, that type of scene might work just fine in a stand-alone mystery (since there’s no series, the protagonist might not make it) or in the first or second books. Mainly because you don’t know if the author is going to stick around and make a series or not. But after the third book, when a series is here to stay, that final scene stops working for me.

And I stop reading them.

There are some cases where I stop with the whole series. My husband and I used to be big fans of John Sandford. But after twenty-some books they all sound alike. The protagonist wanders around and asks questions, the answers lead up to the final life-or-death scene, and the protagonist survives. The books are so boring now I can’t even go back and re-read them.

And after this, I go back and re-read the endings of my books and squirm a bit. In my defense, it’s the first few so the series isn’t in concrete yet. Which means…who knows what’s going to happen in the next one?

(Ha! Aren’t I tricky, sneaking in a blatant teaser?)

Labels, Irony, and Writing

Yesterday I posted a personal essay that was difficult to do. Today, I want to tie that to the craft of writing.

If you write something that dips into your deepest emotions, if you write something brutally honest, something that makes you squirm uncomfortably, or be a little fearful of ‘putting it out there’ then you’ve written something true. And even if those who read it have never been in that situation, they will respond and recognize the underlying emotions.

If you read something that makes you squirm a bit, that causes an emotional reaction, that sticks with you and won’t let you go after the last word has been digested, then the writer has succeeded.

If you can’t touch those deepest wells of emotion, if you can’t be brutally honest in your writing, if you can’t pull up words that battle to stay hidden, then you’ll have a hard time eliciting responses in your readers.

No one ever said writing was easy.

When you write something that scares you because of that honesty, and your trusted friend reads it and says ‘holy shit!’ then you know you’ve been true to your inner soul.

When you think your writing is filled with believable characters with honest emotions, go back and see if you can dig a little deeper, pull off a few more scabs, and expose a few more wounds.

If you’re afraid to write it, then it needs to be written.

If it won’t let you go, it needs to go into words.


From the 1990s, a photo to tie into the Labels post. 

Labels and Irony


Fat and ugly.

I’ve carried those labels as long as I can remember. They were reinforced, unknowingly, by family, friends, and strangers.

Kids on the bus who spit in my hair and told others I came from ‘the Land of the Weird’.


7th Grade 1972

Friends who said ‘don’t worry, there are guys out there who value personality over looks’.

Everyone, every single person, who said ‘wow, you look so much like your mother!’. What they didn’t know was the conversations behind the scenes. Mom sitting on the edge of the bed telling me how homely she was, how she’d struggled growing up because of that. I heard her message, drank it in deep, and was reminded what I was every time someone said I looked like her. I still hear that message.


My mother, young


Mom at the cabin

I strove to never tell my child he looked like either parent. Let him be unique, himself, no mirror.



It is so vitally important to me that my son (who is handsome by the way) never hears a negative message from me. That he never absorbs someone else’s opinion and makes it his own. I’ve never allowed myself that same grace.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t angst-driven, depressed, traumatized. The labels were, and are, just a piece of the whole, just who I am, nothing to be done about it, nothing to stew over. And I’ve learned in a few potentially dangerous incidents that being fat and ugly can be protection. Rather like an odd sort of invisibility cloak. Well, there’s the opposite, too. One particular incident comes to mind where a family friend came to the house when my parents were gone, thinking I’d be desperate for male attention.

So I’ve perfected over the years looking in the mirror to check earrings or brush hair, without seeing. I avoid sitting where there might be a reflection visible. My husband rarely sees me naked. It’s hard to find photos of myself because I avoid cameras. Again, nothing I brood over, just a part of life.


Then, a couple of years ago I was sifting through photographs and found one of us siblings standing in front of the fireplace. I wore a burgundy dress that had been a favorite. Soft and flowing so when I went Scottish dancing, it swirled. I stared at that photo, shocked. I wasn’t fat. Busty, yes. But shapely. How could that be? I remember so clearly loving that dress even though I was fat. I knew I was. And yet, I wasn’t.

How could my self-image be so warped? So blind? At least, back then.


Another time period when I knew I was fat and now see I wasn’t as big as I thought

Ugly was still there. Nothing to be done about that. Though by then I’d adopted mom’s phrase of ‘homely’ as it seemed less negative. Easier to say. But not fat. At least, not back then, when I knew I was.

And that was the time period when I’d traveled with friends overseas and watched all the attention they received for being attractive American girls, while I was invisible. As it should have been, I thought at the time, because those friends were, and still are, beautiful, inside and out.

Life, the universe, karma, whatever you want to call it, has a funny way of forcing you to see. A few years ago I was diagnosed with lymphoma. The doctors told me it was in an unusual spot that they didn’t come across very often. The right parotid gland. Where is that you might ask? My right cheek.

Meaning a lump formed there that was visible every time I went out in public. Then a biopsy was done and it became even more visible. Then I started radiation treatments and everyone was focused on my face. That homely face. I still managed to avoid seeing it myself though.


Right after parotid diagnosis before lump got too big. Taken by a friend who made a calendar so sorry for the odd size photo.

Last year I developed a skin cancer on my nose. Surgery took care of it and for a week I went out in public with a big white banner bandage that said ‘look at this face!’.

Recently, the lymphoma has come back. In another odd spot that isn’t seen very often. At the base of my esophagus. For the coming month, everyone is going to be looking at my fat stomach. I mean, it’s even tattooed now, for treatments.

It dawned on me this morning that each time I’ve had this happen, it’s placed focus directly on the areas I despise. It’s directed everyone’s eyes to the places I wish I could hide.

What’s with that, universe? Some sort of sick humor? One last little poke at the weird one? Or are you saying, look? Look. Yes you’re homely (ugly), yes you’re fat, but how important is that in this short time we’re allowed to live?

I’m not a young teenager anymore who isn’t asked out to dances or the prom, or even visible to the eyes of crushes. I don’t waste time feeling sorry for myself, or even thinking about this very often. It’s just labels, a part of who I am, no more, no less, than my freckles or my height. So if it doesn’t bother me anymore, why does the universe keep pointing its cosmic finger at the worst spots?

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that cosmic finger.

Besides raise my middle finger.

The problem now is that if I put these labels, these words, out there for someone else to read, I’ll get compliments. Friends, probably a little horrified, will feel the need to reassure me by telling me none of this is true, that I’m actually pretty (they won’t be able to peel off the label of ‘fat’). And I won’t believe them. I’ll love them for their need to care for me, to lift me up from what they perceive as sadness. I’ll recognize their politeness. What else can you say to someone who mentions these labels except, ‘of course you’re not that!’?

They won’t realize that I’m not saying all of this as some sort of backhanded way to get, or ask for, compliments. I’m simply saying, these are my labels. This is who I am. These are the facts. And the purpose of this whole essay is to also say, how ironic is the universe?

Oh, and let me be very clear. Just because I wear these labels doesn’t mean I’m a victim, or submissive, or shy like I was in school. I am a strong woman and I know it. I love who I am on the inside. I wouldn’t change a single atom of personality.

In other words, I don’t need the reassuring compliments. These are, after all, just labels I wear in the face of an ironic universe.


About 1995