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Why it’s Important for Mystery/Suspense Writers to Consider Motive

By Janice Cantore

In criminal court, ascertaining motive or intent is an integral part of the legal process and sets the tone for sentencing. The determination of a person’s motive can mean the difference between the death penalty, life in prison, a long sentence, a short sentence, and freedom. In the same way, the bad guy’s motive in a mystery or a suspense novel sets the tone for the story. It can determine the difference between a page-turner novel and a put down never-to-finish novel. A villain’s compelling motive makes the hero’s job all that more important and the whole story more believable and more suspenseful. The villain’s motive sets the emotional atmosphere, it raises the drama quotient and it sets the stage for a brilliant finish.
Drawing Fire
A few years ago in California a man named Christopher Dorner embarked on a murderous rampage. His stated motive was revenge for a litany of perceived indignities done to him in the workplace. This motive was emotional, angry, and made him violent from the outset. He stalked, ambushed, and murdered his superior’s daughter and her boyfriend. Then he took off, heavily armed, and shot everyone who got in his way. He wasn’t going to be stopped or taken alive and his scorched earth mindset made for real life suspense. The emotional atmosphere was charged; he had to be stopped because anyone could be his target. His motive when he was on the run became to evade as long as possible and kill as many people as possible, and this sent the stakes sky high and made the urgency to stop him all the greater.

The Dorner case was a tragic real life drama. Real life drama can be duplicated in a novel if the motive is likewise compelling, strong and believable. A bad guy with a strong motive makes the fight with the good guy memorable and develops a strong story. What is the emotion driving the bad guy? In Dorner’s case it was anger, anger over a lifetime of perceived injustice. Maybe your villain is forced to kill to cover up a prior crime. Now he has two crimes to cover up and the stakes are doubled. He has a certain standing in the community and the fear that he will be discovered is as overwhelming and strong as Dorner’s anger was. Fear makes him unpredictable and unpredictable means many twists and turns in the story and, hopefully, a lot of suspense. There is drama when a novel twists and turns with unpredictability. The stronger your bad guy’s motive is to keep from being caught, the higher the drama in the story.

Whether it’s a villain motived by strong fear, or one motivated by intense anger, or something equally compelling, the hero must stop them with a motivation much stronger. In Dorner’s case, by the time he was cornered he had the resources of several police departments and many highly motivated officers, on his tail and the end came with a dramatic hail of bullets in a shootout that was televised. When your hero and villain clash, it’s a fiery collision of intense motivations coming together and only one can win. It should be as dramatic as a shootout, or some other explosive clash in order to finish the story brilliantly, and in a satisfying way. If you can do this you will have a strong, exciting ending that will make your readers glad they picked the book up and didn’t put it down.

Janice CantoreJanice Cantore is a police officer turned writer. She retired from the Long Beach Police Department, Long Beach California after 22 years, 16 in uniform, 6 as a non-career employee. She is currently writing romantic suspense for Tyndale House, and her most recent release is Drawing Fire.

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