5 Steps for Writing a Mystery
Everyone Loves a Good Mystery
Mystery author Agatha Christie is the best-selling writer in the history of writing, having sold over 4 billion copies to date. Her play The Mousetrap opened in London in 1952 and is still running after 25,000 performances.
You too can be a part of this rich genre. Mystery is central to human thinking. What happened and why? This is the core idea to most great novels.
But let's start small. Hone your skill with short mystery stories less than ten pages in length. Then consider tackling your own novel.
#1 – Start with the Ending
Initially, spend all of your time crafting the finish. Your story will be no good if it doesn't end with a wham. Every word and paragraph leading up to the finale will be for nothing if you don't leave the reader wowed.
Your conclusion must be surprising. Like a good roller coaster, it should make your readers lean in one direction and then whip them around. So think about the unexpected. Ask essential questions about your crime and criminal.
- What is creative and devious about the crime?
- Who did it?
- What is the motive?
- What is the method?
- Why is it surprising that your criminal did it?
- Who is the obvious (and false) guilty party?
Envision your final scene. Your sleuth discovers and reveals the last clues in a dramatic and entertaining fashion. Your criminal is exposed. The metaphorical curtain drops and the crowd applauds. Hearts should be pumping.
If you can't feel this concluding moment and aren't excited to get there, get back to work on until you have a finish line worth crossing.
Once you have your finale, build your fictional machinery to carry your readers there.
#2 – Your Sleuth
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes. Agatha Christie had Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. You need a lead character to build around. Craft one right and readers will want to read the next adventure.
Free-write on every aspect of your character. The sleuth will flavor the entire story, so know the person well.
- Are they a professional investigator or an amateur in the right (or wrong) place and time?
- How do they dress? How do they move? How does this reveal the person underneath? Give them a signature style.
- What is their method of investigation? Do they interview and ask lots of questions? Are they a quiet observer with sharp intuition?
- Are they like you? Imagining yourself as the hero of your story can be great fun, but so can channeling a very different character.
- How do they talk? Write a conversation for them and develop a unique form. Write an inner dialogue and understand how they think.
- Do you want to use first or third person narration?
You may want a super-intelligent, physically gifted wonder-detective, but be sure to have a character with balance. A perfect person with no flaws is tough for readers to relate to. A human with weaknesses and foibles will gain more empathy. A signature wrinkle, like being distracted by sweets or overly trustful of children, will give you a lovable and entertaining lead character.
#3 – The Clues
Looking again at the conclusion of your story, compose a list of clues for you sleuth and reader to discover. Consider the order of discovery. What is the final clue that ties it all together? What clues are meaningless alone, but together with the other items becomes important? Show the readers something early that they won't take note of. Then, when another element of your mystery is revealed, that something becomes a big thing and it was right there all along.
If you have an imperfect sleuth, he or she might have overlooked something the reader did see. Then your reader watches the sleuth proceed in the wrong direction. You can also do the opposite: have the sleuth two steps ahead of the reader. Your audience is wondering what your investigator is up to before realizing the truth.
Be sure to lay out some false clues. This will help you draw your reader and sleuth in the wrong direction so you can surprise them in the end. Make them feel foolish for following a false lead. Make a trail that leads to the wrong culprit, the obvious choice, and then drop a clue showing why the person is innocent or even framed.
#4 – The Setting
Every element of your story should contribute to your theme. Begin with the place. City or country? A mystery in a crowded metropolis must deal with a multitude of potential witnesses and suspects. One taking place in a less populated area has fewer possibilities, but greater interaction among the people. Everyone knows everyone in a small town.
Ten people in the same mansion is a classic setting. So is a locked-room mystery, where it seems obvious no one could have done it. Think about how the place, large or small, and the people affect the conclusion of your story.
You choose the elements on which to focus. Do you write about the gargoyles to create an eerie mood? If you describe in detail the types of door-knobs in the house, be sure it is important to the story. Do the hinges squeak or the floors creak? Only note this to illustrate how difficult it is to sneak around in your house.
Is the weather essential? Flashes of lightning and booming thunder may be dramatic, but be sure not to be cliché. Nasty weather can keep your characters isolated, ensuring muddy footprints will follow anyone back inside. You could contrast the perfect weather of a tropical setting with devious, evil actions.
When you rewrite, notice if you wander onto an unimportant tangent. No one cares about the bowl of fruit on the table if it isn't poisoned. Keep your writing tight and focused on your finish.
#5 – Be Yourself
Mystery is a very dense genre, with many famous authors, sleuths, side-kicks and styles. But this is your story. Don't try to follow another's footsteps too closely.
Write a mystery the way no one else has. Use bright, imaginative language and your unique rhythm. If you don't have fun writing, no one will have fun reading. Be excited to move toward your conclusion. Enjoy hanging out with your characters, especially your main one. Love reading your drafts aloud and savor the taste of the language.
Create a signature style for yourself. Do you want choppy, terse sentences? Lots of snappy dialogue or more internal monologue? Do you want the sleuth to take the reader on a journey, revealing his or her thought process? Or is your detective also a mystery, always moving ahead with your reader chasing?
Know that this can become a series. Develop a method and be organized so you can make another. For the next adventure of Detective X, have a different crime and criminal, but use the same rhythm and style. Build a following of loving readers.
Tips from the Pros
Crime is terribly revealing. Try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions.
Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it's a letdown, they won't buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.
A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no 'atmospheric' preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction.
SS Van Dine
If in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.