Writing a good mystery is tough. Mysteries are probably some of the toughest projects I’ve ever undertaken as a writer because I wanted to do it right, and they’re so easy to do wrong. A lazy mystery writer will produce a story that’s technically a mystery, but wrongly relies on unpresented information, esoteric information, convenient plot turns, and lacks depth.
Here’s an example: When I was a kid, I read a collection of short mysteries while I waited for my appointment at the hospital, and one of the mysteries involved a taxi driver who’d been assaulted by a woman. The driver only wondered how the woman beat him up so badly. The detective deduced that the culprit was actually a man because the culprit told the driver the destination before sitting down, pointing out that a woman would have settled into the cab before saying the destination.
The ridiculousness of that little statistic not withstanding: the story then doesn’t even go on to describe the capture of the criminal. Was I just expected to accept that the detective was right? It felt so cheap and was clearly, shamelessly unearned. No relevant clues were provided to me. I could not have possibly participated in the story, and I wasn’t invited to because the clues, the story, and the value were kept in a vacuum separate from me. “You know what? It was actually a man because of this esoteric little factoid no one but me knows.”
It’s like something you would hear while arguing with a psychopath.
So how can you do it right? Perhaps not surprisingly, it will involve a lot of planning and building of the story from the ground up.
Contrary to most types of stories, the main character of a mystery will not be setting out on a journey to stop the bad thing. In most mysteries, the bad thing has already happened, and the protagonist needs to understand how, why, and who, so the culprit can be brought to justice, possibly before the culprit does it again. The protagonist will necessarily have to react. Because of this, we need to understand the how, why, and who before we even start thinking about structure, because without them, we can’t start.
This means that we’ll be starting with the antagonist and their motivations and actions. What does the antagonist want, and why does this want motivate them to commit the act that becomes our story’s inciting incident? If, say, our antagonist is about to be written out of the will, they may kill the will writer before it can be amended.
With a motivation, we’re off and running. How exactly is the crime committed? Detail is extremely important here. Once you’ve constructed the scenario, work backward and devise the clues that will lead your protagonist to the truth. We need to understand how the culprit ate the bread so we can know where breadcrumbs might fall. Those breadcrumbs will translate directly to turning points in your plot and be spread-out likewise.
Think like a detective. What would you need to solve the murder? Criminals frequently make mistakes. The killer might have cleaned the object she used to bash his head in, but neglected distinct shoeprints left in the carpet from the rain.
Suspect pools are usually first narrowed down with motive. What ties the killer to the murderer? Who stands to gain the most from the victim’s death? Who had the opportunity?
Those are the basics. Only your own creativity and hard work can make the mystery stand out as more than one of many. Brainstorm. Experiment. Don’t forget to breathe real life onto your protagonist and give them a powerful connection to the story. Why must they find the truth and bring the antagonist to justice?
Finally, the real hard work begins. Get to writing. All the planning in the world won’t make the pieces of your story fit together, and often you don’t really understand the story until you get your hands dirty and explore.
Get it done first, then get it right.
Look at your story with an extremely critical eye. Tightness and intricacy are more important in mystery than just about any other genre. One failure of logic, continuity, or believability could bring the whole story down, so rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Hand the mystery off to someone else because we often can’t see the flaws in our own work. You must know how an audience will receive the story and characters.
- Start with your antagonist – Find their method and motivation.
- Construct the crime – pay rapt attention to every possible detail.
- Work backward to find the clues that your protagonist must follow.
- Think like a detective.
- Marry your clues to the structure of your story.
- Don’t neglect character.
- Get it done first, then get it right.
- Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite
- Test your story with an audience – give it to someone you trust and get an outside perspective.
Thanks for reading. As always, if you consider yourself a writer, or just want to start developing your talent, I hope you’ll consider participating in one of our monthly genre contests for a chance to win cash, a custom digital book cover, and an author spotlight interview.
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