One of the most popular forms of fiction that we consume today is the classic mystery story. It is prevalent in books, on TV shows, and in our movies. Whether it is dealing with real-life crime, inspired stories from real-life crime, or it is something that comes from the imagination, the ability to keep readers guessing as your characters are trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together is an art form all its own.
If you’re a writer who is thinking about breaking into this fictional genre, then here are some mystery writing tips that can help to get you started.
#1. Read a few mysteries before you get started. There are a number of great mystery authors out there. Look for books that have won the Edgar Award so you can see the character development, scenes, and structures that have been incorporated into the story. This will help you begin to craft your own ideas when it comes time to start your own mystery.
#2. Create one outstanding central character. The key to a good mystery is the sleuth who is going to be trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. You can also create a partnership or a team of people who can solve the mystery if you prefer, but even in partnerships or teams there is one leader that stands out.
#3. Start with how the crime happens. You need to map out every possible detail of the crime that will need to be solved. Don’t just stop at the forensics of the crime or imagine what the crime scene pictures would be. For every great sleuth that solves a mystery, there must be an equally devious perpetrator that has a solid motive for the crime. Without a meaningful motive, there really isn’t a meaningful mystery.
#4. Start at the end. When you begin to write your mystery, consider writing the ending first. This way you know for certain where the story is going to go. It’s a lot easier to build up momentum to the final scene when you know what it is. You’ll also be less tempted to throw in a twist at the end that your readers won’t understand.
#5. Build up a list of clues. The goal of a good mystery is to have readers be able to solve it along with your primary character. To do this, they’ll need to be able to discover clues to the crime that occurred along the way just as your character does. It can be helpful to determine a list of clues that you’ll include with your novel before you start writing it, including the final definitive clue that solves everything, so you are able to create a logical timeline of events.
#6. Don’t forget to throw in a false clue here and there too. Or to use a term from a mystery, don’t forget about using a “red herring” or two. You can’t overuse them because this will distract from the advancement of the plot, but when used strategically here and there, you can throw off a reader who thinks they have the story figured out and that makes reading a mystery a whole lot of fun.
#7. You’ve made a list of clues. Now make a list of suspects. You’ll have an entire ensemble of characters that might have a motive for committing the crime. Create a list that gives you details about each one and what they might stand to gain if they were the guilty one. You can even use some of your false clues to point readers toward these individuals. This helps to make the ending even more of surprise.
#8. Don’t be a jerk. As a mystery writer, you must remember that your readers are stepping into the shoes of your sleuth. This means they must be able to find the clues just as your sleuth is finding the clues. If you don’t provide this information to the reader and it is key information that is used to create the ending of your story, then they’re going to feel cheated in the end and feel like they’ve wasted their time.
Great mystery stories can write themselves as long as you’ve put in the work to structure your crime, your clues, and your characters in such a way that you know what needs to happen. In the end, the story should make logical sense, even if the reader didn’t guess the outcome correctly. If you can do that, then you can write a great mystery starting right now.