Writing a mystery can sometimes be challenging but rewarding in the end. For instance, you want the mystery to play out like a mystery. You want to reader to be intrigued—interested from beginning to end. The whole goal of a mystery is to play a game with the reader—make them think one thing and surprise them in the end. I’ve wondered if my stories were mysteries. Looking back on my stories, I see where a mystery–or mysteries, developed. But in my attempts to purposefully write a mystery, I looked for advice on how to write a successful mystery and came up with 3 important points.
First, plot development.
You want to answer the big question—what is the problem and what is the cause? It may seem simple, but when I was developing mysteries for my current set of short stories, this was a challenging part. Not only do you have to define the problem yourself, but you also have to define and answer and the question or questions that will surround the problem.
- Could there be more than one question?
In other words, could more than one thing be responsible for the problem?
A child says he dropped off a bag of money earned from a fundraiser to the school administrators’ office. A few days later, the money is missing and one of the administrators blames the child for it. Who really took the money?
This is a very simple example. A typical mystery may be more complex, but the point is, there is a problem and no one knows who is responsible for the problem or the cause of the problem. The reader may assume one or the other, or none at all.
A good mystery will have many questions to one major problem. Some questions may be secondary questions, such as in the case of the above example—what would be the child’s motive for taking the money? Did the child have reason to need money? Was there a particular thing the child wanted to spend the money on? What signs did the child show? Did the child exhibit any behavior that matches the possibility of theft? The list can be endless.
Second, continuous action.
A good mystery is never slow. There is always something strange going on or showing up every moment. Of course there will be an introduction or plot build up in the beginning of the story, but it helps to start the story with the problem—introduce the reader quickly to the problem and initial questions. In mysteries, there is little time for small talk, lavish descriptions, or historical background. The only time it would be appropriate for this is when these things are uncovering something crucial or related to the problem. In other words, revealing clues to the resolution of the problem.
- Leave out the long extended details and descriptions.
Generally in a mystery, something is always showing up or going on. Natural descriptions will speak for themselves or be added when necessary. The reader will be more drawn to the case than how a living room looks like, unless, there is something descriptive about the living room that will reveal clues.
The story begins with the child in the principal’s office being interrogated and suspended until money is paid back. Child says he is innocent and there is little to no evidence that the child has used the money. Friend says, he will do an investigation and see where the money went. Story continues with friend questioning others, which leads to researching more places and people.
Momentum will never slow down. There is always something going on, more things—clues showing up. A good mystery will always trump what the reader is suspecting. As the story goes along, new things will appear that will challenge the reader’s thoughts of the cause of the problem. The goal is to lead the reader astray as best as possible.
Like all stories, there has to be an end. The mystery has to have a resolution and all the questions have to be answered. It is best to map out a story before you begin writing it down. Decide who the main characters will be, the problem, and the questions that will come up. It even helps to have the resolution set—know how the problem will be solved and how that will play out. Of course as you write, things can change, alterations can be made, but at least you will be guaranteed that the mystery can and will be solved.
- Make sure all questions to the problem can be answered or explained.
If there was a suspicious character but in the end they were not the culprit, make sure whatever suspicions that were placed on the character are defended. Maybe the suspicious character was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is also important to note that if the mystery involves a culprit being the source of the problem, introduce them early in the story. Don’t make it obvious that it’s them, but reveal their existence to the reader.
When money was dropped off to the administrators’ office, the busy administrator forgot to remove the money from the counter and lock it in a safe place. The friend walked in the office to pick up something and saw the money. The friend thought it was odd that money would be left unintended on the counter and took it, assuming it was left behind anyways. After extensive research and still no suspects, the friend realizes that the money he initially took was possibly the money the child was being suspected of keeping.
In summary, a successful and good mystery will have a developed plot with problems and questions established, continuous action without extended summaries and details that do not reveal important clues, and be solvable with the culprit being introduced in the beginning.
Though my example was not the greatest, I hope it illustrated the important components of a mystery. Although writing a mystery from scratch can seem challenging, I find that in the writing process, it can become rewarding and entertaining to see the mystery unfold as things are added that you may not have considered when initially developing the mystery.