Need help writing your mystery novel?
Mysteries are fun to read and equally fun to write. That said, there are a few rules you need to follow to create a slow burning page-turner that keeps the reader guessing until the last chapter. Let’s discuss what you need to know to create a nail-biting whodunit.
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Read Other Mysteries
First things first, before you write one word, I recommend studying some of the great mystery novels of all time.
Can you really write a mystery without reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes? I think not.
When you’re studying these mystery novels, pay attention to pacing and how the author reveals the person of interest. It may be worth it to read the story twice, to see how the author subtly but masterfully tied in the clues to the perpetrator’s identity from the beginning.
Here’s a list of must read mysteries to start out on:
- The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
- The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
- Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane
- And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
- In the Woods, by Tana French
Understand the Crime
Now that you’ve read some of the most popular mystery novels for research (not pleasure) and have a good understanding of pacing and what the reader expects, it’s time to craft your story.
Start with the crime.
Not all mysteries have a crime, that’s true, but about 99% of them do. From caper to noir to amateur sleuth, most mysteries begin with a crime (which could be bloodless) and ends with the answers to who, what, why, where, when, and how.
That’s where you’ll start. You need to figure out early on, with the help of an outline, who the criminal is, what crime they committed, and the motivation for the crime. You’ll also need to understand the more technical answers to where, when, and how.
To do this, you’ll need to do a lot of research in how to commit the actual crime. If it’s about poisoning, then research the right portion. If it’s about strangulation, research positions, and all of those other nitty, gritty, and really uncomfortable aspects.
While you may not put everything into your description, you’ve got to completely understand the mechanics to sell a convincing story.
Create Convincing Characters
In my opinion, the best mysteries are character-driven. Everyone obsesses over the plot, and that’s definitely important, too. Thrillers, in particular, are more story-focused. However, mysteries are more about character development. Characters are really at the heart of any story. You need characters to create emotional touchpoints for the reader.
For example, the protagonist is perhaps your most important character. The protagonist is often the detective of your novel. He or she is someone who is actively uncovering the mystery. The reader needs to feel connected to this character because he or she acts as the reader’s eyes and ears. The reader must solve the mystery with this character, so it makes total sense to create a character that’s fleshed out, relatable, and convincing. This character is also moving the story forward, not the other way around.
Who are your main characters? Is your protagonist someone who witnessed the crime and can’t shake it? Is he or she someone who is pulled in reluctantly? And who is the criminal?
Whoever they are, be sure to introduce these characters early on so that the reader can get familiar with them. Don’t wait until three or four chapters in to casually reveal who will later be revealed as the criminal. The reader needs to “meet” the character early and possibly dismiss them from suspicion.
By the way, there definitely needs to be more than one person of suspicion introduced in your novel. Cat and mouse is definitely not mystery. So, be sure to introduce several possibilities in the first pages of your novel to set up your reader for a riveting puzzle.
And the last thing I’ll say about characterization-- avoid perfection. It’s okay for the detective to stumble and miss clues. In fact, it’s only human. Even if the detective misses the clues you’ve laid out, the reader may not. And also don’t make your detective a bumbling idiot-- that can be frustrating for your reader. The detective and reader should be on the same page, no pun intended.
Create a Convincing Motive
Part of characterization is coming up with a motivation. What motivates each character to action?
Clarifying the criminal’s motive is obviously necessary, but you also need to identify what motivates the detective or sleuth as well.
Why does the detective want to solve the mystery? Perhaps it’s part of the job, or perhaps the detective is an amateur who feels compelled to solve the crime for personal reasons. What are those reasons? Perhaps her father was a detective who died trying to solve the crime and she wants to vindicate him.
The more logical the motive, the more realistic the character. Readers buy into real characters.
Use Red Herrings
All (good) mysteries have red herrings. In literature, a red herring is a misleading or distracting piece of information that causes the reader to arrive at the wrong conclusion.
Misdirection is the hallmark of a convincing mystery. There needs to twists, turns, and plenty of dead ends so that the reader doesn’t arrive at the conclusion too quickly and spend of the rest of the novel waiting for the protagonist, or detective, to catch up.
An example of a red herring is a character who’s caught at the scene of the crime. He’s actually innocent, but the reader and the protagonist must spend time to eliminate him as a viable suspect.
Red herrings work because readers love the chase. And if you craft the story well, readers also love to think they know and find out that they were wrong.
Here’s the one run about red herrings: don’t let them linger on for too long. Resolve red herrings quickly so that the reader doesn’t feel like they’ve wasted too much time on the wrong suspect.
Know How You Want the Story to End
Before you start writing your mystery, know how the story ends. The end matters in mystery more than in any other genre. Your readers demand, pitchforks in hand, a satisfying ending to a story that they’ve invested in. They’ve added up the clues, they’ve figured out who the culprit is, and if, by the last page, you haven’t confirmed their suspicions or pleasantly (and masterfully) surprised them with the right answer that’s been hiding in plain sight all along, you will be eviscerated.
I understand that not every writer knows how a story will end. Sometimes, you get to the end and are just as surprised as everyone else by whodunit. That’s what I like to call a first draft. When crafting your second draft, you’ll now know who did it and why. And knowing the way you’d like your story to end will help you craft a more compelling one from the very beginning.
Your ending needs to answer the lingering questions that you presented in the beginning of your novel, such as who, why, and how. Knowing these answers, you can sprinkle clues throughout the story, starting at the beginning. This allows the reader to trace back and see that everything was obvious, even if they’re completely surprised by the answers. Your story should be logical.
To do this, you need to plan the crime just as well or better than the criminal. At outline will definitely help you craft the (almost) perfect murder.
Over to You
We want to hear from you. What’s your favorite mystery and why? Let us know in the comments below!
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