Mystery writing tips
I spent my spare time in college writing a mystery novel called “They Ate the Waitress?” Before that, I had only ever written science fiction, horror, and weird things like that. Fantasy or science fiction stories can be almost anything you like. However, as I discovered, detective story readers have certain expectations about what makes a good mystery. Deviate from them too much, and your readers may give up before your detective even finds the first clue. Whether want to write a straight whodunit or a mixed genre mystery, here are some ideas that might help you get started…
- Introduce your cast of characters as early as possible. The first quarter of the story can be spent establishing the detective, the crime, and the client, but after that, let your reader interrogate the suspects. Obviously, it’s not fair to introduce the murderer in the last ten pages. But even with half the story to go, you’re probably too late. The longer your reader has to wait to start guessing who done it, the bigger the risk that they’ll get impatient and stop reading.
- Your detective is a proxy for the reader. Let your reader see everything the detective sees. Agatha Christie may have been able to get away with hiding clues until the last chapter, but most modern readers will find such practice to be cheating.
- Unless you are obviously writing a mixed genre story (science fiction mystery, supernatural mystery, etc), the solution to the crime should be plausible. Something technically possible but too off-the-wall might just anger your readers. “Aunt Judy only made us think she was in England during the murder. All the times she said she was going to church to play bingo, she was actually taking hypnosis lessons!”
- If you are writing a mixed genre mystery, establish all the rules of your world in the first few chapters. Don’t tell us the killer choked his wife to death with his mind unless you first tell us that psychic powers exist. Anything else is expecting your reader to play a game of chess with pieces missing.
But don’t make it too easy
- Even though you should let the reader see everything the detective sees, they don’t have to hear his thoughts. They don’t have to notice everything the detective notices. In fact, you should often do the exact opposite.
- Hide the clue in a laundry list of other, irrelevant information. “The poison has to be hidden here, but where? The medicine cabinet? No, just the usual toothpaste, shaving cream, aspirin, condoms, Band-Aids – no giant bottles of strychnine.” Your reader will likely just move on to the next paragraph, forgetting that aspirin is poisonous in large doses.
- Show a clue next to a big, bold red herring. Suppose that the victim was strangled to death, and the detective is searching for the murder weapon. Most readers will never notice a scarf in the same room as a boa constrictor.
- You might have the detective or his assistant see the clue but misinterpret its meaning. The victim was beaten to death. The detective is sure Aunt Judy did it… with Uncle Paul’s huge, heavy martial arts trophy.
- You could also mention the clue, and then immediately distract the reader with a dramatic event, something designed to make them forget what they’d just read. “If Aunt Judy is the killer, the weapon should be in her crafts room! Let’s see… A ball of yarn, a pile of mail, a razor sharp letter opener… Oh my god, the cat’s on fire!”
The detective should be clever, but relatable
- The detective should solve the crime through a combination of legwork, creativity, and other special skills that he has but the police lack. He might be a genius with a photographic memory, an artist with a superior attention to detail, or a poker player who has perfected his ability to read body language. In the case of a mixed genre mystery, your detective’s special skills could be anything from x-ray vision to a jet pack.
- While your detective might be a genius, he should solve the crime because he is clever, not because he is a walking Wikipedia. It is hard to make a character relatable if he is an expert in everything from brain science to rocket surgery. Also, readers want to see detectives be challenged. A detective with all the answers at his fingertips makes things too easy. Consider giving the detective a sidekick, a love interest, or a talking dog with the needed information.
- However, you can go too far the other direction. Don’t make your detective so well connected that he has a friend with every skill he could possibly need. There are very few people who have a college buddy at the BMV to look up license plate numbers, a zoo keeper uncle to analyze bite marks, and an ex-boyfriend who also happens to be Batman.
- Also, having the detective suddenly solve the crime with a random bit of trivia feels like cutting corners. “That’s when I realized Mr. Barnaby was not dead after all. The snake bite had no fang marks. It wasn’t a copperhead that bit him, but a harmless Texas rat snake!” If the crime hinges on a fun fact, treat it like any other clue. Divulge it early in the story, and then distract the reader so it is immediately forgotten.
Help the killer cover their tracks
- How does your villain plan to get away with it? Generally speaking, the detective will be looking at the suspects to see if they have the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the murder.
- Means: The ability to commit the murder. Whatever weapon is used, your villain will want to hide the fact that they have the ability to use it. If the victim was strangled, the murderer will want to appear too physically weak to choke the life out of someone. If the victim was poisoned, the murderer will want to hide any knowledge of chemistry.
- Motive: The desire to commit the murder. The killer will want to appear as if they were close friends with the victim, in love with them, or didn’t know them at all. This may involve hiding evidence of past arguments or a bad breakup. If the killer is pretending not to know the victim, they may have to hide old photos or emails that would prove otherwise.
- Opportunity: In the right place at the right time to commit the murder. This is where alibis come in. Poisons and explosives may take enough time to work that the killer can make a public appearance on the other side of town. The killer might use audio recordings or computer hacking to create confusion about the time of death.
- In addition to hiding the means, motive, and opportunity, your killer will want to hide or destroy any physical evidence of the crime. In my mystery novel, the killer accomplished this by the simple means of eating the body. If your killer isn’t a cannibal, they have to be creative.
- Set the crime scene on fire. Hide the body somewhere it won’t be discovered until decomposition destroys any clues, like deep in the woods or in a self-storage container. Hide the body where it will never be discovered, like the foundation of a building or or one of the thousands of holes in the desert outside Las Vegas. If you are writing a mixed-genre mystery, your killer may throw the body out of the space station’s air lock, or arrange for it to be abducted by aliens.
Some writers may feel that the structure of the mystery genre is too confining, that it doesn’t allow enough variation, or that all the good ideas have been done. But there can be a murder anywhere, as long as there are people. Your detective could be an astronaut on the International Space Station or the captain of a ship that’s run aground on a desert island. Play fair with your readers, practice hiding clues, and create compelling but relatable characters, and you’ll have a mystery guaranteed to excite and enthrall.