mystery: secrecy / ambiguity / whodunnit / enigma / puzzle / conundrum / riddle / unsolved problem
The gals thought today’s post should review the mystery genre—specifically, how to write one. Sounds good to me.
As you know, mysteries can fall under various categories: cozy, amateur sleuth, professional sleuth, private eye (like our trio, JJ, Rey and Linda), police procedural, noir, suspense, historical, mixed genres, literary, and caper, which is a crime story that leans towards comical (didn’t know that one had a category until recently, so there you go; you do learn something new every day).
Let’s stick to an overall review of penning a mystery, because each category has its own specific components and that would take up several pages. But, hmm, that’s a thought; maybe we’ll feature each one separately over the next few weeks. Ah, Rey’s giving two thumbs up. <LOL> I guess that’s what we’ll be doing.
You’ve decided to write one but aren’t sure what type? Well, which mysteries do you enjoy reading? Cozies? Then go for that, something familiar. Later, if you’re so inclined or are looking for a challenge, try something else.
Regardless of the type, you need a compelling story, one that yanks the reader right in. Have a murder or three (or an enthralling crime/riddle to solve), also known as “plot”. There should be conflict and tension, and action (but this doesn’t necessarily have to be of the racing-against-time or hit-over-the-head intensity). Provide an interesting and preferably likable central character—the protagonist and person solving the mystery—and ensure your other characters have life. They mustn’t be flat or wooden, or sound/seem the same. I haven’t said this in a while, but variety is the spice of life . . . and stories.
Something else I’ve not stated in some time: show, don’t tell. Weave the aforementioned conflict and tension between dialogue and activities/adventures. Neither need be there continually, but certainly often enough to keep the reader on the edge of his/her seat, yearning to read on and discover what transpires!
Give thought to the crime. If you’re stumped as to what the crime should be, search the internet for real-life ones and adopt/adapt one. Imagine yours in every detail—how it was committed, what happened before and after, why it took place, and who did the dastardly deed. Think about clues that the central character might stumble upon and follow. Toss in a red herring or two.
Give thought as to why your character would be inclined to solve this mystery. A professional reason perhaps? He/she is a private investigator or detective, or works in some sort of legal or medical capacity, as examples. An amateur sleuth may stumble upon a crime or murder and aspire to determine what transpired—but how did said amateur sleuth happen to be there? Visiting a relative? Attending a conference? Moreover, might there be a personal reason the character wants to solve the mystery? Add a few layers, but don’t stifle your character or reader (which translates into zzzzzz).
Who are your suspects? You should have a few to keep your readers intrigued, guessing [detecting] along with the central character, and wanting to discover who the culprit is! Try to surprise your reader, but don’t make the outcome outlandish or implausible. On the flip side, don’t make your outcome too predictable or easily “reader solvable”.
Assemble your concept, characters, clues and suspects like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to create a complete picture. Outline/chart how your protagonist [eventually] solves the mystifying crime. Consider scenes and events. And don’t forget your setting, either. Make it come as alive as your character(s), dialogue, and actions.
2 thoughts on “Putting the Mystery in a Mystery”
Have you read anything by Dorothy Hughes, a mystery writer? I plan to read one of her books very soon.
I have and have meant to read her books . . . now, I will! I love noir. Take care, Neil!
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