Mystery Writing 101
Welcome to Mystery Writing 101…or as I like to call it: How to Get Away with Red Herrings.
I don’t think I did that right.
Oh, well. We’ve gone too far. Time to talk about clues and murder and stuff!
Today, we’re discussing the basic building blocks of putting together a mystery story. These are the essential elements that help it to qualify for a Whodunnit classification. Here’s how I break it down:
1. Figure out your mystery genus. (Species?)
Let’s not get fancy. Figure out what TYPE of mystery you want to write. Is it a gritty crime drama where the lone detective tries to solve a case while being haunted by demons from long ago? Or is it a cozy style mystery where our amateur sleuth stumbles over a dead body in the garden, but later on — there’s cake! You need to know the tone you want your story to take. Having this nailed down will help you figure out your other elements.
2. How bloody do you want to get?
How serious will the crime be? Murder? Sabotage? Blackmail? Petty Thievery? The SEVERITY OF THE CRIME will also help set your path. It’s something that can set up obstacles for you as a writer and require some serious research. You want to write a middle grade or YA murder mystery? It can be done, but you’ll have a lot of logistics to figure out. How will your underage detective have access to information and evidence? What’s the danger level? How do they get around or work with law enforcement? The higher the stakes, the trickier the balancing act.
3. Define your DETECTIVE.
Are they a ‘professional’ (Veronica Mars style?) or an amateur? Did they stumble into the investigation and are getting involved against their better judgement or are they enthusiastically chasing down clues? What skills do they have? How does their background influence their performance? What are their weaknesses? Make note of what areas they’ll need help in because that’s where the next bit comes into play.
4. Who’s their partner in crime-busting?
The PARTNER is another important element of the mystery book. Even if your detective likes to work alone, they usually have one person they trust. This could be their partner or the best friend that they bounce ideas off of (or both!). It’s dangerous to go alone and always better to have back-up. Your detective and their partner aren’t omnipotent (usually) so it’s nice to provide them with the TEAM. Secondary characters who can provide special skills/knowledge, but are also an opportunity to show off another side of your main characters with dynamic relationships and fun banter.
5. You can’t solve a crime without a criminal.
Every mystery story needs a PERPETRATOR — the more devious, the better. Put as much work into your baddie as your good guys. Give them clear motivation, some solid minions, and a good plan. Make them someone worthy of your detective. It’s not as much fun if all your Scooby gang has to do at the end is rip off a mask. Masterminding is hard work and the good guys should have to work just as hard to solve everything.
6. Find the fish!
The misdirecting RED HERRINGS are a very important sleight of hand element of a mystery. Make them clever, but make it logical. You don’t want your reader to feel cheated or tricked. Your red herrings should be a reasonable clue in order for your detective and your readers to take the time to travel down that path. If it doesn’t make sense to pursue, the reader won’t buy it and it pops them out of the story. This is where charting out your storylines really helps. Set up a visual (however makes the most sense to you) to plot your various threads and keep track of what leads where.
7. The BIG REVEAL!
This is where all the bits come together. Where the reader can see all the clues converge as the detective tracks down the perp and brings them to justice. This can play out in a number of ways: a tense stand-off between our lead and the perp. Or all the major players gather together as the team lays out what they’ve learned (my personal favourite). Whatever you do — make sure it’s satisfying. No gotchas. No blindsides. Your story can have as many tricks and turns as you’d like, but any reader should be able to go back and say “OH, now I see it.” Leave the breadcrumbs for those who are paying attention.
8. Read to grow.
The most important piece, and it’s the same for writing in any genre, is to READ. Read your favourites. Read the classics. Read the newbies. Read widely. That’s the best way to learn the ins and outs of what makes a mystery story work. You want to learn all of the tropes and hallmarks. They become those things for a reason: because they work. When it comes down to it, every writer is working with the same basic material, but they’re all going to put a story together in their own way. As you read, you’ll be able to hone your own sensibilities and figure out what makes your inner detective tick.
Just remember, you can solve anything as long as you always keep a paper and pen handy. Also, that spell-check can’t tell the difference between grisly and grizzly and they’re two very different types of crime. Happy writing!