Writing mystery fiction is like creating a puzzle. Writers must plan the story carefully and craft a gripping page-turner that keeps the audience engaged.
Here’s how to do that:
1. Read Hundreds of Published Mysteries
Works of fiction, if read carefully, can offer insightful writing lessons. Read widely and often. Best-selling crime fiction can also be instructive.
After the mystery is revealed, you should return to the first page, start over, and notice how the author has laid down clues throughout the story. Writers not only drop clues but also use misdirection to heighten the suspense and untangle the mystery.
2. Know Every Detail of the Crime
Whether you’re writing a tale of a bloodless crime or a murder mystery, the criminal act is the beating heart of the mystery story, pushing the narrative forward. Therefore, before you finish your first draft, outline key points about the crime.
Great mystery writers not only map out who, what, when, where, and how the crime happened, they also research the crime itself, whether it’s a stabbing, sniper shot, poisoning, or pickpocketing. They learn the details and intricacies of the crime mechanics.
3. Open with Intrigue
Mystery readers love a story that starts with thrilling tales of diligent sleuths, cliffhangers, false clues, and bad guys. Many crime writers begin their stories with the crime itself. They then move forward and revisit the crime throughout the story as the protagonist hunts for the deceitful and elusive villain.
4. Construct Convincing Characters
The best mystery books, thrillers, and detective novels are character-driven. Create thinking, feeling, quirky, unpredictable human beings, not caricatures of eccentric stereotypes.
The protagonist often acts as the eyes and ears of the reader. The main characters must unravel the mystery and, therefore, should be relatable and fallible. Conversely, the antagonist with the devious plan is usually cunning, complex, and motivated by clear goals. Of course, you could play against the grain and make the antagonist a bumbling fool, but that depiction usually doesn’t work and turns the story into a farce or comedy, which is probably not a good idea for an effective mystery.
5. Assemble a List of Suspects
Any great puzzle has a vital piece that completes the whole picture. In mystery story writing, this missing piece is typically the criminal’s identity. Good writers introduce several suspects as the story progresses.
However, the best writers introduce the culprit early on, giving readers time to doubt their suspicion. Introducing potential culprits in sub-plots throughout the early chapters shapes the story and deepens the mystery.
6. Let the Setting Characterize the Story
Use your story’s setting strategically and even symbolically and historically. Weave into your plot the specific attributes of location and regional flavor. Whether the story plays out in a big city like Washington DC or a small rural area, leveraging the atmosphere and attributing certain places to key events is essential. A strong sense of place resonates with readers. Show us a world, a neighborhood, an environment we haven’t seen in such a way before. Open our eyes to the possibilities, mysterious, dark and shady sides of life whenever you take us. For example, setting horrific actions in a calm and peaceful atmosphere jolts the reader’s sensibilities and unsettles them. Make your reader uneasy. It’s a good way to get them, to keep reading.
7. Let the Reader Play Along
“Show. Don’t tell!” If you are highlighting an important plot point, it isn’t necessary to explain the entire point through dialogue. A well-constructed dialogue between characters can give readers enough clues to understand what’s going on in a scene.
You can even relay key information to the reader without having your main character realize it. Instead of explaining what is going on, give readers the chance to make sense of the clues.
8. Misdirect Your Reader
If you give your readers clues at every point of the story, you will surely give the ending away too soon. Readers are engaged in the story only when they are unsure of what happens next. Include false clues, red herrings that divert the readers to a wrong conclusion and make the truth less obvious. Misdirecting readers helps you build suspense and makes your story far more interesting.
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