My 2018 NaNoWriMo novel was a murder mystery set on a starliner. In April 2019 I was contemplating revising it, so I wrote a summary of some Internet research about writing mysteries, mostly from Writing Excuses. I wound up going a different direction, but now I am coming back to that novel. So I’ve read a wider variety of internet sources, listed at the end of this post, and have synthesized what I learned into a summary of my own. I strongly advise that you read the original sources, too.
One source lists three types of mystery
- Cozies focus on characters and setting, not the crime; pacing is slow, and violence is offstage,
- Police / medical / legal procedurals require extensive special knowledge; they are very detail-oriented, and focus on group clue-gathering and analysis.
- Private eye / noir stories involve an interesting and believable main character, and realistic interactions with police. These days the sleuth may need to be, or have ready access to, a computer expert.
I’m not sure mine fits into any of these categories. I’m not sure what other category to call it.
Several sources advise certain kinds of preparation before writing a mystery novel. Many writers I’ve met have a strong preference for discovery writing, “pantsing.” I started as maybe 10% plotter, 90% pantser, but am slowly shifting the balance further towards plotting. I’ve become convinced by what I’ve read that, compared to other kinds of novel, mysteries need more up-front planning, though perhaps not as much as some sources say is necessary.
It’s critical to have an interesting and sympathetic sleuth. Some sources insist they must go through a character arc (though not all the comments about character development necessarily fit with the MICE description of what such an arc is). On the other hand, detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe seem more like “iconic heroes” as described in a Writing Excuses podcast: they solve mysteries, nuances of their character or backstory may develop, but don’t themselves change in any significant way.
The sleuth needs to have a reason for solving the mystery, but try to avoid revealing it through internal monologue, dreams, or flashbacks. We also want engaging exploration of characters: Henry James said “Plot is characters under stress.” Characters should have unique triggers, desires, and internal conflicts. Free-writing may help you get to know them. Know how they dress, move, investigate, talk.
One source says “mysteries of character” are the most memorable: a crime is a disruption of social order; we think we want to know who did it and why, but we want to see order restored by someone who is a better version of ourselves (smarter, wittier, more determined).
Define the world before writing – though you’ll describe it only as needed. Such background provides opportunities for misdirection.
You also need to define the crime – method, motive, and opportunity; all three have to be believable. It needs to take place within the first 50 pages, the first three chapters, though to me putting the crime on page 50 suggests a cozy rather than a fast-paced story.
For the plot, you need to know the ending and create all the clues that lead to it, along with red herrings, obstacles (that keep you on the same MICE thread), and complications (that may switch threads). Some clues might reveal that something is missing, like the dog doing nothing in the nighttime in the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze. There are three kinds of clues:
- Genuine, which point to the killer
- Fake (red herring) that point to someone else. Possibilities include a character seeming more suspicious than they actually are; a clue that seems significant but isn’t; a secondary event that seems important; clues placed by the villain to mislead.
- Pivotal, genuine clues that give the final pieces of the puzzle.
Introduce the killer early; it’s disappointing if they show up late. There need to be multiple suspects (at least three or four), with clues that point to each of them. Each should have a reason to want the victim dead; one should be unusual. Each should lie, or seem like they are lying, though only one lies about the crime (though it seems to me accomplices might lie, too).
Outline every major scene and clue; this may be hard for discovery writers, but the justification is that mysteries have more “rules” than other genres because of reader expectations. The order of discovery of clues may be especially important.
A couple of sources suggest overall structures based on the Hero’s Journey, but it seems likely to me that many other story structuring techniques could work. Between deciding to solve the crime and the middle of the story can be difficult. Introduce all the suspects and fill in details later. The sleuth should identify the killer by mid-book and shift to proving how and why – but the first solution should be wrong, and the sleuth hits bottom (“all is lost”). After that, the sleuth is better motivated, better prepared, and finds the right killer.
You also need an outline of offstage action, particularly what the villain is doing. Much of this will not appear directly in the novel, but some will intersect with viewpoint character actions and lead to discoveries.
The first few pages need to introduce the main character, identify the time period and setting, and (in stories other than cozies) introduce the crime. The action should start immediately with the first obstacle, which might actually be the main problem. Don’t solve it immediately; it should be the foundation for many other obstacles, which should increase in difficulty over the whole novel.
Add backstory and character descriptions only as needed, in small dribbles, fitting naturally into their scene, and only where they don’t stall the story. They should be important to the reader, explaining character motivations and actions. Avoid them in the first chapter.
Use the setting dramatically, not just as background. Switching locations suddenly can keep readers alert. Balance suspense with humour. Use cliffhangers (judiciously), especially at the end of scenes.
Clues need to be in plain sight, but can be buried in the middle of lists; people generally blip over clues other than first 3 (or less) and last.
Suspenseful dialogue can include lies (contradicting what is known), bizarre or unexpected statements, or a character withholding information.Use all five senses, but only a few at a time. Descriptive writing is especially important to create suspense, but descriptions need to be concise to keep up the pace.
Well-structured chapters give rising tension and shift what is known or unknown. Consider opening one in the middle of an unknown setting, or a tense situation; the sleuth might discover something thought to be true is actually false.
Follow your own signature style.
The ending should be “surprising but inevitable.” It should follow from the clues, which get put together in a surprising way. It should explain every major clue, expose the killer, answer all the pending questions, reveal truths about the false suspects, relate to the beginning (addressing goals, motivations, needs, and changes from early in the novel), and leave the reader wanting to read the next novel (“the first page sells the book; the last sells the next,” quoted from Mickey Spillane). It should come close after the final climax, and be concise but proportional to the story length.
You may need to clean up the plot structure, make sure the major characters are engaging, that the pace is neither too fast nor too slow. End scenes sooner than you first think is appropriate, to keep up the pace. Go back and insert things, such as false clues, where needed.
Use critique groups, but sequentially (or with a few in parallel, followed by a different few, and so on).
These are in roughly the order I read them.
- WikiHow: How to Write a Mystery Story
- Susan Swann (guest on Terrible Minds)
- Writer’s Digest: Mystery and Suspense
- The Balance Careers: Top Rules for Mystery Writing
- Writer’s Store: Taking the Mystery out of How to Write A Mystery
- Bright Hub Education: 5 Steps to Write a Mystery
- The Write Practice: How to Write a Mystery Novel
- Writing The Modern Mystery, by Barbara Norville
- Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by The Mystery Writers of America, edited by Sue Grafton