Following closely on the heels of romance, mystery is one of the most popular fiction genres of all time. At its simplest, the genre is a puzzle for audiences and characters to figure out together. At its most complex, mystery offers a deep-dive into humanity’s most pressing existential questions and threats. Populated by manifold subgenres, mystery offers room for many expressions, but its intelligent and experienced audience expects specific details in its execution. Learning how to write mystery stories is, as it turns out, about so much more than “just the facts, ma’am.”
Mystery can be divided into several categories, including but not limited to:
- Thriller (focusing on dangerous stakes for the characters caught up in needing to solve the mystery, such as The Fugitive)
- Procedural (focusing on the techniques used in solving the mystery, such as in CSI)
- Whodunit (focusing on the solving the puzzle, such as Sherlock Holmes)
- Crime (focusing on professionals from both sides of the crime, which may be a murder or may be another type of lawbreaking, such as in The Departed)
There are many other subgenres, and many of these can overlap or be included in other subgenres that are primarily focused on evoking a certain milieu or atmosphere, such as:
- Cozy (focusing on a “cozy” setting, low-key stakes, little gore or violence, and usually a citizen “detective”, such as Miss Marple)
- Noir (focusing on a “dark” and gritty urban setting, such as The Maltese Falcon)
- Comedy (focusing on a comedy of errors, again usually with little graphic violence and a bumbling hero who solves the case by happenstance as much as anything, such as The Man Who Knew Too Little)
Like romance, mystery often crops up as a subplot within stories that would primarily be classed as other genres. Or the story may be set entirely within the milieu of a different genre, even though it still follows the mystery structure. For example, mysteries may often take place in a fantasy setting, as with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series or Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin.
Also popular are historical mysteries, such as Miss Scarlet and the Duke.
And we also see romantic thrillers and romantic suspense.
5 Tips for How to Write Mystery
Readers choose mysteries when wanting a puzzle to tease their brains. The best mysteries are those that pull off that most impressive trick of all: outsmarting their readers while playing fair. Mystery readers are a smart crowd, not only intelligent in their own right, but extremely familiar with all the tropes and tricks a mystery writer might think to pull. So in the interest of outsmarting readers, let’s talk about how to write mystery.
Foreshadowing: Mystery Is All About Setup and Payoff
When you think about it, mystery is really nothing more than foreshadowing. Or rather, a good mystery is all about foreshadowing. A little suspense and a big reveal in the end does not make a mystery. Although readers want to be fooled, they also want a fair shot at solving the case. A true mystery is one that lays out all the clues for its readers, hiding little to nothing of what the detective character learns.
But how can you show readers all the clues and expect them not to figure out what’s going on? No doubt you’ve done your own fair share of figuring out whodunit the moment the culprit shows up on screen. Particularly in short-form fiction, such as serial TV shows, it can be difficult for writers to cram in the necessary foreshadowing without being too obvious. In some instances, writers must convey murder, means, and motive all in 45 minutes (while probably sharing time with a personal subplot for at least one of the regular characters).
The true skill of a mystery master is showcased nowhere more obviously than in foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is made up of two parts: setup and payoff—the planting of the clue and the eventual deciphering of the clue. Somewhere in between, however, is where the real magic happens, thanks to another crucial piece: misdirection.
However, audiences these days are so smart they often recognize misdirection the minute a story puts more than casual emphasis on a piece. Instead of being distracted from the truth, they immediately think, Ah, well, that obviously isn’t the culprit! (Or, if the culprit’s identity isn’t the mystery, That can’t really be how it happened or why it happened!)
Finding exactly the right balance between foreshadowing and misdirection is literally an artform. One of the best secrets is simply that of getting your audience emotionally involved in the misdirection. Make it real. Build it from the inside-out—whether it’s just a small detail or a fleshed-out subplot. The secret to any successful plot twist (and really that’s all mystery is) is making sure readers are so satisfied with the twist that even if they guessed it ahead of time, they’d still enjoy getting there just as much. More than that, when you have an audience’s emotions involved, they are that much less likely to think about every little detail you present.
For Example: In State of Play, the real culprit is always the chief suspect, but the way the story weaves in the emotions of the protagonist, investigative journalist Cal McAffrey, and gets the audience to identify with his motives for seeing the story a certain way, prevents the unfolding of the mystery from feeling on-the-nose or rote, whether or not audiences guess the truth before Cal does.
Story Structure in Mystery: Using Plot Beats to Create Revelation and Suspense
The mystery genre follows classic structure, but uses plot beats to grip readers with the occasional revelation and to deepen the mystery. You can find many genre-specific resources that break down expected mystery beats much more specifically, but here is a quick rundown:
Hook: Mysteries sometimes open immediately with the dead body or whatever other crime is to be explored, but may also open with a character-centric scene in which the protagonist is introduced in a way that frames the larger stakes and theme with the character’s personal issues.
Inciting Event: If the crime hasn’t already taken place, this is where it happens. If it did take place earlier, this is usually where the detective character will become aware of the case in some way—either by being assigned to it in a professional capacity or by being drawn into it for personal reasons (e.g., she is targeted or the victim was a friend).
First Plot Point: Symbolically, this is the Door of No Return. In a mystery, this means the stakes become personal and/or irrevocable for the protagonist. In some stories, this could be where the protagonist decides to keep investigating even after being warned off. In other stories, the killer might strike again, sometimes even striking very close to home for the protagonist. Either way, a major clue will be introduced.
First Pinch Point: Pinch points emphasize the antagonistic force’s threat and what is at stake for the main characters. In mysteries in which the killer is aware of the protagonist, this beat might include an attempt from the killer to warn the protagonist off the case. In other stories, the threat might be more existential, either because something is discovered that causes the protagonist to question himself or his own motives or methods, or because some horrible new clue escalates the stakes.
Midpoint: The Midpoint, or Second Plot Point, is always a Moment of Truth. In a mystery, this revelation can be quite literal. The protagonist discovers the biggest clue yet, something that completely changes the case. The protagonist’s understanding of this Truth is not yet complete, however; the Truth is still obscured by things the protagonist does not understand, both within the plot and the theme.
Second Pinch Point: The stakes ramp up still more. If the story includes personal stakes for the protagonist (e.g., her own safety, the safety of her loved ones, professional integrity, etc.), then those will be emphasized here. In stories with a more distant perspective, in which the protagonist is operating mostly on a professional level, the stakes will be primarily about the mystery: something happens that obstructs the investigation or seems to put the culprit out of reach.
Third Plot Point: Traditionally, this turning point into the Third Act is the moment when “All Is Lost.” Even relatively low-key mysteries may see the Third Plot Point turning them into comparatively dark territory (e.g., the protagonist or someone important is kidnapped). Often, another crime will be committed here, one just as dramatic or more so than the original crime. The detective will have personal doubts about being able to successfully solve the mystery. However, the events here will provide the clues necessary for the protagonist to find the culprit in subsequent scenes.
Climax: The protagonist will identify and probably come face to face with the culprit. In some stories, this can be quite exciting and violent. In others, it can unwind in the classic scene in which the detective gathers all the suspects into the same room and explains his investigation. In other stories, the actual apprehension of the culprit can be relatively low-key.
Resolution: If the story opened with a frame of the protagonist’s personal life, the Resolution will bring that full circle. If not, there may be a scene in which the victims of the crime are afforded a cathartic moment.
Theme in Mystery: Justice, Passion, and Death
Like all specific genres, mystery offers up its own inherent themes. Because mysteries are ultimately about figuring out a puzzle and seeing beyond the obvious, perspective is often a major theme (as John Truby notes in the introduction to his new book The Anatomy of Genres). Justice is another ubiquitous theme.
If the story features a murder or threat to life, then themes of death are often inevitable. Particularly in mysteries that deal realistically with murder and with the professions that both commit murders and “clean up” after them, the opportunity is there to go deep with existential questions about the truths of life and death and the ambivalent nature of man.
Passion, greed, and any number of other possible motivations for committing a crime can also be explored. Understanding the character arc of not just the protagonist, but also the culprit and the victim can give you solid ideas of integral themes you can explore in your own mystery.
For Example: Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River goes deep in exploring themes of friendship, loyalty, and guilt, in a story about three childhood friends—the father of a murdered daughter, the investigating cop, and the suspect who was himself the victim of a horrific crime when he was young.
Characters in Mystery: The Characters Should Be Able to Stand Without the Mystery, Because the Mystery Can’t Stand Without the Characters
Although the puzzle is the point in a mystery story, it shouldn’t be the story. What audiences truly want from the experience of a mystery story is the opportunity to experience how realistic and entertaining characters engage with the puzzle, its catalyst, and its consequences.
For my money, the most important rule of thumb for how to write mystery is simple: the characters should be able to stand without the mystery.
In other words, your characters should be so interesting audiences would want to engage with them even if the mystery turns out to be easily solvable. This doesn’t mean the mystery should be relegated to a subplot in your characters’ personal lives. But it does mean the characters and their development should be strong enough to grip readers. Whether your story is funny and entertaining or dark and fascinating, readers should be hooked by your characters much more than the twists and turns of your foreshadowing’s setups and payoffs.
For Example: The recent Netflix romp Glass Onion dazzles audiences with interesting characters and entertaining scenarios that keep their attention regardless of how quickly they identify the true culprit.
Characters in Mystery: Character Arcs Can Be Either Change Arcs or Flat Arcs
A common question I receive about character arcs is, “What kind of character arc does [names specific detective character] have?” Usually in these instances, the confusion arises because the character in question isn’t arcing. This is because Flat Arcs are extremely common in the mystery genre.
However, this does not mean the story has no arc. A Flat Arc indicates a character who has already integrated and therefore acts upon the story’s primary Truth—and who impacts the world and characters around her via that Truth. Strictly speaking, this will be a thematic Truth (e.g., “justice is important but not always clear cut”). However, in mysteries that don’t go deep with their thematic exploration, this Truth might be conveyed simply in that the Flat-Arc protagonist has the strongest moral compass of anyone within the story.
Writing a mystery with a Flat-Arc protagonist is popular because it allows the story to focus most of its attention on the complications of the plot. However, it’s also entirely possible a mystery may feature a Change Arc, in which the protagonist’s personal view of the world alters dramatically by the end of the story. This might be a Positive Change Arc, in which the protagonist moves out of a more limited or “Lie-based” perspective into a more expansive Truth. Or it might be a Negative Change Arc, in which the protagonist moves into an even more constrained and limiting perspective of the world.
For Example: In Sir Terry Pratchett’s mystery-fantasy Feet of Clay, forthright police investigator Captain Carrot’s steadfast Flat-Arc belief in the rights of all sentient beings not only allows him to solve the mystery but to positively impact the prejudices of others about the golems who everyone believes are mindless killers.
In a way, all novels are mysteries, since the primary question all fiction wants readers to ask is, “What’s gonna happen?” The mystery genre takes it all up a notch by leading audiences on an intricate dance of clues, misdirection, and ultimately a deep exploration of the human psyche.
Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Literary Fiction!
Previous Posts in This Series:
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written in the mystery genre? What are your thoughts on how to write mystery? Tell me in the comments!
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