Writing 101: Writing Mysteries


Hello everyone and welcome to the 5th part of Writing 101. We have made the halfway point y’all. Today’s lesson is about writing mysteries.


Writing mysteries is very difficult. It’s actually one of the most difficult types of story to write. Mainly because you know who the killer/killers is and you have to conceal it all the way through the piece and the longer the piece of work is the more torturous that can be. Needless to say, when you start writing a mystery story you have to take your hat off to people like Agatha Christie who wrote over 80 mystery stories and still managed to keep each one fresh and interesting. But though it’s a hard form, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done so let’s look at some tips which can help you on your mystery writing journey …


Writing Mysteries


1. The Killer/Killers Need To Both Fit And Be The Last Person Or People Anyone Suspects


Mystery writers can sometimes go wrong either side of this situation. They might make it too obvious by it being who we thought it was all along because it fits or they might make it someone or some people that it doesn’t fit but are shocking. You need to balance it between the two. When it’s a very unexpected killer/killers you need to have dripped it into conversations subtly along the way. Thinking of Agatha Christie, she was a genius at this device. Cosy tea chats with Miss Marple were usually where clues lay. And yet they were the parts most people pass over quicker while reading a novel. On the other hand, your killer/killers can’t be obvious. It’s the surest way to lose readers in a mystery. The Whodunit, the guessing is the currency and selling point of a mystery novel. If it’s obvious, it’s not much of a mystery novel even if all the Is are dotted and it makes sense. There is ways mystery writers can shield a killer/killers until they want to reveal who they are. One is not to have them very much in the novel. Yes, it sounds slightly like cheating but it isn’t really. If you have given all the clues to suggest it is them then keeping them out of a lot of scenes while you cast the blame on everyone else is a good mystery device. It draws your reader away from that person. If on the other hand you want them to go unnoticed in the thick of the action, they need to have a good reason for being there, i.e. detective, fellow detective, housekeeper, reporter, other half of detective or fellow detective. Basically you need to have your reader secure that the only purpose that they are there is for that reason. Not because of something more sinister …


2. The Stereotypical Detective


Ok, we all know what the stereotypical detective is: He’s a cisgender, white, heterosexual, able-bodied young to middle-aged male. Nothing wrong with that but your detective doesn’t have to be any or all of these things. But because it’s being did to death (apologies for the pun, none intended) many writers don’t even think outside of these boxes when putting together their detective. I have a detective in my series of stories called Rory Murphy who is pansexual and disabled. I didn’t consciously decide that. That’s how he came to me in my head but the point is don’t do anything deliberately because that won’t work but keep your mind open on who your detective is. You don’t have to go with the stereotype of the detective if it doesn’t fit with the character in your head. There is no rules on it so do what you feel. And if that is the stereotypical detective go with it but please don’t always give him a drink problem and a hard man image and cheesy lines while standing over the body like,
“I don’t think they’ll be dancing the light fantastic anymore.” or something like that. How many detectives in real life would honestly have a one-liner ready in such circumstances? It doesn’t make them sound funny or cool. It makes them sound cliched and a bit of a moron.


3. Read Mysteries


There has been and is many excellent writers in this genre. Just to give you a few:

  • Agatha Christie
  • John Grisham
  • James Patterson
  • Ruth Rendell
  • Stephen King
  • Kathy Reichs
  • Mark Billingham
  • Mark Edwards
  • Jodi Picoult
  • Harlan Coben
  • Lynda La Plante
  • Tom Rob Smith
  • P.D. James
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Val McDermid
  • Arthur Conan Doyle

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, I could go on forever …
There is a certain way mystery writers can keep the suspense up in a story so read as much mystery books as you can if this is a field you are interested in writing in. It starts leaking into your own work with your own unique writer’s voice automatically when you are reading the works of others.


4. Backstories


You need to flesh out the backstories very well of both your detective and your killer. Or detectives and killers. Yes, there can be more than one detective too. Tommy and Tuppence? But back to the point. It is very tempting for many mystery writers to make everyone understand the reasons behind the motives of your detective but you also need to make everyone know what was behind the motives of your killer to give a rounded story. Don’t go with cliches like their father was an alcoholic, their mother was neglecting them and sleeping with lots of men, make them more complex than that. That makes an interesting killer. While you are never setting out to make your readers understand why your killer would take someone else’s life, you do need to be very clear to readers on why the killer themselves felt they needed to do such an evil thing. And the next part is going to sound strange but not every killer needs to be evil. 99% of them will be but 1% of killers might have being pushed to the edge by harrowing circumstances which you’ll set out clearly. And sometimes they aren’t a killer. It could be euthanasia. On the backstory of your detective, you have a very big opportunity to make a very interesting character. There is so many cardboard, samey-samey detectives that this is a huge opportunity for you to have a detective that stands out. Their personality needs to be interesting and real. Forget they are a detective for a bit, they are also human. Concentrate on the other facets of them that would be there whether they were a detective or not.


5. You Need A Fine Toothcomb


Mysteries unlike many other stories are probably on first writing going to be littered with mistakes. There’s a lot to think about when you are writing a mystery and you are bound to make errors at numerous points. Go through each part of your story, make sure it fits that by reveal time there is no loopholes. Readers of mysteries will notice loopholes very easily when they have being trying to put the case together so make sure everything fits together like a glove.


Key Points Summary

  • Writing mysteries is very difficult. It’s actually one of the most difficult types of story to write.
  • Your killer/killers can’t be obvious but it also needs to fit together perfectly.
  • Use subtle pieces of conversations that sound like every day, unimportant conversations to leak clues.
  • Use characters with valid purposes for being there as your killer/killers.
  • Your detective doesn’t need to be the stereotypical detective: a cisgender, white, heterosexual, able-bodied young to middle-aged male.
  • Read mysteries by other authors. There is so much choice out there which will give you a great insight into how to incorporate suspense into your stories.
  • Give both your killer/killers and detective/detectives fully rounded back stories.
  • Avoid detective cliches.
  • Not every killer has to be evil.
  • Sometimes deaths can be euthanasia instead of murder.
  • Edit your work thoroughly. There is so much to think of in mysteries that you are bound to make mistakes. Get rid of them before publication.

4 comments on “Writing 101: Writing Mysteries

  1. theryanlanz says:

    Ugh. Number 1 is the reason why I can’t write mysteries. It’s so difficult to choose someone who fits yet isn’t the one person the reader knows did it. My hats off to those who do it well.

    – Ryan Lanz
    AWP Writers Club

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