I’ve always loved mysteries – there’s something about the process of answering a question and figuring out details that intrigues me. (Perhaps it’s growing up with a dad who was a lawyer who also loved Sherlock Holmes). As a reader, mysteries provide an engaging, entertaining read.
That’s why I love writing mysteries: at their best, they combine a strong puzzle-based plot with capable characters (including a sleuth) and great atmosphere. But making sure they’re believable can be tricky….so here are a few things that I find work when crafting a mystery.
- This rule above all else: Play Fair - At the heart of every mystery, clues are laid out gradually, allowing the reader to discover them along with the detective. (Want good examples? Hunt down anything written by Ellery Queen). The last minute twist/revelation….well, it doesn’t really help. In fact, it can hurt - the reader wants to figure it out. That’s part of why people read mysteries. And along those lines….
- What’s In It For Your Detective? - Writing a believable mystery often means knowing why your detective wants to solve the case. For Sherlock Holmes, “the work is its own reward’; for Mike Hammer in I, The Jury, it’s the opportunity to solve a case and avenge his friend’s death. Every mystery must have stakes for its lead character, even if those stakes are simple. (How many detectives get paid just so solve a crime?).
- Crime is simple; motives are messy - Most crimes are simple: someone dies at another’s hand, things are stolen, people are hurt - and it’s easy to plan elaborate crimes. (Even heists are relatively simple, if planned well enough). But motives complicate matters, and that’s where the crux of your storytelling lies. In Robert B. Parker’s Early Autumn, Spenser solves the quandry of what to do with a boy in a dysfunctional family by “taking him in.” (I’m not doing the book justice - you need to read it yourself). This is probably not the time to make your killer a variation of Snidely Whiplash - in fact, complicated motives often can serve as great storytelling devices.
- Plotters may do better than pantsers - You know the old adage about starting from the killer and working backwards? That’s not a cliche - having some idea of the outcome will help shape the overall arc of your book. (You can still leave room for surprises to happen, but having a logical arc will help). Because after all….
- Even mysteries have some structure: Don’t believe me? Read what Raymond Chandler, SS Van Dine, and R Austin Freeman have to say about the mystery story. (And if you’re looking for help about how to formulate a mystery, think of it as an extended argument….and view this video which is used in many philosophy classes. Seriously).
- Do some research, but don’t get too elaborate - Knowing the law, police procedure & structure, and other aspects of your story are worth researching to give it a bit of authenticity...but don’t make your story about the research. Think of it as a way to provide small details into the overall arc: you don’t need to be a cop to write a police procedural; you just need to know enough to sound convincing.
- Keep your crimes simple: As stated above, it may be tempting to crank out an elaborate crime - one which a high-tech CSI-style team might study. However, I can tell you from personal experience: waiting for lab results makes for boring reading. Keeping your crimes simple, your puzzles solvable, but your motives complicated provide greater engagement for your reader because the focus is on character, not mechanics. Finally….
- Read/watch some great mysteries: Check out Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories for how it’s done (and Dover’s Detection by Gaslight for other Victorian-era sleuths). Read Ellery Queen for great “fair play” mysteries. Read Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler & Mickey Spillane for some hard-boiled reads. If you’re a “visual learner”, I suggest watching the first five seasons of Columbo, the two-volume Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (available via Acorn Media), and The Ellery Queen Mysteries. (Many of these shows are available streaming as well).
Now, start writing!
Gordon Dymowski has written several tales, including “Crossing McCausland” for Tall Pulp and “When Angels Fall” for Dreamer’s Syndrome: New World Navigation, and will be appearing in an upcoming Black Bat Mystery anthology for Airship 27. When not writing, he’s working with small businesses and non-profits to amplify and enhance their communication strategies. For more information, check out Gordon’s home page at http://www.gordondymowski.com, his blog at http://blogthispal.blogspot.com, or his Amazon Author page. And if you know any publisher that’s reviving the Three Investigators, please drop him a line.