Writing a good mystery
Updated: Nov 26, 2018
I love killing people – on paper that is. It’s what I do for fun and some profit. My books have been well-received, and I teach a writing class. And yet, I am still, and probably always will be, on a learning curve. I pretty much only read mysteries. When I do, I study them for structure and content, because I believe I can learn as much from a mystery that is not well-crafted as one that is.
So what makes a good mystery as opposed to one that’s not? A number of things.
I have read a number of eBooks lately published by independent authors. Many of them, if not most of them, are well-written. What I mean by that is that their writing style is solid. Characters are well-drawn, there is an easy flow to their sentence structure and they understand things like ‘show/don’t tell.’ What many of them lack however, is an understanding of what makes a good mystery, which often leaves me disappointed at the end.
Recently, I read a murder mystery where nothing of consequence happened until two-thirds of the way through the book. Most of the book was devoted to characters getting to know each other, remodeling a house, and for two of them, falling in love. The writing was good and I enjoyed the characterization, but there was no crime, no risk-taking, no clues – no consequences - until the last hundred pages or so. What? I hate that.
In a mystery, readers expect someone or some “thing” to be at risk. And there has to be real consequences if things go wrong. All novels require this kind of conflict to be successful, but mysteries most of all. They are plot-driven and the plot has to involve a crime. When you wait until two-thirds of the book has passed before you introduce the conflict (crime), you may just very well lose your reader. But if you also don’t give us a chance to follow a trail of clues in order to solve the mystery, we feel cheated.
So when should you introduce the crime? Most mystery authors will tell you to introduce the crime within the first chapter or two. Others will say almost immediately. While that’s not always necessary, you’d better at least do something to hook your reader right from the beginning.
I write paranormal mysteries and tend to start mine by introducing the victim (already dead) and then something out of the ordinary. In “Grave Doubts,” by the end of the second chapter, we have heard the voice of the dead woman (this is a paranormal mystery after all), seen the eerie image of a woman standing on a knoll above the grave, and are treated to the first of many bizarre behaviors by a hawk as it takes to the air and then dive bombs the coffin. In my second novel, "Mass Murder,” I begin with the cleaning man’s premonition that something bad is about to happen when he arrives late one night at the Catholic monastery to clean up after a conference. And then, of course, the premonition is revealed. The man finds the body of a dead woman hanging by her bra strap in the closet.
Unfortunately, too many authors begin their mysteries with benign conversations between two characters, only to amble on like that for several more chapters without anything really happening. Those are the books I will usually put down. On the other hand, if you kill someone on the first page and immediately begin leaving a trail of clues, I’m likely to keep going.
Secondly, some authors take great pains to carefully craft multiple murders and a string of clues to get the reader invested in the story, only to wrap it all up in a few of paragraphs at the end. As a reader, one moment I’m fully engaged in solving the crime, and in the next, it’s over. What? I hate that.
As a writing friend of mine, John Rakestraw, said recently, “Writing a novel is a process of discovery.” For mystery authors, I’d go so far as to say it’s a process of disguise and discovery. Your job as the author is to stage the crime and then hide the criminal. The book is all about introducing people who have opportunity and possible motive, and then plotting a series of real clues and red-herrings so that your protagonist can “discover” the truth and the criminal can eventually be revealed. Recently, I reached the end of a mystery only to have the protagonist told who did what and why, rather than discovering it for herself. What? I hate that.
Something else mystery authors need to consider (especially if the protagonist is an amateur sleuth) is not to make things too easy. Solving the crime has to pass the smell test. In other words, if the entire mystery hinges on the translation of a dead language, and then lo and behold, the protagonist’s long lost brother-in-law shows up and is proficient in that dead language, the story loses credibility. It’s too convenient. On the other hand, if the protagonist is a professor at a university and calls upon a friend in the language department to translate the document, it could work. It’s all in how you craft the story. I just finished a story in which no less than three characters that the protagonists hadn’t seen in sometime showed up with just the right skills necessary to solve the crime. It didn’t smell, it stunk.
Authors also need to be careful about evidence that just happens to materialize out of nowhere. Why is that bad? Because it reminds us that this is fiction and not real. Believe me, readers will recognize when something is too convenient and ding you for it.
Lastly, when a reader finishes a mystery, she should be able to go back and plot the path to discovery. If A is the crime and Z is the solution, what happened in between? In good mysteries, the path isn’t straight. That would make it too simple. There are detours and barriers along the way, so that the discovery is difficult, even convoluted, sometimes putting the solution itself at risk. As readers, we know the mystery will eventually be solved. But we “suspend our disbelief” for a brief time. We struggle right along with the protagonist as he strives mightily to solve the crime, all the time wondering if it will ever be solved at all. If the mystery has been well-crafted, we are held in that moment of suspended disbelief until just the right moment, when all becomes clear. And then we don’t hate it, we love it and leave the story satisfied.