Genre Study: Mystery – Whodunit, Twists, Turns, and #makingitwork

Mystery | Writing good mysteries | Write a mystery |

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t love a good mystery? If the popularity of BBC’s Sherlock is any indication, probably not.

Who can’t love the intrigue, the scandals, the flashy characters, and diabolical plots that form these masterpieces? Almost everyone has read about the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, or the Hardy Boys. Even if you don’t write mysteries, a good whodunit can be enjoyed by all.

And it’s been AGES since I’ve written a Genre Study post…so far we’ve talked about historical fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi. So today, we’re delving into mysteries! Like usual, we’ll first discuss the challenges of writing a good mystery and then cover a few tips and tricks for successful, beloved thrillers.

Challenges of Writing Mysteries

Keep It Simple, Stupid

One of the biggest giveaways to a less-than-stellar mystery is an overly complicated story. If your reader finishes your novel with more questions than answers or is unsure if the mystery is really resolved then you have some work to do.

Mysteries are, of course, supposed to get us questioning everything we know about the story’s characters, plot, and setting. There should be lots of questions, and your reader should feel a bit uncertain as they continue reading. But if you end up making things too complicated you risk losing your readers.

So how do you keep your readers avidly reading without losing them in the necessary twists and turns?

Keep the mysterious act simple: a murder, a theft, etc. Build out the complexity in your characters, their motives, the location, and the dialogue. If your reader is trying both to understand the overcomplicated way someone committed murder and also navigate the complicated relationships and motivations of the subjects…well…you won’t really have a reader anymore.

Get Them Second Guessing

Part of the thrill of mysteries is their ability to make us second guess ourselves. Are we right? Are we wrong? Could we solve the mystery ourselves? What if the criminal goes free? Why did they do it? Was it jealousy, anger, or love?

Draw out incorrect solutions to your mystery. Let your reader be pulled in the wrong direction for a time. This second-guessing will make your solution even more surprising and poignant.

You also don’t want to leave your readers hanging by pulling a solution out of thin air. Veil the clues in amongst distractions to throw your readers off the trace, and so they can look back and see the answer was there all along.

Keep Backstories Clear and Deep

Give your mystery solver (whether they’re a detective, private investigator, or some meddling kids a-la the Scooby-Doo gang) a clear, deep backstory. Any detective has their reasoning for doing what they do. The motivations of your mystery solver can add to the story’s depth by creating not only a backstory for your mystery solver, but by adding another dimension to your mystery.

Just don’t recreate Sherlock Holmes. He’s already been recreated enough.

The backstory of your criminal should also be fairly deep. The reader should slowly learn more and more both about your mystery solver and your crime committer as they read through, with each character’s’ motivations, background, and thoughts becoming crystal-clear by the end of the story.

Use Original Supporting Characters

Give yourself a cast of supporting characters that don’t fit stereotypes. The more typical they are, the more predictable your mystery will be.

Strive to provide deep backstories for each of your supporting characters as well. Every suspect needs not only a motivation for potentially committing the crime, but it also helps for them to have enough of a backstory for the reader to sympathize or empathize with them.

Tips and Tricks for Writing Mysteries

Pick a curious and unusual location for a typical mystery or a typical location for a curious and unusual mystery. This goes back to keeping things simple. Allow the wonder and confusion to stem from one part or the other of your story. Too much can create confusion in your reader.

Limit yourself to five or fewer suspects. Not only does this make your story more tight and concise, it makes it easier for your reader to keep track of the clues and hints.

Create subtle connections to each character to create cohesion. Your supporting characters are suspects for a reason. Make each one connect to each other in subtle ways. This will tie your story together in ways that will leave your reader reeling…in a good way.

It all comes down to this: The depth of your mystery will come either from your characters or from the intricacy of your crime. Stick to one or the other and you’ll have a sure fire hit.


Alexis Truitt

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