Writing a mystery is very different from other kinds of fiction.
I’ve been writing for a long time. Since I was a kid I’ve been telling stories. Maybe that’s why I take it for granted sometimes. It feels very natural to step into a story and have a ‘feel’ for what needs to happen and when. I’ve spent years writing fantasy (with a bit of sci-fi on the side), so I guess starting this project had me underestimating just how different the genre of mystery was.
For a little context, after I announced last year that I would be self-publishing my first book, I began work on a near-future science fiction mystery novella that I still haven’t decided on a title for. Geek that I am, the science fiction part of it came rather naturally, but what I found to be a real challenge was the mystery.
I love a good mystery. It’s my favourite genre after fantasy and sci-fi, and I’ve been reading it since I was little. You would think that would make you well equipped to write it, but as it turns out, writing a good mystery is actually very difficult.
This is still the first full mystery story I’ve ever written, so my tips might seem a little green compared to those of an expert, but there were a few things I picked up on as I was writing that I wish I did earlier or things I had to pay more attention to.
So today, I figured I’d share with you those tips I’ve learned in writing my first mystery novel. And maybe they’ll save you the same headache!
Start at the End
Now, my meaning behind this is twofold. First, you want to start with the crime and figure out your 5Ws – what was done to whom, where, when and most importantly, why. And then work backwards. What was going on that allowed this to happen? What needed to change? Was it a crime of passion? If so, what circumstances made it possible? If it was premeditated, why did they choose the time and location they did? Why did they feel they had no other choice? The carrying out of the crime is the end result of a multitude of factors – what were they?
In a mystery story, it’s the crime that intrigues the reader. Maybe it’s an unusual victim or they leave an unusual clue or it’s in a place you don’t expect. Find the hook and then work backwards, asking yourself how it was possible.
And you want to work backwards again when you do the actual writing. Think about the end of the book – how is the culprit caught? What clues led to their capture and how are they discovered? How were they hidden from the reader and detective in the first place?
My first attempt at writing a mystery was half planned and half discovery writing to see where I ended up, but I was finding the crux of my novel – the crime – was getting away from me. My clues didn’t line up. I wasn’t sure what my detective needed to know to find out who the culprit was. I needed to understand the crime better and the events leading up to it. Rather than figure it out as I went along, I should’ve already decided what was going to happen.
Create a Timeline
This is something I am doing now that I wish I had done much earlier. Open up a document and list events in chronological order, making note of times, dates, weather and other pertinent information. Start right from the beginning – the planning or carrying out of the crime all the way to when it is solved.
Evidence changes with time, especially if you’re using a real-world setting. It might also help you if you get stuck. Considering the where and when of your suspects and witnesses is where every investigation starts, so it only makes sense for your novel to need the same.
Understand the Culprit’s Motive
When it gets down to it, the culprit is the trigger of the story – they committed the crime, and they are covering their tracks and misleading your detective(s) in order to get away with it. They might commit more crimes in the novel to obfuscate evidence. This is a character with the desperation and the means to commit a crime because no legal alternative was present. So they better have a good reason to go through all this trouble. Their reasons might affect the state of the crime scene or the murder weapon that was used. Their mental state might change as the investigation progresses. It might sound obvious, but an antagonist with a weak motivation is not going to make for a very satisfying story. It also makes it a lot harder to believe.
I think it is also important to consider the level of the crime against the motive. The two should equate – someone in dire financial straits might rob someone because they are desperate for money. Someone with a family to protect would be more cautious and less quick to act than someone who had nothing to lose. It’s important to consider how the motive and crime are connected.
This is something that you worry about more at the end of the writing process but I couldn’t help but get hung up on it while I was drafting. More than any other story, what you say to the reader matters. They have to be able to feel a sense of progression and understand the clues and the red herrings you are giving them. You have to write things in a way that seem obvious once looked at in another way. You have to have twists and a solution that the reader might not have expected. You can’t be too obvious, but you can’t be too dismissive either. You need to convey just the right amount of information and make the detective and the reader feel smart.
The only way to get that sort of objectivity is to distance yourself from the story or to have another set of eyes read through it to make sure they are having the reactions and picking up the clues you want them to. Your words are the reader’s eyes into the story and the way you paint that picture is going to matter.
A Detective with a Story
Your culprit is the reason the story exists, but it’s the detective that is driving it forward. They play the role of the ‘hero’ and are usually the character we follow most. Their purpose is to solve the crime and restore order and justice, which makes for a satisfying conclusion, but if the detective or sleuth exists only to solve the crime you put in front of them it also makes for a boring story.
There has to be a reason why they are a detective or sleuth in the first place. They have to have a reason to want the case solved. To see justice served is noble, but also kind of dull. The most interesting characters have a more personal stake. And it doesn’t mean they have to have a family member or friend involved in said crime. It might bring up bad memories or could involve a rivalry with another detective. Could be they want a promotion or a raise.
I got too caught up in the mystery of my own novel, and I neglected my main character. I couldn’t help but ask myself over and over again – why was she here? Why was she doing this? She was curious, of course, and she was good at what she did, but I needed to go deeper with her story. It made her more compelling and added some depth to her character and her investigation. It also really helps when you get stuck to understand what drives your main character beyond simply solving the case. It’s what pushes them forward when the investigation hits a wall.
And the same with any novel, there is always a B story. Sometimes its a love story or family drama. It rounds out the character and reveals more backstory or insight into who they are and why solving the crime matters to them. It might reveal their flaws or strengths. It might have something to do with the crime they’re trying to solve, but it’s also not necessary that it does. It makes for a more cohesive story, of course, if there is some connection to be drawn between the two. You don’t want your detective to be flat. Give them a good story to round them out.
Basically, don’t just treat them as the detective. Treat them as a character first, because that is what they are.
As with any writing experience, it’s best to be open to changes and new ideas. Maybe you have a much more interesting idea for a clue come to you in the middle of your draft. That’s great, but you can’t count on having those revelations. Even if you’re a planner and not a plotter, a little brainstorming goes a long way (or at least makes for an easier writing experience!).
Have you ever written a mystery novel? What are some tips or tricks that you used? What is your favourite thing about a good mystery story? Let me know in the comments!