It’s a cliché sentiment but it’s true: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love mysteries. Although classics and memoirs take up the majority of my reading time now, mysteries dominate my television preferences—in fact, I don’t think I watch much of anything except crime dramas (of both the fictional and non-fictional varieties). There’s something so compelling about a narrative that invites the audience to gather clues and piece together puzzles along with the characters, and the stress and tension caused by the plot can do amazing things for character development if the writers take full advantage of the conflict. Better yet, the elements of a mystery can be incorporated into and enhance any other genre—some of my favorite classics (The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, True Grit) involve some form of investigation, search, or journey to solve a crime. And, perhaps most of all, the general characteristics of a mystery arrange the plot in such a way as to allow for compelling thematic exploration: what is justice? Are some secrets better off kept hidden? What is truly right and wrong, and how do we uphold what’s right? What drives people to commit horrible acts against others or themselves?
It should be no surprise, then, that my current WIP (work-in-progress) is a mystery—a murder mystery, in fact. But my love of mysteries didn’t mean that it was or is easy to craft one of my own. The process of outlining felt like equal parts of bliss and confusion, each revelation or new connection bringing along a new problem to fix or hole to fill. Not only do you have to know all the important details of the crime or incident, but you have to figure out what parts to hide from the audience and characters, what new information to reveal and when to reveal it, and how to incorporate logical and successful redirection (“red herrings”) along the way. You also have to make sure not to make anything too obvious or too easy to figure out, or else the audience will guess the “answers” too quickly or zone out because it’s predictable. All writing is a mental workout but, of the genres I’ve tried, mysteries are the most intense.
In spite of its strenuousness, though, I feel confident in how my novel is playing out on the page. I make tweaks as I draft and I know I’ll need to make more once I reach the editing stage, but it’s nothing compared to how overwhelming this project was when I first began it. I attribute such success (if you can call it that) to learning a few basic techniques that make plotting a mystery much more successful and manageable, even if you’re not a mystery aficionado (yet), as I am not.
Start with and always remember the bones
I know this sounds obvious, but the extensive detail work that goes into a mystery makes it so easy to lose sight of the core information that you need to lay as the foundation of the plot—which makes it that much easier for your brain to shut down and, essentially, procrastinate. Completing a complex project always begins with small steps that build into larger ones. This is true of all writing, not just mysteries! So before I ever reached the point of outlining the actual plot of my WIP, I made simple lists/notes/charts of:
- The crime/incident
- Where the crime/incident happened
- Who the crime/incident happened to
- Who committed the crime/incident
- How the crime/incident was committed
- Why the crime/incident was committed
All of the important details for more complex planning—what happened right before and right after the crime, what evidence is left behind or not left behind, where the perpetrators came from and where they go afterwards, how long it takes for someone else to discover what happened, etc.—can be added onto these main points. As you go along, the main points may also shift as you discover inconsistencies or consequences that ruin other important plot points. But having a basic list of the “facts” of the case makes it very easy to reference when you work out plot holes, determine how the characters investigating the incident go about their inquiry, incorporate redirects/red herrings, and actually write.
Withhold as much information as possible
There can’t be a mystery without questions—lots of them. The tricky part is a) determining the starting information and b) determining how the rest of the information is discovered. When figuring out the starting information—essentially, crime scene evidence—always try to obscure as much of the truth as you can or make it difficult to deal with the information that is present. You want to set up a huge obstacle for the main characters to surmount over the course of the rest of the story. A good way to figure out these “road blocks” is to consider a) what would make it easy to catch the criminal/perpetrator or solve the puzzle and b) think about the logical conclusions that would be made with the information present, then take away that information, obscure it with information that can be easily interpreted different ways, or set up extra hoops for characters to jump through in order to process, use, or clarify the information. Find ways to make even the easily accessed information difficult. For example, let’s say that an eye-witness saw who committed the crime. Having that person tell the main characters such important information might make the rest of the mystery too easy—so give the eye-witness a reason not to speak with the main characters, suggest unreliability of the eye-witness account due to the person’s temperament or background, insert diverting information for the person to see so that their testimony isn’t completely accurate, come up with another eye-witness who gives a conflicting account, have something happen to the eye-witness so that they’re unavailable—you get the idea. Just like an action plot requires the hero to overcome smaller difficulties before they take on the villain, a mystery requires the main characters to sift through misinformation and confusion to find the truth. Don’t make their job too easy!
Cross-reference other story elements
It’s easy to hone in on the “bones” of the mystery and forget to check its logic against characterization, worldbuilding, themes, and other plot points or subplots. For me, this is a huge place where the latter portions of the investigation ran into unexpected problems. To use an example from my WIP, a very specific interpretation of evidence needed to occur with my protagonist, not only so they believed a certain way but that the audience believed a certain way. The problem was that she didn’t want to believe it—so there was a logical gap between her own view of the mystery and where I needed it to go to make the plot and themes work. That resulted in several chapters devoted to her internal struggle to accept the truth and other characters or events slowly dropping “evidence” to support the change. What’s interesting is that I didn’t realize it would be a problem until I considered characterization. Similar instances have also happened with worldbuilding, where the main details of the crime no longer made sense in light of social structure or technology. It’s so important for the mystery to work in harmony with everything else so that it not only has its own internal logic but its own synergetic logic. Consider how characters would interpret the evidence, and if their interpretations would conflict; consider how the setting or culture affects the logistics of a crime or the beliefs about what is justified and unjustified with crime or solving crimes; consider what the course of the investigation or its conclusion says about the story’s main themes. This is the part of writing a mystery that becomes extra complex, but take enough time to really think through how the story elements work together and the mystery will be all the better for it.
Check for (too many) clichés, predictability, and stereotypes
Another obvious point, but important nevertheless. Clichés, to some extent, are unavoidable—there are so many mystery novels and shows and movies that all “grand plot twists” have been done before at some point. But there’s a difference between incorporating one or several mystery tropes and leaving them underdeveloped or unincorporated to where they’re too obvious to the audience. You can absolutely write a murder mystery where the butler did it, or a rich man who owns a mansion is murder in the middle of the night, or a small quirky town has a surprisingly high crime rate —but add other elements alongside that, like an unexpected personality type for the butler, an less-used motive, an intriguing setting, another mystery intertwining with the murder, a poignant commentary about a theme—so that, even if or when the audience realizes the age-old trope, they won’t care because the story is good.
A similar point applies to stereotypes. Certain ones are overdone or subtly offensive and are best to be avoided, but you may still be drawn to writing the socially inept and calculating Sherlock Holmes knock-off, or the snarky street urchin who befriends the detective, or the grumpy old woman who lives in the dilapidated house on the hill. How do you make those stereotypes interesting while still using them? The same way you combat clichés—add something that gives nuance to those “unoriginal” (to use the term) ideas. Combine genres to create a unique setting, introduce other characters who aren’t so stereotypical and thus interact with your “trope-y” character in unexpected ways, or give more motive or humanity to a character type who is usually left shallow or without more depth. It’s easy to fall into repeating patterns with story elements, but you don’t have to completely ignore your own likes or dislikes either. In other words, the goal isn’t to make your mystery completely original, but to write it well. You can make anything (barring things that are morally wrong) work for a mystery if you work to do it justice.
As I said, I’m not a mystery aficionado, at least when it comes to writing them. But I’m learning along the way as I try to become one, and these four tips have helped me a lot as I plot, outline, write, and—I assume—edit. In a way, they’re how I approach all elements of writing: start with what you know and build from there, tweaking as you go so everything is logical and nuanced. It may take a while, as all writing does, but it works.