Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Boxcar Children, Encyclopedia Brown…chances are you may have started your career as a writer by becoming a lover of reading one of these series of books as a child. Though some of these old classics have been replaced by newer, snazzier characters and settings, there’s a common thread that seems to still continue to be strong for young readers: they can’t get enough of mystery and suspense.
Even for adult readers, there’s something irreplaceably thrilling about being given a puzzle to solve in the form of a mystery novel. Humans are curious by nature and it makes sense that a genre meant to spike our adrenaline and keep the pages turning would continue to thrive. So what makes a mystery good? And how can we make our mystery novels great?
It’s All About the Characters
You can’t have a great mystery without a stellar plot, obviously. But you can’t have a stellar plot without amazing characters, either. Ever notice how novels in the mystery genre tend to be in series? Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes, come to mind almost instantaneously when you say mystery detectives, for example.
It’s also no surprise that these characters are larger-than-life. They dominate the story with their quirks and their shrewdness. Creating a protagonist that is fully fleshed-out is key to this genre. But here’s the thing, it can’t just be your protagonist that shines in a truly great mystery novel. Your entire cast of characters, from supporting crew, and most especially your antagonist, need to be interesting, well-drawn, and strongly motivated. The more complex your antagonist is, the more interested readers will be to get to the end.
Setting is Your Ally
Trying to decide where you should have the mysterious events of your plot take place? This isn’t something you should take lightly. Setting can be crucial in making your mystery come truly alive. While the mention of mystery can conjure up images of foggy alleyways, desolate swamps, and creepy motels run by old women and their sons, a great mystery writer should try to stay away from these clichés.
Think about it for a moment, what’s more naturally intriguing: a murder that takes place in the middle of a crime-ridden city or a murder that takes place at a high profile wedding? The first is more pedestrian, a headline we might gloss over in the newspaper. The second makes us pause and go—”Huh. I wonder what happened?” Use your setting as a strength to introduce the unusual and contrast the possibility of danger in events and locations that readers wouldn’t normally expect.
Be an Information Tease
Mystery novels tend to have structural guidelines that help drive the character and plot: they start with death or murder, dropping the reader right into the action. They don’t reveal the solution until the climax. Chapters frequently end on cliff-hangers and writers offer clues and red-herrings along the way to have readers puzzling out the problem but remain misdirected.
Don’t be afraid, though, to lay all the cards on the table. This shouldn’t be done in a way that’s obvious but it in a manner that when the novel ends, the readers can go back through and say—“Oh! How did I not see that? It was right there!”
Think about the ending of The Sixth Sense, for example. (Spoiler alert: but also, it’s been over 20 years, so you’ve had time to watch it.) When it’s revealed at the end of the movie that Bruce Willis is a ghost, we get a montage of moments when this highly significant detail was made obvious to us throughout the movie. While I’m old enough to have seen the movie in the theater and had that one friend who guessed the end, I still remember the audible gasp when the audience realized the truth. We’d allowed ourselves to be duped—right before our very noses.
Ultimately, a great mystery writer won’t be afraid to give us all the details we need to figure out the end. They just know how to twist the way we see reality until we’ve become putty in their masterful hands.