Who done it? Mysteries revolve around suspense, withheld information, and great characters. It’s a delicate balance, but the principles are easier to understand – and master – than many assume.
Build a Puzzle
Think of your mystery novel as a jigsaw puzzle. Little clues, stray bits of conversations, and even character timing and placement should suggest certain outcomes and revelations. Eventually, at the end, your readers will have the full picture, but if they see the whole picture too early in the story, they’ll lose interest and walk away from the puzzle.
Unlike a jigsaw, your clues must build several unfinished pictures on top of the true, final image. Mislead curious readers, and have fun while you do it. This game of misdirection lets you play with and examine tropes like no other genre. It also lets you create multiple potential stories in a single novel. You veil the truth even as you build it. For the ultimate lesson in unreliable narrators and the subjectivity of truth, check out “In a Grove” by Akutagawa. It’s a murder mystery unlike anything you’ve read before.
Remember the Greats – Your Characters
We harp on this a lot, but it’s always true: characters matter, no matter how cool your plot twist is. In noir films, the characters always sit under a bright light in a dark room, right? They get highlighted, because they’re important. Mysteries are always human, even if it’s about humans hunting Bigfoot.
Murder mysteries make your characters important in a whole new way. Individual character motives always drive a story, but murder mysteries revolve around people’s deepest hatreds, fears, and goals. What drives people to kill? How nuanced are those feelings? Why might an investigator not want to discover the truth? Who might want to cover for the killer? What characters benefit from the truth coming out? Most importantly, in this jumbled mess of motivations, who are the readers cheering for, and do they even understand who that person really is until the very end?
Make Your Reader the Detective
Even if you tell your story from multiple points of view and give the reader insights the primary investigator doesn’t have, keep some details to yourself. Holding the cards close to your chest literally creates the mystery in your story. Always hold something back. If you struggle with this, just remember that writing a good mystery is kind of like annoying your sibling. Hold the thing they want just out of their reach. It works every time.
Drop big clues at innocuous times. Don’t signal them. Give your reader no extra hints. Make them do the work. Most people who read mysteries want to feel like they’re making a big discovery, and if they think they have your story figured out, but they aren’t entirely sure, they’ll charge toward the end of the book with gusto.
Mysteries aren’t just fun; they’re a challenge. Give your reader enough puzzle pieces to construct conflicting stories, but always hold the most important piece out of reach until the very, very end. With great characters and some unreliable testimony, you’ll have a great mystery on your hands.