Someone asked me how I write mysteries. Now that I’m writing them, it seems kind of like a “well, duh” question, although I recognize that they can seem intimidating from the outside, because I, too, was intimidated before I started writing them.
Mostly, mostly, you write a mystery like you write anything else, however you happen to write. It’s just that a mystery looks different from the outside than the inside. Mostly.
Mystery (not crime, suspense, etc., just mystery):
- There’s a character who wants to find out something. To me, this is the tricky part, because it often looks like mystery characters want revenge, or justice, or something like that, but no. The real effort in a mystery is to gain correct information, not to “bring justice” or anything vague like that. That’s why they call these whodunnits, not gotwhattheydeserveds.
- First, you set up the novel, identifying the main thing that needs to be found out, the person who’s going to do the finding, and the person who’s going to be wrong most of the time (the sidekick, if this isn’t the finder-outter themselves).
- The finder-outter tries to find out the information they need. They don’t find it out, or they find out the wrong information and believe it, or they find out the right information in a context that misleads them, etc.
- Bad assumptions drive mystery books. The plot twist of any mystery story is, “That one book where the finder-outter was spectacularly wrong about that one thing, until the end.”
- Clues do not drive mystery books. There are clues everywhere. As a writer, you are constantly telling the reader what really happened. They just happen not to notice, because the characters are so busy being thwarted and wrong.
- There are other tricks that help push through a book. They are essentially just handy ways to set up more bad assumptions–multiple suspects, questions about what time something happened, two suspects working together, thinking that two people are really one person (twins), that one person is really two people (disguises), hidden relationships, etc. In fact I’ve started with one bad assumption and written mystery stories based on just that. Random example: “I grew up thinking that I had a twin who died at birth. In fact I was the youngest member of triplets–one other of whom lived.”*
- One of my stumbling blocks has always been trying to make puzzles as difficult to solve as possible, because that’s what mysteries look like from the outside–and that’s what a lot of advice centers around, how to make a difficult mystery. But I’ve gotten better feedback by learning how to limit the number of bad assumptions (and suspects) to 2-3 main ones at a time. As soon as one bad assumption gets resolved, open up a new one. You can always go back to the earlier bad assumption and reveal that the resolution of the bad assumption was another bad assumption, muahahaha. But if you leave like ten bad assumptions hanging over a mystery at the same time (which in real life might be perfectly reasonable), readers’ brains will get tired. Too much information, too many questions. You want the reader to either a) just barely solve the mystery, or b) just barely miss solving the mystery. A complete ??? is as bad as it being too easy.
- In the end, you have backed the finder-outter into a corner. Either they know the information and can’t prove it, they don’t know the information at all, or they think they know the information and they’re wrong. Jot down at least 4 ways that the character might be able to get the correct information, definitively and finally. Toss out at least the first 3 (or have the sidekick announce them as “real” solutions, easily disproved). Write the climax based on idea 4 or whatever, and then–haha–go back through the book and put in all the loopholes that would make that ending possible.
- Wrap up by letting the character decide what to do about the information they have now (let the murderer go free or not? murder or manslaughter charges?). Then sum up what actually happened all over again (see my post on surprises), wrap up any loose threads, and state the character’s view of the world. In noirs this can be a very dark view indeed.
- At that point, Robert is indeed your mother’s brother.
If you write a mystery like this, the endings SUCK to write, but they work, even though you might have no idea what that ending is going to be when you start writing.
If you liked this post, please pick up a copy of How Smoke Got Out of the Chimneys, in which my Victorian orphan has to save a crew of chimneysweeps and a wealthy heiress from fates worse than death! (And not the one you’re thinking of, either.)
*We’ll call it Triangle Girl and make it about a band camp murder in high school and nobody will see it coming.