Someone was trying to explain to me how complex mysteries were to write; she claimed “she wasn’t smart enough.”
I, of course, knew that she was, and that she’s be good at it…but of course couldn’t find a way to say that succinctly in person at the time.
There’s a French phrase, l’esprit d’escalier, that means “the spirit of the stairs.” It’s when you think of the perfect thing to say…too late.
So here’s my response: How to Write Mysteries, The Extremely Short Version.
- First, think crime, don’t think mystery. Not every writer needs to be Agatha Christie. A huge puzzle does not a mystery make. Crime is British term that covers what in the U.S. would be crime, mystery, caper, thriller, and suspense. You have a ton of options that don’t require intricate plots.
- Start with a crime OR a wrong done OR some kind of coincidence, trick, mischief or practical joke. Something that is not quite right.
- Agatha Christie starts with one assumption that readers will normally make, and overturns it. For example, “They couldn’t all have done it.” You don’t have to do it that way, but that’s how she did it.
- Have someone try to hide that one crime or trick, or try hide who did it. It doesn’t have to be the same person, the hider and the do-er.
- Then have someone notice the incident and try to find out what happened. It can take a while for the person to notice. Hundreds of years in some cases. It can even take most of the story before they do.
- You can tell the reader more of the truth or less. The less you tell the reader, the more it’s about the puzzle (as in a mystery). The more you tell the reader, the more it’s about the people involved and their motivations (as in suspense).
- In most fiction, you don’t just tell the reader what happened, but how to think about what happened. (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”) In a crime story, tell the reader pretty much everything as you would otherwise, but when that thing would give the solution to a puzzle away, don’t tell the reader how to interpret what you just said. Fair clues are always in plain sight. They just aren’t explained to the reader.
Here’s an example of a clue without context:
I went home for Christmas. The news announcer on the radio said, “Watch out for slippery roads, and anyone out on Highway 34 near Turner’s Corner should remember not to pick up any hitchhikers! The infamous Jodie Turner died tonight in 1995, hit by a semi driver who had drifted off to sleep, as she was trying to hitch her way home from college in Minnesota. Five vehicles have run off the road near Turner’s Corner since…all on this night, the twenty-second!”
And here’s what is really going on:
The narrator went home for Christmas. The radio announcer said that stuff, but the narrator wasn’t listening to it, because the narrator was hitchhiking. And dead. Because the twist of the story is that the narrator will turn out to be the ghost.
(I haven’t written that story or anything; it’s just a cheesy example for the sake of this post.)
And that’s pretty much it. End with some kind of resolution to the crime or whatever it was initially that caused the events of the story. Justice done, not done, or injustice repeated in an ongoing loop (as in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson). All have their place.
You can, of course, get really complicated about a mystery story (or any story in which you hold back information from the reader). But the essence is simply that you’re being completely open with the reader…you’re just explaining what you’re being open about!
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