Five Quick Tips for Writing Better Mysteries
1. Start your story as close to the crime as possible.
There is nothing like a body dropping to get a reader’s attention. This is what I call the shoot-first-and-answer-questions-later policy. Background and establishing character relationships can happen in later chapters. Most good novels pose a question in the early chapters of the book that carries through the whole book, for mysteries the question that is asked is who-dun-it. Assuming that the crime is a murder, that question cannot be asked until someone dies.
If the needs of the story make it impossible to start with the crime, there should be at least the threat of a crime or the early stages of someone setting up a crime in the first chapter. My first Bargain Hunter mystery Death of a Garage Sale Newbie begins with a woman leaving a cryptic message on her friend’s answering machine where she says she has discovered something dangerous from the past and that she is afraid. In later chapters, the woman who made the phone call disappears and is ultimately found murdered.
2. To create false suspects, give every important character a secret.
Part of writing a good mystery involves people doing suspicious things even if they didn’t commit the murder. A secret can be something as small as a character who has a crush on someone or has been writing a novel on company time. Or the secret can be something bigger like a character who doesn’t want people to know they have done time in prison or is having an affair. Characters who have something to hide will do things that make them appear to be guilty thus creating the red herrings that a good mystery usually has.
3. Plot twists often rise out the greater crime and the lesser crime.
As with all good novels, a twist at the end of a mystery makes for good story structure. Usually, a plot thread leads the reader to believe that a certain character is guilty. At the end of the book, that character may even be arrested. The twist comes when a different character turns out to be the culprit. In order to play fair with the reader, it may be that the character first presumed to be the guilty party has been committing a lesser crime like embezzling or maybe they have been helping or covering for the real murderer, anything that makes them look guilty.
The important thing in creating the twist is to lay the ground work so that when the real killer is caught, the reader hits their forehead with the heel of their hand and says, “I should have seen that.” One of the tricks I use in creating the plot twist is to write the rough draft of the novel as though Suspect A is guilty. In the rewrite, I will look back through to see which other character had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime, or with some revision could have had the means, motive and opportunity. In the rewrite, that Suspect B becomes the guilty party.
4. Remember the rule of three.
Mystery readers are used to picking up on buried clues, but they don’t like to feel like something was so buried there was no way they could have noticed it. At the same time, flashing neon signs that says This is a Clue is an insult to the reader’s intelligence. If a clue is going to become the thing that breaks the case or moves the mystery forward significantly, bring it up in the story at least three times, preferably in different ways, maybe once in dialogue and another time through description. The best clues are the ones that seem innocent and benign at the time and don’t take on significance until other parts of the mystery fall into place.
5. A sleuth who has a personal stake in solving the crime makes for a more compelling story.
While police detectives and private investigators are motivated to solve a crime because their paycheck depends on it, giving a sleuth a stronger reason to find the murderer creates more story tension. When a female detective is called in to investigate a murder in a girl’s dorm, you have created an interesting premise. When the detective’s sister was recently the victim of an assault in that same dorm, you have created a compelling premise.
For an amateur sleuth, having a personal stake is almost a necessity. In my first Bargain Hunters mystery, the personal stake for the head Bargain Hunter Ginger was that her best friend is murdered and the police are willing to write it off as an accident. In book two in that series, Death of a Six Foot Teddy Bear, Ginger is a suspect in the crime. In Sue Grafton’s T is for Trespass find P.I. Kinsey Millhone find herself solving an identity theft case because her neighbor is one of the affected victims.
Death of a Six-foot Teddy Bear
Ginger and her husband, Earl, are in for a wild ride in Calamity, Nevada, along with the other BHN (Bargain Hunters Network) ladies--college student Kindra, mother-of-four Suzanne, and sassy senior Arleta. They came to town for the Inventors Expo and some outlet shopping, but instead they endure lost luggage, broken air conditioning, and a long line of people angry at hotel owner Dustin Clydell. With the Inventors Expo and the Squirrel Lovers convention both in town, the Wind-Up Hotel has somehow overbooked.
Before the night is over, a man in a teddy bear costume is found dead, the Inventors Expo is canceled. . .and the authorities want to talk to one of the BHN ladies!
Read a review of Death of a Six-foot Teddy Bear on Novel Reviews.