A quick word of caution to the aspiring mystery writer…
For its enduring popularity as a genre, mystery is a surprisingly tough genre to break into for new writers, and in some respects one of the hardest genres to write. This is in part due to the procedural know-how a writer must have to write convincingly about investigating crime. But it’s also because of how inherently predictable the mystery formula ultimately is and the challenge of keeping readers entertained, engaged, and surprised when at least one aspect of the outcome–the survival of the protagonist (when the book is in a series or written in the first person)–is almost a guaranteed given and the odds are pretty good that the bad guy(s) will be caught.
But anyone who loves mysteries knows how absorbing a good mystery can be despite all this. And from a writer’s standpoint, the better you understand the inherent challenges posed by the genre and the mistakes many writers make in connection to them, the better the odds of writing a book that can compete in this ever-popular but very competitive genre.
So I thought I’d look back at some of the dozens of mysteries I’ve worked on over the years with an eye to the most challenging aspects of mystery writing and some of the standards to keep in mind if you’re going to write a good one. The most daunting of these may be the vast amount of information you often need to learn and distill for readers on a wide array of topics.
Forget what you saw on CSI. Make sure you know how police work is really done!
Unless your day job happens to relate to law or some avenue of criminal justice, odds are you’ll to do a good deal of homework on crime scene processing, investigative procedure, surveillance techniques, suspect interrogation, the legal ins and outs of admissibility and conduct, and other aspects of day-to-day crime-solving and criminal justice. Just how much insiders’ knowledge you’ll need depends on what kind of mystery you’re writing, but generally the better trained your protagonist is, the more you’ll need to know about his or her work and how things are really done in that world. Given how knowledgeable hardcore mystery readers tend to be about how investigations really go, you run the risk of losing them if you don’t ace this requirement.
The same can be said to a certain extent for how crimes are committed and what the perpetrators need to know to pull their crimes off and have any kind of shot at getting away with it. It’s vital to be sure that the method of the crime is sufficiently plausible and that whatever clues you choose to seed the story with add up. Fortunately, there are lots of good books out there to help writers get a handle on all this.
Recommended reading for mystery writers
1. Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide for Writers (Howdunit) by Lee Lofland
2. Police Procedural: A Writer’s Guide to the Police and How They Work by Russell Bintliff
5. Howdunit Forensics by D.P. Lyle
6. Howdunit-The Book of Poisons by Serita Stevens and Anne Bannon
Books such as these can be very helpful and make for surprisingly interesting reading in their own right. But writing a convincing mystery takes more than direct experience, research, and crime-solving know-how; it also takes a good bit of finesse in bringing the background facts and information to the page, and in some cases a bit of restraint regarding what you leave out.
Remember the value of restraint when it comes to exposition. (Your readers will thank you for it!)
One issue we sometimes run into with writers who go deep into research on such matters is the understandable temptation to give readers too much detail on the particulars of what they’ve learned. Most mystery stories are best served by resisting the impulse to lecture readers on how things work or let dialogue ring falsely thanks to your characters explaining things to one another that they should darn well already know.
(For more insight on that topic, we invite you to check out how a real pro handles this in our blog post about Lee Child and the handling of exposition in mystery suspense.)
A few other craft tips for mystery writers
- Remember the best investigators–amateur or professional–usually have finely honed powers of observation and notice things many others would miss (body language, subtext in dialogue, cues about being dishonest or holding back). Make sure you don’t overlook this in the characterization of your protagonist.
- A good mystery rarely has a single unresolved plot element. While the crime under investigation will most likely be the focal point of your book, your story will be well served by creative subplots, which should raise stakes and add layers of interest.
- Beware the dangers of an overly linear plot. The straightforward chronicle of an investigation, even of a fascinating crime, does not usually make for a good plot because investigations are in and of themselves fairly predictable. Be conscious of the need for plot twists and unexpected developments. (And make sure they make sense.)
- Most mysteries are very dialogue-driven, and this means you’ll need to make sure your dialogue is as captivating as possible. Do you best to keep your dialogue lively, with plenty of tension and conflict. And don’t hesitate to use narrative summary to spare readers from the predictable and mundane.