Who doesn't love a good mystery? There's tension and suspense, the not-knowing, and of course, trying to figure out who the culprit is before the end. There's a reason there are so many popular mystery books and TV shows: everyone loves the genre.
But writing a good mystery is easier said than done. You have to set it up, know what to reveal and what to hold back, and decide who's going to be in charge of solving the case. With so many variables, it's no mystery this is a difficult genre to crack. Luckily, we have some clues on how to write the best mystery you can!
Framing Your Mystery
Framing your mystery is probably the first step you're going to take when you start writing. Whether you're a plotter or a pantser, you need to know how you're going to present the mystery, what the clues are going to be and when they'll be revealed, who doesn't want the mystery solved, and who is going to solve it.
Knowing these things will make the writing process much easier because you'll know where you're going. Your characters may still lead you wherever they want to go (as they do), but you'll have the basics figured out. This ensures you're not sending Ms. Scarlet into the library for no reason or you'll already know that Watson is going to find the clue that makes all the pieces come together.
This can happen during the outlining process or can be just a quick chart.
It's very hard to have a mystery without a least a little bit of tension or suspense. Even if you're writing a middle-grade mystery where a group of kids is trying to figure out who cheated on the big test, there's going to be some tension and suspense.
Tension can be created just about anywhere throughout your mystery but the moment before the characters discover what happened is a prime place for tension. Especially if there's a villain trying to stop them from finding that last clue. The tension needs to be amped up!
Is your protagonist going to make it? Will the murderer, thief, or villain be caught? Will justice prevail?!?!?! I can feel the suspense building already!
What to Hold Back and What to Show
This is possibly the most difficult part of writing a mystery. What are you going to hold back from the reader and what are you going to show them? Or when are you going to reveal something you held back before?
Waiting until the very end to reveal everything can lead a reader to be confused or frustrated. Giving them a few breadcrumbs will keep them satisfied and can still have them WTF-ing at the end when you finally reveal all.
Some of my favorite mysteries give the reader what we think is the answer to the mystery, only to find out we've been led astray and Hercule Poirot is actually the murderer!! Ok, that doesn't happen, but you get the idea.
Deciding what you're going to show, what you'll hold back, and how it will affect how the reader sees the story may be one of the most difficult parts. And it's probably so difficult because we know how important those decisions are. #nopressure
Foreshadowing is another important element in a good mystery. What are you going to show that will later mean so much more once the mystery is solved? Will a piece of dialogue foreshadow what happens to one of your characters? Or will an object from Act I come to mean everything in Act III.
Foreshadowing is like dropping hints for the reader about what's going to happen later in the story. Whether they catch them or not depends on how much emphasis you put on them.
Foreshadowing can be done in a number of different ways. It can be in a flashback, a prophecy of some sort, an object or a clue, or the always fun red herring.
Foreshadowing gives your story more layers and depth. If your story is feeling flat or one-note, try finding a place where you can add some foreshadowing. Maybe your main character reveals something from their past that will be useful later? Maybe there's a pen on a desk that will later be used as a weapon? It's up to you!
What do you use to make your mysteries more interesting and suspenseful to your reader? Let us know in the comments below!
About the Author: Sarah Perchikoff is a writer and blogger, and the Director of Brand for the Writer's Workout. She also writes for Culturess, Netflix Life, and Guilty Eats. When she's not writing, she loves to read, watch way too much TV, and further her addiction to Sour Patch Kids and french fries. You can connect with her on Twitter: @sperchikoff