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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Guide to Writing Great Mysteries, Part 1

This is the first in a series called Writing Great Mysteries. I'm going to go over the story structure of mysteries, revealing clues bit by bit, and a few other things. While this is about writing crime or mystery, it can actually apply to any genre. Often in other genres you have minor mysteries you want to reveal gradually, like who betrayed your main characters or what someone's surprise motivations are. In other words, these posts can be adapted to any mystery or slow-reveal in any genre you may happen to be writing. As such, I'll call my villains perps or killers, because that's what is usually the case in mystery/crime, but again you can adapt this to any antagonist.

For today, let's focus on the very general story structure.

In keeping  with my 9-Point Story Structure, its important to know your ending in order to craft your beginning. Especially with mystery and crime, it's important to know whodunit, because that's the whole point of this genre, and you must be able to work up to it.

So, the first thing to decide is what kind of  mystery story you want to write. When it comes to revealing your ultimate culprit, there are three major story types:

1) Those where the killer is a complete surprise to everyone
2) Those where the killer is one of a finite number of characters
3) Those where the audience knows the killer then entire time, but the other characters in the book do not.

1) Those where the killer is a complete surprise to everyone

A good example are serial killer novels where no one sees or knows anything about the killer (other than what evidence at crime scenes has shown) until he's caught or killed near the end. An example of this is the movie Seven. The cops knew some things about the killer's profile, but when he puts himself in the cops' hands near the end, that's the first we've seen of him. The point is, it's not someone we get to know beforehand that ends up being the killer.

Pros: of this kind of story: Very realistic. Most of the time, the cops aren't "buddies" with the killer and shocked when they finally catch him. He's just another scrum bag to be gotten off the streets. 

Cons: It's hard to do a "twist" ending or shocking reveal, because you haven't established any prior link to any of your main characters. One way to avoid this con is to give the killer an accomplice that IS linked to one of your main characters, but be careful with this technique. It can come off as a little to convenient at times, and is used often by crime/mystery writers.

2) Those where the killer is one of a finite number of characters

This is where you carefully guide the readers to the point where they know that either character A or B is the killer, but they have no idea which one. A great example of this is the recent horror film, My Bloody Valentine. It gets to the point where you're sure the killer is either our heroine's husband, or ex-boyfriend. You know you're in trouble where you're standing between two (extremely hot) guys. One is lunatic serial killer and the other genuinely loves you, but you really have no idea which is which. I thought my life was complicated!

An alternate version is where a character the audience has come to know and love ends up (shocker!) being the bad guy.

Pros: This will definitely keep the audience reading. If they get to the point where they know it's either A or B, they're going to be very invested at that point in finding out the answer.

Cons: You won't wow your audience with this format. There's no shock, no twist. This can even be very predictable. It can still be a great story if you can come up with great motives, but we'll talk more about those in later posts.

Those where the audience knows the killer then entire time, but the other characters in the book do not.

This is where you actually have parts of the story from the killer's/perp's POV. Don't get me wrong, you can do the killer's POV in formats 1 and 2, but in this format, you actually name him, so the audience knows who he is from the get-go. I can't think of a good, widely-known example of this, other than a few particular Criminal Minds episodes, where they do the whole episode from the un-sub's POV, but it's actually done quite often in mystery novels.

Pros: You  generally end up with a much more 3-D bad guy because you aren't hiding his or her identity. You can get in the villain's head, and even create suspense by having them follow the investigation and perhaps threaten your main characters who are involved in the investigation.

Cons: It does take away some of the mystery to know whodunit from the get-go. I actually don't prefer this format because one thing I love about mysteries is the not knowing, and being able to slowly unravel hints until the big reveal. This format does away with all of that.

So, which is best? It just depends on your story. Every one is different. Consider what you wish to accomplish, what you wish your readers to know and when, and which would best serve your story. 

Join me next week for Part 2: a more detailed look at crime/mystery story structure!

So, which mystery format do you prefer?


  1. I love a good mystery story every now and again. I never thought about those three techniques but now that I do, I think I've read books that employed each and I have to say, it really depends on the skill in which the author creates the story. Hmmm.. Good post. Going to have to think on this a bit now.

  2. I heard once that the perfect mystery has half the audience knowing the answer and the other half wondering. Just enough clues so it makes sense, but not enough to figure it out.