If you’re writing a mystery, plenty can go wrong. Most of those things start with trying too hard. Here’s how to avoid the most common pitfalls in mystery writing.
Writing a mystery story isn’t easy, but writing a good mystery is always difficult. All you need to create a mystery story is an open-ended question at the beginning, a solution at the end, and a detective figure to lead us from Point A to Point B.
A good detective story has all that, but with the added benefit of involving the reader in the story. Good detective writers will allow readers to solve the mystery along with the detective, by leaving visible clues, allowing them into the detective’s mind, and giving them enough information to draw their own conclusions.
Unfortunately, a lot of mystery writers will trade this in for the much easier task of trying to bamboozle their readers into thinking they’re reading something that’s too intelligent for them. It’s always been easier to look smart than it is to be smart, and even decent writers can fall prey to worn-out tropes or cheap tricks. Here are two common side effects of trying too hard to look smart.
The Super-genius Detective
Every prominent detective franchise needs a genius at its core. Monk. Dr. House. Sherlock Holmes, in all of his incarnations. You get the idea. But writing a super-genius detective character isn’t as easy as it looks, and sometimes it’s simply not worth the trouble. The thing is, you can’t really write a character who’s smarter than you, especially not when the entire plot of the story hinges on them using their wits.
Unless you actually are a brilliant crime-solving genius (and no offense, but I’m going to assume that this isn’t the case) there are really only two ways to go about writing your detective character. The first is by breaking one of the cardinal rules of detective fiction and allowing your detective to cheat their way through the mystery. This is the kind of story where the detective rarely does any actual detective work.
Instead, they rely primarily on something more nebulous than actual logic or information; something that can’t really be contradicted and can conveniently tailor itself to the plot’s needs. This force comes under a lot of names, like psychic powers, intuition, dumb luck, or—quite often—just being a “genius.”
The second way to create your detective is to stick with what you know, or at least to be meticulous with your research. Be aware that writing a character who’s an actual genius will take a lot of effort, and most of that effort will come in the form of researching whatever you need your character to know.
Keep in mind that, unless your mystery consists entirely of riddles, experience and knowledge will trump raw logic when it comes to solving mysteries. So make it personal. Maybe they know a lot about ballistics because they were a soldier. Maybe they know everything about violins because their mother was in the orchestra. It could be anything, but details that pertain to a character’s backstory will stand out, and give the character more depth.
This will require more work from you, but it’ll allow you to involve the reader in the process instead of pulling wool over their eyes. And who knows, they might learn something new.
The Shocking Swerve
One of the first articles I ever wrote for this site was about the perils of plot twists. Plot twists are becoming an almost necessary trope these days for action movies or long dramas. But they’ve always been a staple of the mystery novel, and whether you can pull off a good plot twist can mean everything for the quality of your story.
The biggest mistake new authors make with plot twists is assuming that, since nobody saw it coming, it must be good. This makes sense if you’re trying to get a reaction out of your audience, but not otherwise. Best-case scenario, you have a genuinely shocking twist, which might upset or confuse some of your readers. Worst-case scenario, you’ve just derailed your story for the sake of looking smart. But adding baseless shock value actually does the opposite.
With mystery stories, you want the opposite to be true to some extent. If you want your readers to follow the mystery on their own, you have to give them a slight chance of figuring out the mystery themselves. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) make it blatant, but give them some hints.
A few hints scattered here and there in the background can allow you to justify the twist and gratify any reader sharp enough to pick up on them. You don’t have to emphasize them—generally, you don’t want to pay too much attention to anything your detective isn’t noticing—but make sure they’re there.
Bring your characters to life. Make their history and behavior integral to how they solve the mystery. And don’t forget to drop hints, not just for your detective, but for your readers.
The goal here is to create a story that can be re-read after learning the spoiler. You want readers to be able to read the story a second time and find lots of details they may not have recognized as important to the story the first time. If those details, in retrospect, make the twist ending seem obvious—congratulations, you’ve written a successful detective story.