I have always enjoyed mystery stories. My first published book in 2007 was about a detective (The Dragon Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Cats). I went on to write three more books in the series. Over the past twelve years, I have written a number of mysteries, involving a fair few detectives investigating a range of crimes from intergalactic thefts to exploding pianos.
When I visit schools, I sometimes run creative writing workshops on how to write mystery stories. Some of these include short interactive stories in which the audience is invited to solve the mystery. Others involve the whole class writing a story together.
During these sessions, I offer a range of tips on how to write a good mystery, although very few of these are original to me. As befits this genre, I stole them. But at least I stole then from the best. A few years ago I produced a number of shows for ITV, profiling our greatest crime writers. I interviewed Colin Dexter, PD James, Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Dick Francis, Lynda La Plante, Harlan Coben, Lee Child and countless other crime writing giants. I asked every one of them how they did it.
Here are 10 tips for Writing Mysteries
- Stories ask questions…. and provide answers. A short story may only involve one question, but longer ones will include more. Think of your favourite story and work out what questions are being asked. Why didn’t Harry die? What is Dust? How long can you survive in space without a space suit? In crime fiction, the question is usually staring you in the face. Whodunit? So, when you sit down to write your own, start with a question.
- In my books, everyone is a suspect. My characters have to justify their right to be in a story and if you want a part in my mystery, there had better be something mysterious about you. Doubt everyone, even those who claim to be above suspicion.
- Give everyone a secret. If everyone has something to hide then no one is going to tell the whole truth. This will keep your readers on their toes.
- Stories are puzzles. Crime fiction is the most popular genre of fiction for one reason: people like puzzles. Perhaps you want to plan your puzzle first, or maybe you prefer to make it up as you go along, but your story needs a problem and a solution.
- Writing is like magic. No, I am not talking about the transformative power of literature. We are talking stage magic here. When I visit schools I sometimes do a card trick to illustrate how misdirection is a vital part of magic and writing. The best mysteries will lead you in one direction then another, before finally pulling away the cloth and revealing a third solution, like a rabbit from hat.
- That doesn’t mean cheat. An author’s job is to tease the reader, like a cat with a mouse, but you have to stick to the rules of your world otherwise your readers will feel betrayed.
- Redrafting will help. Many writers, young and old consider editing to be chore but this is where you can sew in all the little clues that will make your denouement all the more satisfying.
- Hide clues with humour. This is my favourite technique. If a character can say something significant but hide it in a joke then you stand a better chance of slipping the vital clue right under your reader’s nose.
- Detectives are your best friends. Authors love detectives because they help move the plot along. They ask questions. Their job is to solve the mystery. Employ the right detective and they will do your job for you.
- Have clear goals. I often get feedback from editors on my early drafts along the lines of: What are they trying to achieve here? What is the goal? Sometimes it isn’t clear when you start writing but it had better be as clear as crystal by the time it is finished.
The solutions, ideas and stories generated in the sessions I do, never cease to amaze me. They are frequently funny, profound, ingenious, moving, strange, scary, charming and mysterious. Primary children have effortless access to their imaginations in a way that eludes most adults. What they need is guidance on how to turn all that raw material into something worth reading and the only way to do that is to get writing.
Happy Whodunit-ing everyone.
You can find out more about me, my books and my school visits on my website garethwrites.co.uk. And you can follow my brand new interactive Blue Peter mystery, The Mystery of the Missing Page on the CBBC website, including appearances from me as my scat-rapping ukulele strumming alter ego, Fictional Detective.