Being a Better Writer: Some Tips for Writing Mysteries

What a weekend. I don’t know about you guys, but I finally got my hands on a copy of Halo 5: Guardians and played through it. The short? It’s a good thing the multiplayer is so good (and I do mean good) because the campaign and story are flat-out awful. And I do mean awful. The shooting’s fun, and the environments are neat … but the story is a hackneyed, jumbled, poorly thrown-together mess, and the dialogue … oh the dialogue …

Look, Halo has never been pushing for awards for great writing, I get that. But the first three games at least put together a fun, grand story that had some great moments. Guardians, on the other hand … Well, lets just say that there are a few scenes that couldn’t bemore poorly written. No joke: if I ever teach a class on creative writing or fiction writing, I’m using one of the cutscenes from Halo 5 as an example of what not to do, because it’s just that bad.

So yes, great gunplay, dialogue and writing so bad it made me cringe. Everything you heard about Guardian‘s poor story is absolutely true. In fact, it might be truer than you expected. If they handed out razzies for poor writing in games (and maybe they do, I don’t know), I’d be nominating Halo 5 this year.

Right. To business. Mysterious tips!

No actually, that’d be a little less than useful, don’t you think? No, today’s topic comes by request, and it’s tips for writing a good mystery. Now, I’ll preface this right out by saying that what I’m writing here are simply tips. They’re little bits of advice that may help you with writing your own mystery or figuring out some part of your plot. They are by no means going to be a full list of everything under the sun when it comes to mystery. More just a few bits of general advice that may help you elevate your story from “Okay” to “Better than okay” by calling attention to specific points or topics. Mysteries are big, complicated mechanisms, as are most stories, and so there are a lot of instances where the advice I’m about to give may not be applicable, because you’ve done something clever I—and even others—haven’t considered.

Right, that said, let’s get down to business!

Know What Kind of Mystery You’re Writing

This might seem like a no-brainer … but then again, I expect for some of you this might come as a surprise, because I’m not speaking about the type of crime being committed in your story (if there even is one). No, what I’m talking about here is the type of mystery story that you’re going to tell: open or closed and concealed or revealed?

Some of you might have heard of that first pair before. Basically, calling something an open or a closed mystery tells the reader exactly what kind of story the mystery is going to be. In a closed mystery, the reader is given a limited perspective of the mystery—usually one associated with the character’s viewpoints. In this setting, the reader will know as little about what’s going on as the characters and will need to piece things together as they go along. Sort of like a “whodunit” mystery, in which the book starts with the murder of a cast member and the reader spends the rest of the novel trying to find out who the murderer was alongside the characters. A closed mystery closes off the reader’s viewpoint as to be blind to the who and how of the crime.

An open mystery, on the other hand, throws the reader more material. It may give the reader a shot of the murder or crime as it takes place, or even tell the reader the identity of the perpetrator. The trick here is that the reader may know what’s going on, but the characters still do not, and the enjoyment of the story comes from the reader watching them figure it out or knowing exactly what’s going on while the characters are still trying to solve things, or even the admiration of the complex methodology the crime has utilized in order to be committed (for example: an open mystery could be a case in which the perpetrator has already pled guilty … but the characters are trying to work out how the perpetrator carried out the crime).

Additionally there are two other types to consider when looking at your mystery. I’ve heard these also called “closed” and “open,” but I tend to think of them as “concealed” or “revealed.”

See, in a mystery, if your characters are endeavoring as to actively solve the case, they’re going to find clues of some kind. Fingerprints, phrases … whatever a clue happens to be, they’re going to find them, even if they don’t notice them. What you’re going to have to decide is whether or not the reader is given that chance.

Confused? Let me use an example from popular television. Ever seen the show Psych? If you haven’t, consider it recommended. It’s a comedy/mystery show about a very observant slacker who goes into business as a “psychic” detective when he realizes that most people are more willing to believe he’s a psychic than just crazy super observant, and helps solve crimes for the local police department. Mystery—and lots of laughs—ensue.

Anyway, one of the reasons I started watching Psych in the first place was that their show revealed all the clues it gave. If the main character saw a mark on the floor, the show made sure you got a clear look at it. If there was a handprint on the wall, you got a clear look at it. The show made sure that every shot was framed so that you could see the relevant clue, a character acting cagey … whatever a clue was the characters may have (or did) notice, the director(s?) of the show made sure that you, the viewer, saw it as well … even if they didn’t draw attention to it.

If this sounds tricky to juggle, yes it was. Revealing all the facets of the case made it completely possible for the viewer to solve the mystery even before the characters did, since they were given all the same clues that the characters were. And later, the show’s creators got tired of that juggling. Later in its life, Psych switched from revealed mysteries to concealed mysteries, where the characters would be shown a clue … but not the audience (for example, something that the main character would see in a suspect’s hand would actually not be visible from the camera perspective and invisible to the viewer). Thus the characters could stumble along with their case and the viewer be kept in suspense because there was no way for the viewer to figure out the perpetrator, even if it was really obvious.

If that last bit about it being obvious makes it sound like concealing clues is a little cheap, well, that happens to be because in my personal opinion it is. Nevertheless, there are plenty of mysteries that do this. They have a character look down and find a clue that reveals the identity of the villain … but rather than let the reader know what it is, thus allowing them to figure things out, the author conceals each and every clue (or a good portion of them) as to keep the reader in the dark. But this tactic does make for easier mystery writing, as you’re free to make a slightly less perplexing case and not worry about the reader figuring things out too early.

Each choice comes with pros and cons, and combining them in one way or another may suite your story and your writing more or less. For example, choosing to write a closed, revealed mystery means that you’re going to need to work hard to make sure that your mystery is a good one that is hard to decipher, while a closed, concealed mystery gives you a bit more leeway with your plot, as you’re going to be keeping some or most of the clues from the reader. Meanwhile, an open, concealed or revealed mystery is going to take a different amount of planning to compensate for.

Regardless, you should make sure that you know which type of mystery you want to write before you sit down to put words to page. Are you going to let your reader know who committed the crime right away, or will you keep them as blind as the characters (open or closed)? Are you going to let them see each clue as the characters do, or are you going to keep them from seeing them (revealed or concealed)? Each direction you choose is going to influence not just the writing of your story, but even the audience that it appeals to (for instance, I can’t stand concealed mysteries, and will not read a book if I know up front that the author is going to be keeping information from me but not the characters just so I don’t “spoil” the reveal at the end by figuring it out).

Work Out Your Crime

A lot of authors or advice-givers might consider calling this “working backwards from the end” to make sure everything adds up … but I don’t. In fact, while I think you should have the end in mind and work backwards a little to at least make sure all the pieces fit, simply doing so does not make a good crime.

No, what I’m talking about here is actually looking at the crime and trying to make sense of it. One scene that comes to my mind as I think of this comes from a comic (it may have been Sluggy Freelance, but my memory is fuzzy) in which the characters solve the crime and catch the perpetrator, only to, as the criminal is sitting there tied up, mock the criminal for his/her poor choices, pointing out that for what they spent on equipment to fund their heist, they could have just bought the very thing they were trying to steal.

The point? The best crimes for a mystery can be the smart ones. If you want to lay out a complex, long-range mystery, sit and think on it for a while. Ask yourself how you would carry it out, then look at all the options available to you for carrying out said crime. Look at all the different angles and various methods one could use to carry out the criminal act you’re writing about, and then determine which one will work and why.

Along the way, don’t forget that your perpetrator is a character, and that everything about the crime needs to come through their lens (be they an individual, a group, whatever). A crime does not have to be perfect, but rather has to make sense to your perpetrator. If they think something’s a good idea, even if it’s not, then maybe you should have them act on it.

Again, I’m simplifying what is actually a large and quite complicated topic, but the core of the message is that rather than simply sitting down and thinking “I will write a murder mystery that takes place in a lodge,” go a little deeper and think about all the ways that murder could go down. Look at the characters involved: What tools would they use? What mistakes would they make? What path to their objective would they choose?

Questions like these are part of what’s kept Shadow of an Empire‘s development and brainstorming so ongoing (granted, there’s a lot of worldbuilding and creation going into things as well, so there’s a lot of ground to cover). Part of the core of Shadow is a mystery (minor spoilers) concerning what the antagonist is actually up to, since the main character quickly beings to question the purported motives as they don’t quite make sense. Figuring out how to hide a crime within a crime, balancing all the actions the antagonist takes so that they make sense and work … it’s been a bit of a fun headache making sure all the bits and pieces come together.

But the payoff is that Shadow of an Empire now has a mystery that (I hope) will make sense to the reader and won’t break down when looked at from a variety of different angles.

Thought processes like these are why there are so many satirical takes on criminal capers, comedies where a character points out the obvious flaws in a villain’s plan: Because there are plenty of mysteries where we can sit back and think ‘Wait a minute. Why on Earth would they do that? That doesn’t even make sense. They could have just done this.”

Work out your crime. Come at it from different angles. Look at weaknesses and flaws (this may also help you find clues). Consider alternatives. Consider your antagonist and what they might be tempted to do differently either as a failing or as a genuinely clever move. But work out that crime. Give it some thought. Don’t give into the temptation to say “Okay, it’s a murder and this is how it’s going to go down” unless your character is going to do exactly that and ignore all the alternatives.

Don’t Be Afraid of Dead Ends

When it comes to actually writing the solving of the mystery, don’t be afraid to let a character explore down a dead end. As long as an option makes sense and there isn’t a reason for a character not to explore it, a character solving a mystery should be willing to give it a shot.

Let your character make missteps or come to the wrong conclusions where appropriate. A mystery novel where every single moment, every single action by the character is a step in the right direction is actually a boring story, because part of the thrill of a mystery is the tension of “will they solve it” alongside the “what is the solution.” When a character never misses a beat, never makes a wrong move, not only are they falling into dangerously competent territory, but for the reader a whole element of tension is removed from the story. Gone is the doubt about whether or not the character’s (and the reader’s) line of thought is a solid one. Instead, the reader can begin to assume that if they make the same assumptions as the character, they are correct, and that all the character’s assumptions are correct.

Granted, you can have the character be “right” a few times and then have them turn out to be completely wrong after following a path for three or four steps, yanking the reader back and throwing everything the character found and concluded into doubt. But in order to do that, you first have to admit that a character is making a misstep.

These don’t even have to be wrong steps, just incorrect ones. For example, in Dead Silver, Hawke collects quite a bit of information at the Silver Dreams museum that both he (and possibly the reader) initially brush off as unimportant, instead pursuing other angles of information. Later, the information that initially seems to almost be a red herring turns out to in fact be the right train of thought—it’s just at the time neither Hawke nor the reader realized that what appears to be a misstep into a dead end is, in fact, a large part of the puzzle. A similar situation is found in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where the main character chases a lead early in the movie only to be met with complete failure. Later on, however, the “useless” information he found during the investigation into that dead end proves to establish a link elsewhere in the narrative, pulling together a few other scattered pieces and moving the PI one step closer to solving the case.

The point is, don’t be afraid to let your characters make mistakes and run themselves into dead ends while trying to solve a case. Don’t forget the try/fail cycle. It brings tension to your mystery .. and most of the time tension is exactly what you want. Let your characters guide themselves into dead ends.

Recognize That Some Readers Will Solve Things Before Your Character

This is a little tricky, but true nonetheless. I have seen readers out there, as well as “prospective” authors, lamenting that a mystery should be judged by how quickly its readers solve the mystery over the main characters. A mystery in which the reader figures the mystery out at the halfway point but the characters do not, for example, is weaker than a mystery where the reader does not figure it out until after the characters.

This simply is not true (though it wouldn’t surprise me if one of the reasons so many write concealed mysteries is to avoid running afoul of this mentality). While yes, if your readers can solve your mystery very early on you should probably look at how tough a mystery it really is, this doesn’t mean that a good mystery won’t have some readers solving it before the primary characters.

The simplest explanation for this is that we have to remember that the characters in our story are not getting everything that happens in bite-sized chunks like our readers are. As such, it’s all right if a reader solves a mystery three-quarters of the way into the book (and in fact, this can be a good thing, a lot of readers like the thrill of solving a mystery). They’re getting the highlights of the character’s day, and they’re working with the guarantee that most of that information they read is critical to the story, rather than needing to sift out all the boring parts (like “Had lunch, and the waiter kept flirting with me. Pretty sure it’s not related to anything.”). Which is another reason to keep in mind the topic of dead ends discussed above (these can make it trickier for the reader), so that not everything is a direct relation, but even then, that doesn’t change the fact that your readers are getting a cliff’s notes variant of the mystery, and a lot of them, or at least some are going to put the pieces together and that’s totally okay.

Now, some of those readers might make a fuss and complain that your characters should have figured it out earlier, and you should definitely listen to that enough to at least check to make sure that they aren’t right … but at the same time don’t forget the superior vantage point that you’ve given your readers. They have the upper hand over your characters since they only see the parts of the case that you’ve deemed vital for them to see, and don’t see all the fluff. When you have a character sitting at a desk pouring over dozens of nearly identical documents and the one or two lines you let the reader glimpse from one of them happens to be a clue, it’s fairly obvious to the reader that such information is important … but to the character, it might just be line 1327 they’ve read that day concerning the nature of the incident.

Point being, don’t be too worried if some readers figure out your mystery before the characters do. If a lot of readers are, and are quite early, your mystery might be too obvious or too simple to solve, but if a quarter of your readers are figuring things out in the last hundred pages, that really isn’t a cause for concern.

You want some of your readers to figure things out. Don’t be upset when they do.

With this, however, also recognize the subset of reader who is always right in their own mind. I’ve talked about the different types of readers before, but there’s one that will guess every possibility under the sun (right down to the main character did it) and then declare they “solved” it  when the ending presents itself because it was option #167 of the 300 or so they came up with.

This is okay as well. Just nod and go with it.

Be Careful of the Twist

You’ve probably heard the advice that one of the elements of a story is “the Twist,” especially if you’ve seen the latest Goosebumpstrailer. And a lot of novice mystery writers whose work I’ve looked at appear to have taken that advice to heart, setting up a whole mystery only to yank the rug out from under the reader at the last moment with a sudden clarification or last-minute reveal. And with good reason, as a last-minute twist is a great way to add a nice tension jump at the end of a story.

But like so many other things, a lot of new authors get the twist wrong.

Let’s look at an example of a good twist from my favorite book, The Icarus Hunt (SPOILER WARNING). Through the whole book we have a main character who is an indebted smuggler, working off his debt to one of the worst criminal organizations in the galaxy. He’s poor, he’s a scoundrel, and he’s trying to stay on top of things while figuring out both why the ship he’s piloting is the most wanted in the galaxy and who is doing their best to knock off members of the crew one by one.

Then, in the end, he reveals that not only is he all of the above, he’s also a deep cover operative—very deep cover—whose whole job was to get close to the upper echelons of the very criminal organization he owes so many debts to, and much of his action throughout the book was additionally helpful in drawing him towards that goal.

Now, what makes this twist acceptable? All at once a bunch of very tiny details in the story that were never really explained (or even better, that the reader assumed were due to something else) come together into one cohesive whole in a moment of “Oh! Of course! Now it all makes sense!”

Comparatively, a lot of authors out there (and not just new ones) when throwing that last twist into their mystery, don’t usually prepare as much, or worse yet, leave out any hint of what’s to come in order to make sure that the twist is as surprising as possible.

DON’T DO THIS. I cannot stress this anymore. Nothing cheapens a mystery like being given a surprise twist that has literally no foreshadowing whatsoever in your story. It wrecks the feeling of satisfaction your reader had at putting other pieces together and ruins the sense of consistency.

No, if you’re going to give your mystery a twist, approach it like you would any other mystery and leave your reader some clues. They can be vague or tricky to spot, but you need groundwork for a twist to be built on before you carry out the twist. You should never play out a twist without building the proper framework for it. The Icarus Hunt, for example, gave the reader lots of little moments where the reader had the capacity to say “Huh, this guy is really skilled,” “Wow, he speaks a lot of languages,” or “His Uncle sure has connections,” but at the time, with the other pressing mysteries and the way the character downplays everything, the reader by and by lets them slip as cool character traits … right up until the end, and then you wonder how you didn’t see it sooner.

A twist that comes with no warning, setup, or reason at all is a twist that has no logic and no place.

In the End …

So there you have it. A few tips for writing mysteries. Know the kind of mystery you want to write. Work out the crime (or comparable act of mysteriousness). Don’t be afraid of dead ends. Be okay with some readers solving things before the characters. And be careful of a twist that doesn’t come with a proper setup.

Like I said at the beginning, none of these is an end all. But if you want someplace to start, well, keep these in mind.

And good luck.

FURTHER KNOWLEDGE EDIT: One of my readers sent me this wonderful link to “Father Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of the Fair Play Whodunit” that’s definitely worth checking out if you’re looking into, considering, writing, or even enjoying mysteries!

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