The Art of Mystery
by Marni Graff
Creating a mystery is so much more than creating a puzzle, yet that puzzle is at the heart of the matter. This dramatic structure has been in force for thousands of years in writing yet remains enormously popular. It’s one reason Agatha Christie’s work is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare.
People who read traditional mysteries want to be involved in solving the puzzle, often to see if they can outwit the fictional detective or sleuth and arrive at the answer first. They also look for a sense of resolution at the end that restores order, and in most cases, for good to triumph over evil.
This leads the writer to consider three main types of mystery: the Whodunit, where the identity of the perpetrator is unknown; the Whydunit, where the criminal’s identity may be revealed early in the story but their motive is unknown; and the Howcatch’em, which focuses on the means by which hero/detective/investigator catches the culprit.
Writers must also take into account the violence meter, which ranges from low and more personal (think Miss Marple, cozies in general) to high and often to larger impersonal groups (as in action thrillers, espionage, global terrorists). By deciding how much violence you plan to include in your story, you are choosing which type of crime novel you want to write. For example, a police procedural may have a high level of violence but it is usually committed by a psycho- or sociopath and to one person at time.
At the lower end of the spectrum, you may have a killer who targets the people of his romantic obsession, as in a romantic suspense thriller.
You can see that these multiple combinations let the writer have tremendous freedom when choosing what kind of mystery he or she will write. Yet all of these subgenres will include literary devices such as red herrings, plot twists, foreshadowing and cliffhangers.
There is one distinction that can be made between mystery and suspense: when writing a true mystery, the reader will discover the events and clues along with the protagonist or other characters. In this regard, the reader expects the author to be fair and not throw in any convenient coincidences near the end. When writing suspense, the reader can and usually does know more than the protagonist. The author shows the readers things such as scenes from the perpetrators point of view and his or her mental state and plans, which the protagonist doesn’t know. This is what builds the suspense—will the hero figure it out in time to save himself or his lover or his family or his town?
I give my writing students this simple formula to help guide them as they write in any genre: Character and setting = story (Character is everything; plot is what you have them do as they move around your setting. You need engaging characters your readers will care to spend time with to keep them flipping pages).
Dialogue and behavior = character (Use dialogue and behavior to illustrate who this person is by what they say, their body language and habits, their appearance, their philosophy, and their idiosyncrasies. All add texture to your creation).
By keeping the conventions of your chosen genre in mind, as well as the simple formula above, you’ll create a winning combination that will have readers turning pages to your resolution and asking for a sequel.
Marni Graff is the award-winning author of The Nora Tierney English Mysteries and The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the International Association of Crime Writers, and a frequent contributor to UK’s Mystery People.