Think of writing a mystery novel as a game of cat-and-mouse. You want to lead the mouse, or the reader, to the cheese but only when you want them to get there. As the cat (writer) your job is to make the pursuit exciting, suspenseful, and full of interesting tidbits that will help guide the mouse along. The trick is knowing which clues to drop when. How do you build the suspense? What elements can you use to keep them wanting more? How do you follow through with a satisfying ending? We'll be exploring everything Mystery genre in today's post.
If you're interested in learning about other genres as well, check out my other posts in the genre series here.
What is a mystery novel?
A mystery novel is one that follows a crime, typically a murder or disappearance, from start to finish. It involves a closed circle of suspects, where each suspect is provided with a credible motive and a reasonable opportunity for committing the crime. The main character is usually a detective or law enforcement type with varying special skills, the strongest being logical deduction. These stories can be fictional or nonfictional. The most common types of mystery novels are the whodunit, where the emphasis is on the puzzle or suspense element and it's logical solution, the hardboiled detective stories where the emphasis is on action and gritty realism, and supernatural mystery where the solution does not need to make logical sense and there may be no crime committed at all. The overall draw for the reader is that they must solve the case for themselves.
What are the subgenres of mystery?
To learn the complete break-down of how these subgenres differ from each other, check out my Genre 101: The Complete List of Genres & Subgenres for Fiction Writing Part 1 post. You'll see details about what falls into each subgenre as well as plenty of examples to get you started.
Where did mystery novels originate?
This genre traces its roots all the way back to Ancient Greece. Sophocles wrote about infanticide, murder, exile, suicide, and death. Euripides wrote about revenge and suffering, revealing the mortal side of the gods. However, these were not categorized as mystery novels, rather they fell into drama or other categorizations, as the term mystery novel was not coined till the early 19th century. This was largely due to the lack of organized police forces prior to this point as well as the general population being illiterate.
During the English Renaissance, education became more widespread and the types of stories being written diversified. The more people learned and shared their ideas, the more the process of individual thought grew and developed. People began to appreciate our ability as humans to think critically and problem solve and our literature began to reflect this.
Another key element changed during this time period. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, many towns were small enough that only constables or a night watchman were used as security. Crimes were either quickly solved or were left unsolved completely. As people united into more urban environments the need for institutionalized law enforcement was actualized, and the realization that detectives who specialized in solving murders and other more serious crimes was also made. This led to the rise of the mystery novel.
Today Edgar Allan Poe is credited with inventing the modern mystery. He published a short story called The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). The main character Auguste C. Dupin was literature’s first fictional detective, and the first character in a novel to work a case, gather clues, and solve a mystery. It was a monumental step forward in literature, the creation of a never-before-seen genre. Among the first mystery novels written were The Woman in White (1860) and Moonstone (1868) both by Wilkie Collins.
In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes, whose mysteries contributed largely to the popularity of the genre. Dime novels and pulp magazines also helped it expand. By the 1920s there were plenty of novels under this genre. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series became huge successes, opening the door to children's mysteries. Agatha Christie, whose works include Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937), and best-selling mystery And Then There Were None (1939) was also created and published during this time.
Pulp Magazines reached their peak in the 1940s, and the rise of television gave birth to a new media from which mystery fiction could expand. Today there are many different mystery novels, as well as many that cross over into thriller and suspense genres. The themes in traditional mysteries are also seen on TV shows, graphic novels, comic books, film adaptations, and web-based detective series.
What is the structure of a mystery novel?
There are many ways to write a mystery novel, but most hold true to the following:
1. The Crime: This should be established within the first two chapters of your novel. The discovery of the crime begins the detective's journey and sets the stage for what the story is about. It is the mystery to be solved.
2. Investigation: The detective traces down clues, leads, suspects, and begins to piece things together. This is the breadcrumb phase, where the detective is gathering information and trying to narrow down the search.
3. Twist: The detective finds a new clue, an unexpected lead, or a suspect’s lies begin to unravel. However the revelation comes about is shocking and unexpected. It derails and alters the course of the investigation.
4. Breakthrough: The last piece of the puzzle is discovered and the final loose ends begin to be tied up, solving the mystery.
5. Conclusion: The detective catches the bad guy and the last answers are wrapped up. An emotional takeaway rounds it off.
6 Tips for writing mystery
Whether you're writing a mystery novel for the first time or tweaking a work-in-progress, here are some helpful tips to help you with your book.
Hook your readers: Provide a lure from the first sentence or paragraph of your novel. The sooner you grab your reader's attention, the sooner you can start building the suspense, which will keep them reading.
Set the mood: Suspense begins the moment the reader is transported into a setting. Make sure the atmosphere is appropriately mysterious from the first page on. Choose an unsettling setting (such as an abandoned house, dark alley, an isolated cabin, etc,), use descriptive language of case details, and build suspense through dialogue.
Reveal things slowly: Pacing is crucial in a mystery story. Be intentional about controlling how much information you reveal, and how and when you reveal it. While the main plot is important, you can control the speed and level of suspense by enhancing your plot with subplots.
Leave strategic clues: With mystery its important to remember that your audience is an active participant within your novel. They solve the mystery alongside your detective and piece together the clues and draw their own conclusions. These clues should be subtle, exciting, and satisfying to the reader.
Red herrings: Make sure that along with the clues you leave, you also sprinkle in a few red herrings. The best type of mystery is one that is not easily solved. Misguide your readers with details, people, places, and objects that seem plausible but ultimately are not correct. Once it is solved, it'll leave your reader feeling satisfied with the journey it took to solve the crime.
Give a good ending: Don't leave your novel on a cliffhanger. Solve the mystery, wrap up the details, and leave your reader satisfied. It doesn't have to be a happy ending, but it does need to have a logical one. Make sure to answer the questions your readers are asking and what the outcome means emotionally for your characters.
What are some examples of mystery novels?
The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown, 2003)
The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett, 1929)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson, 2005)
And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, 1939)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon, 2003)
Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier, 1938)
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (John Le Carré, 1963)
Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn, 2012)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (Arthur Conan Doyle,1902)
Writing a mystery novel is full of twists and turns. It leads us down an exciting path, giving us a mystery to solve and a villain to outsmart. It's a thrilling escape that lets us play detective in our spare time. To write a good mystery, it's important to keep the structure of how these novels are written in mind. Using the 6 tips provided will also help guide you while you pursue your story.
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