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How To Write Mystery Fiction
by Maria Z.
Although mystery fiction is often closely linked to crime fiction, there are many instances where this genre stands on its own.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is an example of a novel which centers on ‘mystery’ more than ‘crime’. It is said to be the first of the mystery genre. Supernatural mystery was also particularly popular in the 1930s and 1940s pulp magazines such as Grand Guignol by Wyatt Bjornson.
A mystery novel does not necessarily need to have a murder or an actual criminal act included in the plot. It could be anything from the sudden disappearance of a person to the presence of a bizarre new family in the neighborhood. What you should keep in mind when writing in this genre is to never lose your plot. A good mystery novel gives away the right clues, at the right time, by the right characters.
A recent arrival is the ‘puzzle‘ film, such as Mulholland Drive by David Lynch or Inception, where the story is complicated and apparently baffling, but can be figured out with a little thought. This is due to the influence of puzzle-solving computer games on narrative.
Planning Your Story
• What is the mystery that needs to be solved? Who does it involve and where do they go to come across the clues?
• ‘Acts of God’ aren’t much fun to use in a mystery novel. A particularly riveting scene where the protagonist trio is being chased by an unidentifiable creature would be cut short in a less interesting way if the creature were to be struck by lightning rather than being impaled with a makeshift spear by one of the protagonists.
• Another good way to keep your readers interested is by avoiding long-winded sentences, much like the one above.
• Choose locations you are most familiar with.
Work in an office building? Like trekking through the nearby forest? Jog around the neighbourhood park often? Using places you are familiar with will help make your descriptions less vague, as well as help you think up more ways to utilise the location to your fullest advantage.
• Gothic works well. Gothic is a good architectural background for anything from mystery to vampire stories, and can provide excellent (if clichéd) settings for werewolves, aliens, serial killers, stalkers…
• Choose a time setting that is relevant.
A mystery of the fortune-telling computer game would not mash well with a 1940’s setting. Unless you were doing time slip fiction.
• As with any other type of fiction, make sure you have in mind all details of your characters (age, sex, identifying features, personal background, etc.)
• It is okay to base your characters on people you know personally.
This would actually make it much easier for you to create complete, wholesome characters. Unless you choose your unwholesome friends (or enemies) for spooky characters.
• Never lose track of every character’s role in the story.
This is especially important if you have many sub-characters. It is common to lose track of the minor characters. If you kill off one of them, make sure they don’t mysteriously resurrect later on (you would be surprised how often this happens).
• Sticky ends – it can be mystery why some characters meet nasty and violent ends. That can be the mystery to be worked out (although this is verging on crime and detective fiction)
• Plot is everything in a mystery novel.
Twists and turns of events are good elements of plot, but make them simple and unpredictable. Don’t make more surprises in the story than you – or the reader – can handle!
• Maintaining a sense of reality will make the reader find your story believable, thus making any shocking incidents truly unexpected.
• Puzzling scenes are the essence of mysteries, so keep them slightly vague.
• Read up on popular mysteries like the Bermuda Triangle and secret societies. See how these can help you develop your plot.
• You could create theories of your own, too, but don’t let these theories bog down the rest of your plot-making.