4 Tips for How to Write a Mystery into your Novel

Jun 13, 2011

When I was in college, I had a roommate who made life extra fun. One day, she came walking in the door with a dart board. She'd walked into one of our friend's apartments during a party and lifted it off the wall without anyone noticing. She put it up front and center in our living room, and said she wanted to see how long it would take them to notice it was gone. If they noticed it was theirs when they came to visit, they could of course have it back.

And so began the Wall-O-Klepto.

It became an enormous practical joke, where we'd sneak things from our friend's places and put them on display. Most people noticed right away and got their stuff back. It took the dartboard guys a little longer.

And then there were the bowling pins. We stole them from a couple guys a few houses down from us, put them on top of the TV...and a few days later, they had been stolen from us. We got a ransom note, followed by several more (including a clever little one that came in the form of one of those "have you seen this person" postcards in the mail).

We were positive it was the guys across the street, and we HAD to get those things back-- after all, they weren't ours. We tried several tactics, including sneaking into their house while they were gone, but never managed to find those pins. And, of course, we refused to give into the ransom. In the end, it turned out that the culprits were actually the guys we'd stolen the pins from in the first place.

It was quite the exciting and hilarious mystery. And it gave me some clues for writing mystery into my novels, which most novels require! Whether you're writing a whodunit or not, there is nearly always a taste of mystery-- the reader wants to know the answer to the story question. In TUGL, my wip, there's actually a more traditional mystery than I'm used to writing, and I'm learning a few things.

1. Determine the Wants and the Obstacles
Nathan Bransford recently wrote a fabulous post on this, focusing on the idea that mysteries are about people. Your character WANTS something they can't get right away. There are obstacles. Even if you're a pantser, it really helps to define those wants and obstacles before you start writing. They may change as you write, but if you don't have them to start with, the mystery is going to take some serious rewriting.

2. Displace Suspicion
As I'm writing TUGL, I'm so afraid that it's obvious who the thief is. Because I know who it is! And I'm placing all these clues and foreshadowings. It seems so obvious. But one of my favorite techniques is to displace suspicion: make the characters have GOOD REASON to suspect someone else. Even multiple someone else's. It makes the reader's wheels spin as they try to determine who THEY think is the thief.

3. Let the Characters Get it Wrong
This goes along with displacing suspicion. As you place clues, let the characters get things wrong. They don't have to know exactly what the clues mean. Let them go down the wrong path and suffer the consequences. It makes things more exciting, and provides a handy obstacle. Of course, you don't want them to get everything wrong. Then when you reveal the true solution, the reader won't buy it.

4. Do More than Leave Clues-- Foreshadow
In order for the reader to buy that ending, it helps to foreshadow things ahead of time. This can be in the form of clues, but it should include other things that aren't clues. You can have a character make an off-handed comment, or make a note of a character trait, or any number of things. It will make the reader scream, "I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN!!" at the end, which is much better than, "Huh?"

So, my friends, what kinds of mysteries do you like to write? What kinds do you like to read? What do you do when writing to enhance the mystery of your own story?


Kristin Miller said...

Great post! I love mysteries of all kinds. I don't read cozies so much, but they're good too. The last mystery I read (which was more of a thriller) was Sophie Littlefield's A Bad Day for Sorry.

Love your blog. :)

Kristin Miller

Christine Murray said...

That's sounds like such a cool game! And I love the idea of the ransom note :)

Angie said...

Funny story. Those are great tips, too.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great story! Oh the fun you can have when you are in college! A friend and I stole nails from a frat house one night. We needed them to help build our frat's (we were little sisters) float for homecoming parade.

KM Nalle said...

What a fantastic story and these are some handy tips. Great post.

Anonymous said...

I have to say . . . I'm okay with a protagonist guessing wrong a couple of times if there is good reason--but there's nothing MORE annoying than a character who can't seem to notice the most obvious mystery just because the author's not ready for the reveal yet.

So, don't do that, writer-friends. :)

On the other hand, I love it when a protagonist goes ahead and guesses the same thing I would have guessed, and then we both turn out to be wrong and a whole new mystery starts to unfold. Fun, fun.

Julie Musil said...

That klepto game is hilarious! I love it.

Even though I don't write true mysteries, there are still a few details I want to hold back, and yes, even foreshadow. Thanks for these great tips.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post, Shallee. I love mysteries and am planning on writing one myself. Will bookmark this post.

Funny isn't it..for an old follower of yours, I am rejoining your blog now (once again) due to blogger acting funny and removing people from my dashboard.

linda said...

That's a great story! Thanks for sharing it. You and your roommates sound like a lot of fun.

I completely agree with myimaginary blog that the character shouldn't be too dense. I find it annoying when the character is shocked by a reveal that I saw coming miles away. Much bette to be impressed with the character's brilliant deductions... and then be surprised when they turn out to be wrong!

Jolene Perry said...

I'm SO saving this under my favorite blog posts :D


Oh, and all the writing stuff is good, too.

Anonymous said...

These are great tips!! I especially enjoy misplaced suspicion as a reader.

Ellie Garratt said...

Hehe. Sounds like you had lots of fun during college!

Thanks for the mystery tips. I'm always trying to ensure that my foreshadowing isn't too obvious!

Ellie Garratt

Lindsay N. Currie said...

Fantastic post. My most recent WIP that's getting ready to go on submission has an element of mystery in it that my co-author and I struggled with. We did the exact same thing - determine if we've given too many clues, not enough clues or if we were right on target. Hard balance to find, but our beta testers were invaluable in helping:)

Michelle said...

Thanks, Shallee. Lot's to think about from your post. I wonder where to find some sub-plots to feed my mystery? (oh, and I'm still looking for an alien lexicon)

Susan said...

Nice checklist for mystery authors after they complete the book - and start in on revision!

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