Writing Mysteries: Keep Your Readers Guessing
By Laura Wolfe
Are you thinking about writing a mystery? These tips will help you engage readers from the first page to the last!
- Start with an intriguing premise. The central mystery in your work should be one that makes a reader turn the page and want to know more. In other words, the premise should raise multiple questions that beg for answers. “Who robbed the house?” is not as intriguing as “Who stole diamond earrings from five houses on the same day in a quiet neighborhood without anyone seeing?” In the second example the reader automatically wants to know not only Who did it?, but How did the robber hit five houses in one day?, and Why diamond earrings?, and Why didn’t anyone see?, and What’s the real story behind this quiet neighborhood?
- Introduce a few seemingly irrelevant clues toward the beginning of your work. Start with a couple of minor clues and build toward more frequent and important clues toward the end. These strategically-placed hints toward the beginning should not be so obvious that they give away the answer to the mystery. Instead, the clue should make the reader think, That’s odd. And then later, Aha! It all makes sense now. For example, in Trail of Secrets, the MC, Brynlei, realizes someone stole her deodorant shortly after she arrives at the riding academy. While Brynlei thinks the occurrence is strange, the reader can sense something more sinister. It isn’t until the central mystery of the missing girl is solved that the reader realizes its significance.
- Give the reader plenty of suspects to choose from (but not so many it becomes confusing.) As your MC discovers new information, she should start to view formerly friendly characters in a more suspicious light. For example, maybe your MC is certain the creepy P.E. teacher is the one who strangled her French teacher, but then she sees the nice man next door digging a hole in his backyard in the middle of the night. Or maybe your MC discovers the new transfer student from France lied about an important piece of her past. Anyone can be a suspect! Just don’t go crazy. Keep the viable suspects to less than five, and make sure to explain away any suspicious behavior for people who are not the guilty party.
- Raise the stakes to keep readers turning the pages. Mysteries aren’t always page-turners, but they should be! Here are a few ways to raise the stakes and keep readers on the edges of their seats:
Put a timeline on solving the crime (e.g. The MC’s brother will be sentenced to death if the MC can’t find the real murderer in a certain amount of time);
Take away your MC’s friend, helper, or support system;
Have the police accuse the MC of the same crime she is trying to solve; and/or
Make the suspect aware that the MC is onto him, and reverse the chase!
- Make sure the answer to the mystery is a good one! When the mystery is solved, keep your promise to the reader. Don’t have the MC discover that everything actually happened exactly the way the police said it did, or that the secret room your MC finally uncovers behind the grandfather clock is really just used as a broom closet. Those are NOT the prizes readers want to find at the end of your book. Give them something scandalous and unexpected. Instead, maybe the police chief stages the crime to cover for his son who is the real murderer, or the secret room behind the clock is used to hide the murder weapon. See the difference?
I hope these tips help you write your next mystery! I can’t wait to guess, “Who dunnit’?”
WHO IS Laura Wolfe?
Laura Wolfe is a lover of animals and nature. When she is not writing, she can be found playing games with her highly-energetic kids, riding horses, growing vegetables in her garden, or spoiling her rescue dog. She lives in Michigan with her husband, son, and daughter. Laura’s YA mystery, Trail of Secrets (Dark Horse, Book 1), was named as a Finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards—First Novel category. Laura holds a BA in English from the University of Michigan and a JD from DePaul University. She is an active member of multiple writing groups, including Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and the SCBWI. For more information on her upcoming books, please visit:
TRAIL OF SECRETS
Spending three weeks of her summer at the elite Foxwoode Riding Academy in northern Michigan should have been one of the happiest times of sixteen year-old Brynlei’s life. But from the moment Brynlei arrives at Foxwoode, she can’t shake the feeling she’s being watched. Then she hears the story of a girl who vanished on a trail ride four years earlier. While the other girls laugh over the story of the dead girl who haunts Foxwoode, Brynlei senses that the girl—or her ghost—may be lurking in the shadows.
Brynlei’s quest to reveal the truth interferes with her plan to keep her head down and win Foxwoode’s coveted Top Rider Award. To make things worse, someone discovers her search for answers and will go to any length to stop her. As Brynlei begins to unravel the facts surrounding the missing girl’s disappearance, she is faced with an impossible choice. Will she protect a valuable secret? Or save a life?
Thanks for reading…