Monday, December 8, 2014

The Beginner's Guide To Writing A Mystery

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Several writers have emailed me saying they know I've been working on a mystery, and they wondered if I had advice for writing one. I've always loved mysteries, and I always wanted to write one, but I was too intimidated to try it for real until this last year. (Same goes for historicals, and as a way of making myself insane, I decided to  throw myself into deep water and write a historical mystery.)

Since this is the first mystery I've written, I won't claim to be some brilliant mystery writer, but I'll share what I've learned along the way.



You've gotta know who your villain is.

When I told my husband my idea for my story (which was originally Veronica Mars meets Downton Abbey and morphed into Veronica Mars meets 1920's Chicago) he said, "I don't think you'll be able to plants your way through this one."

As is often the case, he was totally right. I had an idea or two of who I thought the villain might be as I dove into my first chapter. Four thousand words later, I thought, "No. That's not my villain. I don't know who my villain is!" 

When I told Roseanna about my problem, she said, "That's the thing about a whodunit. Eventually, you have to figure out who did it." We set up a brainstorming chat and talked through who all my potential villains were and why they were motivated to commit their villainous actions. 

Then I sat down and wrote out exactly what happened when the villain did their thing. (Pardon my vagueness.) Even though it's off stage and will never be shown in the book, I've learned that it's helpful to me as the writer to know exactly what happened so that I'm consistent with all my clues.

I mean, you've really gotta know who your villain is.

So after I'd finished the first draft of my book, taken my break, and started revisions, I realized my villain was a total moron. They were behaving like a villain, not a person who was trying to get away with something. And when I tried to rewrite my villain behaving like a person who was trying to get away with something, I realize I knew very little about why my villain was the way they were. 

I used James Scott Bell's character journal technique, which always works when I need to unlock a character. I asked my villain about their childhood, and three pages later, I knew more information than I would ever need for the story.

The foreshadowing can happen in the rewrite.

Sometimes as you write your first draft, you'll see places to drop in clues about the answer to your mystery. For me, most of that happened in the revisions stage. I always re-read my book in as few sittings as possible before I edit, and when I did that, I saw all kinds of places that I could slip in foreshadowing.

Build in more red herrings than you think you need.

Red herrings are a literary device that refer to something, most often clues, that are included to distract the reader. While you don't want your main character constantly chasing bunny trails (that wears on your reader) those red herrings give you lots of material to work with. And sometimes, if you're creative with it, those red herrings can help draw your main character close to the answer without them realizing it until the end. 

They can also be very helpful if you're writing a series. Later you might find ways to draw a red herring into the answer to the problem of book two or three.

How many is too many? Critique partners can help with that. I think they're easier to cut than to add.

Do the timeline thing.

When I started edits, I discovered my villain had a lot of unaccounted for time. If I had made a timeline from the beginning, it would have saved me some rewriting.

There needs to be a sense of surprising logic.

The best moment of reading a mystery is getting to the big reveal and thinking, "No way! It was him?" And then as you think it throughor as you flip back through the book in search of how you'd been misled, as I did with Susan May Warren's Find Stefanieyou realize the clues were there and that this ending, while surprising, is also logical. 

How do you know if you've achieved this? Others have to read it and let you know. I don't think there's another way to know for sure. 

Even books that aren't categorized as mysteries often have an element of mystery to them. Hopefully these tips will help even if you're not writing a whodunit!





33 comments:

  1. I love mystery, and most of my books have at least a little bit of mystery to them. Defiantly need to find your bad guy...or in my case bad "force" since my characters never are totally strictly evil.

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    1. Which makes for the best bad guys, I think!

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  2. Lol, Stephanie, glad you haven't gone insane yet. :)

    Thanks for all the tips! I'm not planning to write mysteries, but the timeline thing.... SO needed. I'll try and make one after I finish my first draft (I am ALMOST there which is SO cool because it's the first time I got so far :)) Thanks for the blog! Blessings!

    http://teensliveforjesus.blogspot.ru

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    1. It's such a simple tool, but it's SO handy. And congratulations on being so close to finishing your first draft! How awesome!

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  3. Wow, this post has great timing. I've just been thinking of a mystery story idea, but as of yet have no plot, just characters. This will be such a help!

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    1. I love when it works out like that :)

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    2. I too have a mystery idea lurking on my mental hard drive that's currently characters sans plot. Someday I'll write that poor teen detective's story... But for now I'm excited about my mystery idea that has both. :)

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  4. My current WIP has little mystery thread to it, so this is great--especially the timeline tool. Thanks, Mrs. Morrill!

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    1. I wish I would have done the timeline thing from the beginning. So simple, but so helpful. Next time, right?

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  5. My story I just finished was a '20s murder mystery, and the one I'm thinking of working on next is pretty much the same thing only in the Regency time period. :) I hadn't thought of the timeline thing! That's really helpful!

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    1. I'm hoping it'll help keep me organized better next time!

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  6. My (failed) NaNo attempt this year was to be a mystery. I'll probably be picking it up again once I get finished with what I'm working on right now. These were all great tips! Thanks for sharing. :)

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    1. I think a mystery would be tough for NaNo. I know I did a lot of sitting and pondering along the way.

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  7. I'm working through the fourth draft of a steampunk murder mystery right now, and I can say that all of this is 100% true and helpful. I actually didn't even figure out who my villain was until I was about 3/4 of the way through the first draft, and since then I've really developed him and figured out his motivation. I'm working most on foreshadowing now - I have trouble with that.

    Aimee @ To the Barricade!

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    1. A steampunk murder mystery sounds really fun!

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  8. I'm struggling with the surprising logic element right now. I have a character that is revealed to be a villain at the end of the book, but I don't want to make it too obvious or too obscure.

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    1. That's SO tough to know. That's when critique partners can be super helpful!

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  9. Thank you so much for answering my question. I have an idea for a mystery that takes place during World War II and since like you I've never written a historical or a mystery before, the whole idea is really daunting. This post helps a lot, though. I can see how useful a timeline would be for a mystery, especially because it could really help for foreshadowing. I really need to work on my villain-creating as well, so these are good tips to work off of.

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    1. It was VERY overwhelming, and it took me a much longer time to write the book than it normally does. I think the next time will go quicker. But at the same time, it was such a fun storyworld that I (mostly) didn't mind how long everything was taking.

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  10. I don't think I'm ever going to write a mystery, but this will be helpful if I do :)

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  11. Thanks so much! So that's the mystery behind writing a mystery! I love mystery (crime fic) a lot and always marvel about how the author writes the plot so superbly...it's cool to know that there's actually a way to it!

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    1. There's a lot going on behind the scenes, that's for sure!

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  12. The story I'm writing at the moment has a major mystery plot thread. I also had no idea who my villain was at first, or why they were doing what they did - my first draft was pretty bad in that respect! But since then I've figured that out, and now it's just a matter of making sure I plant my clues right.
    Thanks for the useful article!

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  13. Thanks so much for this post! My current project has a kidnapping mystery, and I had a rough few weeks of brainstorming when I didn't know who did it. If I can, I'm going to make some of the red herrings in the kidnapping mystery be clues for the 'mystery' of the MC's backstory (which she's blocking out herself), but coming up with red herrings that conveniently fit those criteria is proving trickier than I thought...

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  14. Thank you so much, this was very helpful! Even not writing pure mystery, I learned a lot.
    On another note- if I use my old teen writers reward points (agh can't remember the exact name :P) for a critique, how long do you think it will take for you to get it back to me? :)

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    1. I don't think they're doing that anymore. See the link: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-new-go-teen-writers-rewards.html

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    2. You can email me privately and we can talk about it. We try for 4-6 weeks, but it just depends on how big of a critique it is.

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  15. hey thanks for the tips i my self always wanted to write a mystery though often would confuse myself maybe this could benefit me

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  16. Hmm....I'm not writing a mystery, but nonetheless this should help when I do. Or even if I don't. Thanks a lot, Mrs. Morrill!

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  17. YES. The red herrings in series. So helpful. Probably half of the last book in my series came out of sentences that I wrote into books one and two and went, what, oh, well, I'll just leave them and see if they go somewhere... ;)

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  18. I have never written one that was exclusively mystery, but I have hidden villains before. When an author does that, I have noticed that the real villain is in behind the scenes discreetly misleading the main character. The villain either slips up eventually, has a change of heart, or the protagonist puts the clues together to realize their identity.

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