How to be a Mystery Writer
Without Confusing Your Readers

These days everyone wants to write a mystery. . .
. . .at least that's how it feels from my spot behind the editor's desk.

I don't know if there's something in the water or if the moon is wobbling out of its orbit, but I've had an increasing number of mystery novels across my desk recently.

I love a good mystery novel!

I skipped them during my growing up years and read the standards -- Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys -- only later as an adult.

But I started my early adult reading by working my way through Sir Arthur Conon Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) until I knew how his stories worked. Then I read all of Agatha Christie. About ten years ago I worked my way across the local library mystery shelves and read a couple hundred more mysteries. I also watch British mysteries on TV. So I qualify as a mystery lover.

I have a nose for a good mystery.

I can also smell a stinker. And so can the editors you want to accept and publish your book.

The biggest mistake I see
in the mystery novels
submitted to me. . .

. . .is substituting confusion
for mystery!

Let me point out the red flags that tell me a writer is not a skillful mystery writer and then go on to give you some hints to improve your mystery writing skills.

Problems I See in Mystery Writing

The writer jumps into action without setting a scene.

The reader needs to know something about the where and when of a story in order to create a mental picture. The longer you leave the reader without details, the more incorrect details the reader fills in and the harder it is to make corrections. Any time a reader has to erase an image, you've broken your hold on the reader's mind.

The mystery writer uses too many pronouns.

Consider this story opening.
They looked at it. "What is it?" he asked.

She wondered what it was, too, but she didn't like to say because he had blood dripping from his eyes. He asked him if he'd ever seen anything so spooky. He was scareder than he had ever been. They walked over to the other thing...
No, this isn't an actual quote, but it's an example of what I get regularly as an opener.

This writer has mistaken confusing the reader with creating a sense of mystery. Every pronoun must refer back to a clearly identified noun. Otherwise, the reader is lost before he can engage with the story.

Burn this into your writer's brain. . .


The mystery writer thinks a plot
makes up for having no character development.

Ignore character at your peril.

Why are the trains running late?
Who cares, unless late trains cause problems for someone.

Who killed Cock Robin?
Who cares, unless Cock Robin is someone I know and care about.

Of course a good plot matters in a mystery. But so do characters. Your reader must be able to engage with the main character and care about what happens to him or her.

The mystery writer doesn't know that gore is boring.

The more blood you spill, the less interesting your story.

Readers do not want to wade through rivers of blood. They want to wonder what is lurking in the darkness, who is the real bad guy, and who is responsible for the mess.

Gratuitous blood and guts do not make up for bad writing. In fact, a story that opens with a big hit of blood and guts seldom holds anyone's attention.

Take out all the blood and guts. Do you still have a story? Is it better without the gore?

If not, put back a smidgen. But please, please, please use a light hand.

How to Improve Your Mystery Writing

First of all, get rid of all the negatives listed above.

A good mystery novel, of course, has to have more than just an absence of bad writing traits. Pay attention to the points below to become a better mystery writer.

A good mystery writer creates a palpable world

The setting should be clear to the reader. You can sketch lightly, and usually should. But you must get the setting right away. Go to the public library and pull one book each from 5-10 mystery authors off the shelf. Read the first page. Notice how each author lets you know where and when the story happens. Go forth and do likewise.

A good mystery writer creates characters to care about.

Make your characters believable. Give the main character at least one flaw. Make the flaw important in solving the mystery. Either the flaw helps or hinders, but it should matter.

Readers read because they care about characters.

A good mystery writer builds tension.

Any good story, including a mystery, has a rising and falling rhythm. Trying to maintain too much tension throughout becomes too demanding, and readers will walk away from such a story. Having no tension is like watching cabbages grow. Learn to create a balance.

Moments of heightened emotion are signaled by detail. Good readers -- and even most not-so-good readers --- know intuitively that detail is a signal from a good writer to pay attention. Choose your details well. Use them to create tension.

I often tell my writers to think of the slow motion shot of the bullet headed for the hero in the movies. You can see the bullet spiral. Will it hit him? (Probably not, but the director makes you think about it for a few seconds, just the same.)

Choose the details you share. Make them count.

I read a lot of writing from writers of widely varying abilities. Once in a while, someone sends me a wonderful text. I hope you'll use these tips to improve as a mystery writer, and then send me something good.

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