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Writing a Mystery | From Rubbish to Publish


General Plotting

 Format Basics:

  • Zigzag from one problem to another, gradually increasing the pressure of danger.
  • Overall, things get worse and worse – under all, things get better and better
  • Ultimate scene of dangerous confrontation
  • When danger confronted and “under” things straightened out, murderer exposed and caught, go to happy ending quickly

Suspense Basics:

  • Introduce a menace—believable and well and vividly presented
  • Explain what the menace threatens—things the hero/heroine and reader will care about
  • Show the menace
  • Let the menace invade bit by bit—make the hero/heroine quiver, worry and tremble
  • Hero/heroine makes a few mistakes, setbacks
  • Middle—menace seems to be winning, hero/heroine fighting well
  • When hero wins, suspense is done—finish the story quickly


 General Tips

  •  Average size:  60-65,000 words, 240-250 pages (25 lines to page/10 words to line average)
  • Start the main character(s) off amid problems of his/their own
  • Keep up the tension for the main character(s):  while supposedly moving them toward happiness and solution, shove them closer to their doom; the turnaround from doom to triumph is the climax.
  • Keep the main character(s) in constant jeopardy, uneasy, anxious, harried
  • Have an appropriate plot with background you know
  • Sparsely populate it with kind of people you’re familiar with
  • Keep time frame short, immediate
  • Usually what happens involves a murder, threats of murder, or appearance of murder
  • Most murders committed upon people known to the murderer
  • Attributes of character or descriptions of a thing may be used at first to disguise and THEN to zero in on the mystery to be solved


Amateur Detective

  • Usually male
  • Independent income due to a happy circumstance
  • Eccentric in some intellectually superior way
  • Encyclopedic mind
  • Wide-ranging interests
  • Has a partner who extols the superiority of his mind



  •  Identity unknown until the climax
  • Should never be the most interesting character of the book
  • Hide him through his characteristics; hide your tricks in characters’ flaws or boibles
  • Don’t concentrate on him, concentrate on the hero/heroine


 Minor Characters

  •  Some used only once to: further plot, set atmosphere, act as representative of a kind, as a connecting link from once action or episode to another
  • Can be named or not
  • Make them very human in their one-dimensionality, emphasize their foibles and universal humanity


 Major Characters

  •  Give them a three-dimensional quality, define by detail
  • Define as the story moves along by particularizing them “within a scene’s environment”, by their actions and responses to others’ actions
  • Tags:  give each one a physical or verbal mannerism, or an overriding interest in something
  • Give each one a uniqueness
  • Give some characters obvious “possible” motives


Red Herrings (false clues)

  • Give one suspect no motive, no means, no opportunity so the readers will watch him, THEN make him innocent
  • Make the innocent characters vivid and interesting, more than the villain
  • Scatter through the middle of the story
  • Can lift a scene, spice up a minor character, add suspense
  • Reader tries to see through the “apparent” to the “real”, grabs any arresting facts



  •  Forward progression of story at appropriate rate
  • Allows for anticipatory pauses to shiver, for atmosphere to spellbind, for moments when reader can identify and empathize with situation and characters’ troubles
  • Building of momentum and sustaining of tension for maximum effect of climax and satisfying end
  • First, catch the reader in the situation, interest his mind
  • Second, touch the reader’s heart or his fears or his dreams—make him identify with the hero/heroine


 Plotting Tips

  •  Every mystery has 2 plots:  “Apparent” story that shows, and as it is unwound the “Real” story is revealed  slowly and it is recognizable
  • Basis of Plot: something happens (situation), how and why (plot)
  • Basis of Reasoning:  something of value that more than one person wants; all try to obtain it in devious ways; some die in the pursuit; all lose out in the end

Motive:  (reason why)

  • Establish this first, make it strong
  • Should be something the readers will understand and accept (greed, terror)

 Means: (how done)

  • Particularize the situation, characters, and how crime committed
  • Further develop the characters: backgrounds, personalities, reasoning

Opportunity:  (moment when the “murderer” was able to make the crime happen)

  • Reveal after having shown the how and why, the who, what, and where
  • Show the “murderer’s” reaction to having “opportunity”


Atmosphere (mood)/Voice (tone)

  • Set the “mood” (light, dark, in-between) in first line, first paragraph
  • Should be the first thing the reader “sees”, “feels” and the last thing he remembers
  • Sets the “atmosphere”
  • Can be: neutrally objective, poetical, masculine/feminine


Point of View

  • First Person Singular:  not recommended
  • Third Person Singular:  narrative voice; not recommended, problems with technique
  • Multiple:  separate voices, personal; RECOMMENDED
  • First Person:  more intimate; but limits author’s scope, sense of action, reader’s feeling of being present on the scene
  • Third Person:  omniscient voice without biases or personal thoughts; can be anywhere, see what you want, can leap from character to character


Hook Opening

  • Sets up tone, establishes style, displays door through which the reader enters the story



  • Omitted Clue:  instead of something that happened or was said it is subtly and simply left out.  But when revealed, it must be something the reader will agree that under the circumstances should have been done/said
  • Clue That Can’t Be Found:  murder weapon that can’t be located
  • Real Life Clues:  something that would be found in real-life crimes, changed to fit the story


  • If clue is a big one, make it appear small
  • If clue is “lost”, set it in plain sight
  • If clue is dangerous, sheathe the danger



  • Help keep the suspense going
  • Types:
  1. Interruption of scene, leaving the character in the jaws of doom
  2. Character brooding on something that disturbs him/her


Mysterious Foreshadow

  • Ominous Foreshadow:  The portent of things to come—excitement, fearful confrontation
  • Give a sense of something a little bit wrong, out-of-place, twisted
  • Can be omens



  • Start with a small pop, hint of the final confrontation
  • Then run the confrontation through to the end





The Smarts

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This website is the work of Starla Criser, an author who has published more than 50 stories, both traditionally and through self-publishing routes.
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