- they want the intellectual challenge of solving the crime before the detective does, and
- the pleasure of seeing everything come together in the end.
The best way to test the mystery story writing rules listed is to read widely in the mystery genre. See how others use them – or how and when they get away with breaking them.
In mystery story writing,
plot is everything.
Because readers are playing a kind of game when they read a detective novel, planning your plot has to come first, above everything else. Make sure each plot point is plausible. Keep the action moving. Don’t get bogged down in a back story or go off on tangents. Don’t spend too many words describing places. Readers want action.
Introduce the detective and the culprit early on.
As the main character, your detective must obviously appear early in the story. As for the culprit, your reader will feel cheated if the antagonist, or villain, enters too late in the story to be a viable suspect in their minds.
Introduce the crime within the first few pages of your mystery story.
The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook your reader. As with any fiction, you want to do that as soon as possible. In a novel, the crime should be established within the first three chapters.
The crime should be sufficiently violent – such as a murder.
For many readers, only murder really justifies the effort of reading a 300-page book while suitably testing your detective’s powers. Note that some types of violence are still taboo including rape, child molestation, and cruelty to animals.
The crime should be believable.
While the details of the crime – how, where, and why it’s done, as well as how the crime is discovered – are your main opportunities to introduce variety, make sure the crime is plausible. Your reader will feel cheated if the crime is not something that could really happen.However, since the 9/11 New York tragedy and the London Jewellery Vault Robbery, verisimilitude has been stretched to new limits.
The detective should solve the case using only rational and scientific methods.
Consider this part of the oath written by G.K. Chesterton for the British Detection Club: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow on them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”
The culprit must be capable of doing the crime.
Your reader must believe your villain’s motivation and the villain must be capable of the crime, both physically and emotionally.
In mystery writing, don’t try to fool your reader.
Don’t take the fun out of solving the crime. Don’t use improbable disguises, mystery twins, accidental solutions, or supernatural solutions. The detective should not commit the crime. All clues should be revealed to the reader as the detective finds them.
Do your research.
“Readers have to feel you know what you’re talking about,” says author Margaret Murphy. She has a good relationship with the police in her
Wait as long as possible before you reveal the culprit.
They’re reading to find out, or figure out, whodunit. If you answer this too early in the book, the reader will have no reason to continue reading.
Tie up all the loose ends.
– Ginny Wienhardt. Reproduced for educational purposes.