Keep the Mystery in Your Mystery

Mysterious Character

Eye on the Mystery Prize

Reading other authors in your genre is a sound practice. not just for emulating story strategy but for caution on what not to do in your story.

I just finished reading a mystery by an established mystery writer. As a reader, I was disappointed. As a writer, I thought about why I was disappointed. I reviewed the mystery writing elements and discovered the reason.

  • Empathetic, complicated sleuth. Check.
  • Empathetic supporting characters. Check.
  • Villain. Check but overdone and not believable.

I liked the sleuth, a police inspector, and his team. But everytime the villain appeared he was snarky and overdone with throw-away lines. The villain intruded on the story rather than moving it forward. I kept thinking, “OK, let’s get back to the story.”

When readers, like me, get distracted they can and will stop reading. The only reason I kept reading was to see how it fit together because my interest as a reader was gone.

Organize Your Story

To keep the mystery in your mystery, all the the components must move the story forward. It’s challenging to keep the balance. Read other writers to know what to do and what not to do. Learn from their mistakes.

Keep these tips in mind as you build your story.

  • Create distinct names for your characters. Make sure no characters in a story have names that start with the same letter. It seems like a tiny thing, but readers can become confused when two characters have similar names.
  • Give each character a distinct personality and make it believable. For example, the villain’s snark in the story I read took away his menace and made him a caricature rather than a villain with depth.
  • Focus on obstacles to your sleuth rather than overly complicated plot twists and character relationships. If you wander away from the story to describe obscure character relationships, it’s not mysterious, it’s befuddling. Never befuddle your reader. Your job is to tell the story, not to show how clever you are to come up with complicated character relationships.
  • Plant clues to keep readers guessing. Readers love trying to outsmart your sleuth and guess the murderer.
  • When in doubt, keep it simple. You are creating a puzzle about your murder, not a puzzle about the story characters. There’s a big difference.

A disappointed reader, will not come back to give you a second chance. Focus on creating a sleuth your readers like. Make her character deep and empathic. Your sleuth’s reaction to other characters has a greater chance of keeping your reader involved than creating complicated interrelationships in other characters.

Take a look a popular mystery TV series. You’ll see that the emphasis is on the sleuth and the sleuth solving the mystery. Make sure your subplots don’t overshadow the mystery.

It doesn’t matter if you are a pantser or organize every scene of your story. A pantser may do the organization in the rewrite/editing phase. Planners can eliminate story clutter by creating a storyline and sticking with it.

​Focus on the mystery. 

​Zara Altair 

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