Writing with Writers, Mystery Writing

Step 3: Writing Challenges Previous Next

Here are some challenges that should help you as you begin to write your mystery. I recommend that you try each one of them!

Write your opening sentence 
Create your characters 
Develop suspense

  1. Write an opening sentence that will capture your reader's attention. Try different approaches to your own mystery story. You'll want readers to know right away that this is a mystery. Will your opening sentences be scary? Startling? Or just a hint at the mystery to come? First sentences should be interesting enough to grab readers' attention and make them want to read the rest of the story.

    Here are opening sentences to some of my mystery novels:

    I don't like the way he's looking at me.

    It's a kind of creepy look as though the two of us shared some kind of secret, and it's making me uncomfortable. —The Kidnapping of Christina Lattimore

    This opening immediately introduces the main character, tells how she is feeling, and lets readers know the story is going to be a mystery:

    Through the late afternoon she sat along on the steps of the seawall, listening to the gulls' cries and watching the boats bob and rock at the moorings; so she didn't know about the murder. —The Stalker

    Slam, bang! Sometimes I like to sock readers with a surprise.

  2. Create your cast of characters, and help them come alive. Writers have a number of ways to make their characters vivid:

    • Write a list of 20 questions about your main character. Include questions such as: What is her favorite food? What is his favorite kind of music? Who is her best friend? Why? Really get to know your main character before you write your story.
    • Like your main character yourself. If you don't, your feelings will show, and readers won't like your character, either. On the other hand, don't make your character perfect. A perfect person not only isn't believable, but is hard to relate to. Readers want to read about people like themselves. And they enjoy stories the most when they "become" the main character and go through the story with him or her.
    • Describe the characters. Let us see what they look like. Are they tall or short? Chubby or skinny? Do have they have dark hair and blue eyes, or blond hair and brown eyes?
    • Use dialogue to tell the reader about your characters. An elderly grandfather doesn't talk like a ten-year-old girl. The dialogue must fit the character, and each character must have his own expressions and speech patterns.
  3. Develop suspense throughout your story. Creating suspense in a mystery story is not just a matter of keeping readers guessing. Suspense calls for the emotional responses of anxiety, excitement, and fear, as readers live through the viewpoint of the main character.

    • Make good use of the element of surprise by taking a sudden, unexpected turn. Throw your readers a curve by suddenly having something so surprising happen that their guesswork has to take a different direction. In The Seance, characters who are nervously gathered in a locked room are thrown into a panic when the only light in the house is extinguished. After a lamp is plugged in and turned on, they find that one of them has disappeared. From this point on, the story shifts and the main character becomes a potential victim.
    • Let readers know something that the main character hasn't found out yet. In a detective story a crime has been committed, and the identity of the criminal must be discovered by both the main character and the readers. A clue may be there that the main character has overlooked, but as the author, you have to make sure readers see it.
    • Create characters who are enigmatic. A character who seems strange or peculiar or whose intentions are unknown will make the story more suspenseful. Who is this person? Why is he or she behaving strangely?
    • Use your setting to add to the mood of the mystery. A mysterious setting can be a powerful way to keep your reader hooked. For example:

      The Andrews place squats alone at the end of an empty, quiet street…There are small rustlings, creakings, and sounds barely loud enough to be heard as the house moves and breathes with the midday heat. I feel that it's watching me, waiting to see what I'll do. Or could someone be watching, listening, just as I listen? —The Ghosts of Now

Are you ready to write a first draft of your mystery? Make sure to follow my tips from Step 2 and use the challenges listed above. When you're done with your first draft, you'll be ready for the revision process.

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