craft post by Erin Nuttall
As a young teen, I loved Agatha Christie mysteries and my love for the genre has continued through the years. There is something so satisfying about staying in step with the detective in solving the crime. Writing a mystery can be as fulfilling as reading one when you understand the key pieces that make a mystery work. A compelling mystery must engage the reader in solving the mystery to keep them turning pages.
In Part 1 we discussed the first three components of a good mystery: 1) start the mystery off quick, 2) capture attention with consequential stakes, and 3) increase tension. Here we will explore the last two elements: keeping the reader guessing (a.k.a. misdirection, clues, and red herrings), and how to not wimp out on the ending.
***Please note there are some SPOILERS for the books I discuss, Julie Berry’s The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place and Karen McManus’ Two Can Keep a Secret and to a lesser extent Stephanie Perkins’ There’s Someone Inside Your House. All of these books are a few years old so hopefully you’ve already read them. If not, be aware some plot points are given away.***
4. Keep Them Guessing
Good mysteries are fun because they keep the reader guessing. One of the most important keys of writing a mystery is writing the story so the reader can try to solve it. Nothing’s more annoying than not being given clues to solve the mystery unless those clues are so obvious that there is no real mystery to be solved. The best way to achieve both goals is to give quality clues but constantly keep the reader guessing so they don’t recognize the clues for what they are.
There are several ways to do this. Most importantly, give good clues: clues that give the reader information that they can look back on and have an ah-ha moment when they recognize how the clues were guiding them to the answers.
However, the clues should not be obvious and should be disguised to hide their true nature. For instance, they can be given in a throwaway line, in the middle of the patter of dialogue or otherwise busy scene. The reader should be distracted to keep them from immediately understanding the importance of the information. Distraction can be accomplished in a number of different ways.
Clues in the Everyday
An excellent way to distract is to give clues in the course of everyday life activities. Berry does this particularly well in The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. The girls can’t afford to have hired help in the school because of money problems and because they no longer have a headmistress to be the adult who hires the help. So now they must do their own chores. Berry goes into detail about the difficulty of daily chores in late Victorian England, all while the girls have a back and forth discussion of the clues.
It’s a busy scene with a lot going on both with new and interesting things to think about by way of the strange way chores were done, and also with seven people chatting, there is a lot of dialogue to follow. In this way, Berry both directs and misdirects the reader through clues and distractions (Berry 185-197).
Distract with Humor and Romance
Humor and romance are also excellent methods of distraction. The Scandalous Sisterhood is very funny, which frequently takes the attention of the reader away from the mystery and directs it toward the humorous goings-on.
Berry also offers three different young men as romantic interests for her young ladies: Constable Quill, Henry Butts, and Julius Godding. In addition to the Admiral whose love for the late Mrs. Plackett is quite ardent and provides not only romance, but humor, and even a little bit of pathos.
While McManus’ Two Can Keep a Secret is a more serious story, she too offers quite a bit of romance. Hers is of a more dangerous nature because any of the potential love interests could also be the killer.
Ellery Corcoran comes across the first gruesome message, “Murderland the Sequel, Coming Soon,” at the same time as Malcolm, the younger brother of one of the main murder suspects, does. He is also holding a can of red spray paint. Malcolm immediately proclaims his innocence. He is also very cute. All these factors add together to plant suspicion as well as doubt of that suspicion in the reader’s mind. McManus uses this strategy, here and elsewhere, to draw the reader back to the scene over and over.
Throughout the rest of the story, McManus continues to play with the reader’s ideas of Malcolm in this way, setting him up as a suspect and a love interest. She uses the reader’s emotional ties and romantic leanings to cause the reader to wonder if Malcolm is guilty or innocent.
Sneak in Red Herrings
Good red herrings are as important as good clues, and they are at their best when they trick the reader into thinking they are real clues, so treat them like real clues.
McManus does this to excellent effect in Two Can Keep a Secret. She sets up the whole series of bloody taunts discussed above and in Part 1. For most of the story, they appear to be real clues. Ultimately, they turn out to be red herrings. By emphasizing the graffiti incidents and building scenes around them as though they were obvious clues, McManus made them appear to be vitally important. In the end, they were merely a publicity stunt put into place by a fame-hungry teenager. McManus sets them up perfectly to distract from the real clues.
By treating red herrings like clues (make it incidental, offer a distraction either before or after it, make it its own mystery, etc.) you give another layer of distraction to the reader and can trick readers who are looking for clues into thinking the red herring is a real clue. When writing a mystery there is a balance between making it solvable and making it fun to figure out, and a well-placed red herring can help you do both.
Add a secondary mystery
Another way to keep the reader guessing is to distract the detective and the reader by adding a second mystery. In The Scandalous Sisterhood, Berry adds the second mystery of Mrs. Plackett’s money matters. The headmistress by all accounts, including her own ledgers, appears to have money troubles, but there are also signs that she has a hidden fortune. Based on correspondence the girls find, her no-account brother, Mr. Godding, seemed to think she was hiding a fortune, and the siblings had had an argument because of it. Dr. Snelling makes comments to the girls about a secret treasure. But other than two gold doubloons and a mysterious note from the Admiral, the girls can find no other sign of a fortune. Berry distracts her detectives and the reader from the murder mystery with the money mystery.
Mix and Match Mystery Clues
Along these lines, a clever author will give clues that appear to be about the second mystery but which are really about the first mystery. For example, in The Scandalous Sisterhood, in order to explain his absence, the girls have started and spread the story that Mr. Godding has abruptly left for India to visit his ailing young nephew. Berry has Mr. Godding’s landlady stop by St. Ethelreda’s School for Young Ladies to bring his things. The landlady is incensed. She says Mr. Godding owes her money, that he’s a womanizer and a gambler, and that he has probably left not for India but to renege on his debts. Smooth Kitty realizes that the landlady herself has been caught by his charms and is upset he left her (Berry 209-213).
While this is happening, the girls and the reader believe that the landlady’s information has to do with Mrs. Plackett’s money problems and that it proves that Mr. Godding is indeed the reason Mrs. Plackett has been having money troubles. However, these clues from the landlady are also important clues to the murder mystery. By doubling up the clues this way Berry keeps the reader guessing.
Consider Multiple Points of View
Another excellent way to keep the reader guessing is to tell the story from multiple points of view. By having the story told from varying perspectives, the reader sees things they might not otherwise, including, sometimes, from the perspective of the murderer, as Stephanie Perkins does in, There’s Someone Inside Your House.
These additional viewpoints allow the author to plant additional types of clues, red herrings, and distractions. Indeed, one of McManus’ best tools is frequently switching the point of view. Every time she changes the point of view, the reader must switch gears to get inside another character’s head, their way of thinking, and seeing the world, their biases, their past, and their thoughts on what is happening.
With every transition, the reader also must adjust to whether they believe this character is guilty or innocent. Possibly, the last character whose point of view had just read convinced the reader that, for instance, Malcolm was guilty. Now the reader is in Malcolm’s head, seeing things through Malcolm’s eyes. Does the reader still think Malcolm is guilty?
If done well, it’s harder to believe a character is guilty when you are reading from their point of view. While Perkins makes it clear that her murderer is the murderer when she goes into his point of view, she does not give away his identity, but rather gives clues through his point of view. McManus does not give any such clarity. In the end, none of McManus’ point of view characters is the murder, but she leaves the reader wondering until the very end.
5. Strong Momentum through the End
The best mysteries finish strong with a big reveal by the detective who has figured out the mystery. The detective should wrap things up tidily and use the clues that the reader can look back on and recognize. Hopefully, the reader will have already figured some of the mystery out for themselves (but not all of it), as one of the great pleasures of reading mystery stories is solving the puzzle.
Berry does a nice job of it in The Scandalous Sisterhood, where she ties both her mysteries up in one scene, although the mystery of what will happen to the seven girls must wait for the final resolution (hint, they get their happy ending) at the very end of the book. All seven of the girls get to weigh in, and they are even able to trick a confession from both criminals involved in both mysteries who are promptly arrested (Berry 295-312).
We’ve all read stories where even well-planned mysteries have an ending that disappoints, whether from the lack of plausibility, characters who behave inconsistently, or an unexpected and unlikely rescue. For a mystery to truly succeed, you must plan the ending as carefully as the rest of the story.
Mysteries are one of the most engaging and exciting forms of storytelling. They involve readers on a personal level by inviting them to participate in the solving of the mystery. Through careful planning and thoughtful use of stakes, tension, clues, red herrings, and distractions writers can create mysteries that can terrify even the toughest of thirteen-year-olds.
If you missed Part 1, check it out: Making a Mystery that Mystifies, Part 1
Or read Erin Nuttall’s introduction to our SIDEWRITING TAKEOVER.
Erin Nuttall holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI and ALAN. She lives outside of Chicago with her family where she writes stories for middle grade and young adult readers that offer a humorous take on friendship, identity, feminism, and romance.