Everyone enjoys a good who-dunnit. We all like to be kept on the edge of our seats, waiting for the inexplicable suddenly to clear.
But how does a writer go about writing a winning mystery? Ahh, that's easier said than done. Still, with a little forethought, lots of perseverance, and plenty of creativity, even a novice mystery writer can write his own literary ticket to success.
So, let's take a look at what makes a good mystery tick.
First, a mystery is simply a story about the unknown. We don't necessarily care at this point just what that unknown is, so long as it's unfathomable to the reader. A writer creates mystery by actively working to prevent his reader from knowing the truth. Take a look at this example:
A car roars by a fast-food restaurant. A Muslim suicide bomber dressed in a black robe leaps out the car's back door and goes tumbling through the crowd. Dazed and barely conscious, he comes to rest in a pool of blood in the courtyard, where several people cluster around, anxious to help. Suddenly a bomb hidden beneath his coat explodes, sending tables and chairs, shards of glass and human flesh flying.
Mystery? Hardly. The writer has explained it all--except, of course, why it happened. But once you know what happened, the "why," except in psychological thrillers, is rarely more than an also-ran. What spoils the plot for this mini-mystery? Well, for starters, we know that the man in the car is Muslim. We know that he leaped from the car, that he's a suicide bomber, and we instinctively know what suicide bombers do. We know that a bomb explodes from beneath his coat, and we know the horrific results.
Now check out this version of the same story:
A car roars around the corner. It slows briefly before a fast-food restaurant and the back door flies open. Perched halfway out of the car is a man wearing a long coat, despite the grueling mid-August heat. As the driver hits the accelerator, the man flies out of the car, tumbling through the crowd until his body slams up against the brick facade of the building, where he lay for several minutes in a swelling pool of blood. A crowd gathers. A woman undoes his coat. Stepping back in horror, she screams.
Now, all of a sudden, we have a ton of mystery. Who are the people in the car? Why did the driver slow down? What made the car door open? Why was the man perched at the edge of the door? Why was he wearing a long coat in the middle of summer? Why did the driver suddenly hit the accelerator? What sent the man flying from the car--did he leap, or was he shoved? Who is the man? Is he dead or alive? What did the woman see that made her scream? And, most importantly of all, what's going to happen next?
Mystery. So much mystery. And all because the writer of the second passage chose to hold back some very pertinent information from his reader, to prevent his reader from learning more.
Holding back information from the reader is the lifeline of all mystery. Doing so accomplishes two things.
First, it keeps the reader in the dark and, presumably, makes him want to know more. He doesn't know what happened or why, so he's forced to guess (everyone wants to know if his "hunch" is right). That creates tension and intrigue within the reader and keeps him turning the pages, coming back for more.
Second, holding back information creates multiple avenues of action for the writer to explore. As a writer unfolds a mystery, even one that has been impeccably outlined, he slowly, deliberately doles out new possibilities, new wrinkles, new clues. Changing an outline on-the-fly to incorporate new concepts is often one of the most enjoyable things about writing a mystery. Not only has the writer figured the mystery out in advance of starting the book, but also he gets numerous opportunities to alter the mystery's course along the way to its completion. Talk about fun!
But what--I know you're getting ready to ask--makes a run-of-the-mill mystery a great mystery? After all, mystery is mystery, isn't it? Withholding information is withholding information, no matter how it's done.
Well, that's true, but only to a point. A well-done, stylistic mystery, as I define it, is an unmistakable uniqueness to a character or a situation. Here's an example of mystery with very little "style" in its opening graf:
John watched as the young woman got onto the bus and slipped into a seat across the aisle. As she opened her purse to reach for a tissue, he saw the unmistakable glint of hardened medal--blued metal--the kind of metal you find nowhere else but on the barrel of a gun. "Now what the hell would she be doing with a gun?" he wondered.
That's an example of what I call a generic mystery scene. It works. It creates suspense; but it carries little, if any, style. Now, listen to this version of the same scene:
John settled into his seat, his knees pressing hard against the metal frame before him. His eyes, twin slits in an otherwise placid face, scanned the bobbing heads of the passengers--"I hate buses," he thought--finally settling on the sylvan shape of a young lady picking her way slowly down the aisle. She stumbled awkwardly to one side as the bus veered left before continuing its way through late-night traffic.
Grabbing the polished metal frame of the seat just across the aisle and in front of John, she slid down into the time-worn vinyl. She shifted her hat and tilted her head. John ran his slits down the side of her body, the red chintz of her dress, her heels--black backless with no straps--and then back up again in time to see her open her purse and reach inside for a tissue. The slits suddenly widened. Peeking out at him from the corner of the bag was the gaping muzzle of a snub-nosed revolver--its time-dulled steel-grey complexion in marked contrast to the honey-blonde hair dancing only inches above it.
Notice how the second passage relays the same sense of mystery as the first one: the reader knows that John saw a gun in the woman's purse and that he wondered what it was doing there.
But the second passage goes on to spread a thin layer of jam across the bun. Its sweet, sticky tastiness draws the reader in more deeply, gives him a sense of what the characters are all about ... and maybe what the tone of the story is about, too--something the first passage fails to do.
It accomplishes all of this, of course, through description. Not just general descriptive banter, but description that adds to the sense of mystery, of the hush-hushedness, of something going on that the reader can't quite fathom.
In the second passage, the woman suddenly becomes a lady. John's eyes are narrow slits. Her form is sylvan. She wears a hat and tilts her head forward. Her dress is red chintz; her heels, black strapless. The gun is a deadly snub-nosed revolver. Its coloring is time-dulled steel grey; while her hair is honey blonde.
All of these descriptive references feed into the reader's sense of heightened mystery. By the time these paragraphs are history, the reader is absolutely convinced that something wonderful, something awful, something sinister and unpredictable is going to take place here. And, chances are, the reader is right. The author has succeeded.
So, you want mystery? Plan in advance. Work carefully. Give the reader enough information to make sense but not enough to make too much sense. Never, ever give him enough to allow him to figure out who did what and why until you're ready to tell all.
You want mystery with style? Give the reader exactly the same thing and then some through careful use of description ... but still leave him wondering--and wanting--more.