Friday, October 30, 2015

The Mystery of Writing: Keep Your Readers Guessing by Laura Wolfe

Are you writing a mystery? Or thinking about writing a mystery? These tips will help my fellow mystery writers to keep readers engaged from the first page to the last. 

1.  Start with an intriguing premise. The central mystery in your work should be one that makes a reader turn the page and want to know more. In other words, the premise should raise multiple questions that beg for answers. "Who robbed the bank?" is not as intriguing as "Who emptied the vaults of five banks on the same day in a quaint Midwestern town without anyone seeing?" In the second example the reader automatically wants to know not only Who did it?, but How did the robber hit five banks in one day?, and Why didn't anyone see?, and What's the real story behind this "quaint" town?

2.  Introduce a few seemingly irrelevant clues toward the beginning of your work. Start with a couple of minor clues and build toward more frequent and important clues toward the end. These strategically-placed hints toward the beginning should not be so obvious that they give away the answer to the mystery. Instead, the clue should make the reader think, That's odd. And then later, Aha! It all makes sense now. For example, in Trail of Secrets, the MC, Brynlei, realizes someone stole her deodorant shortly after she arrives at the riding academy. While Brynlei thinks the occurrence is strange, the reader can sense something more sinister. It isn't until the central mystery of the missing girl is solved that the reader realizes its significance.

3.  Give the reader plenty of suspects to choose from (but not so many it becomes confusing.) As your MC discovers new information, she should start to view formerly friendly characters in a more suspicious light. For example, maybe your MC is certain the creepy P.E. teacher is the one who strangled her French teacher, but then she sees the nice man next door digging a hole in his backyard in the middle of the night. Or maybe your MC discovers the new transfer student from France lied about an important piece of her past. Anyone can be a suspect! Just don't go crazy. Keep the viable suspects to less than five, and make sure to explain away any suspicious behavior for people who are not the guilty party.  
4.  Raise the stakes to keep readers turning the pages. Mysteries aren't always page-turners, but they should be! Here are a few ways to raise the stakes and keep readers on the edges of their seats:

  • Put a timeline on solving the crime (e.g. The MC's brother will be sentenced to death if the MC can't find the real murderer in a certain amount of time);
  • Take away your MC's friend, helper,  or support system;
  • Have the police accuse the MC of the same crime she is trying to solve; and/or
  • Make the suspect aware that the MC is onto him, and reverse the chase!

5.  Make sure the answer to the mystery is a good one! When the mystery is solved, keep your promise to the reader. Don't have the MC discover that everything actually happened exactly the way the police said it did, or that the secret room your MC finally uncovers behind the grandfather clock is really just used as a broom closet. Those are NOT the prizes readers want to find at the end of your book. Give them something scandalous and unexpected. Instead, maybe the police chief stages the crime to cover for his son who is the real murderer, or the secret room behind the clock is used to hide a dead body. See the difference?

I hope these tips help you write your next mystery! I can't wait to guess, "Who dunnit'?"

Laura Wolfe lives in Milford, MI. She is a wife, mother, and lover of nature and animals (especially horses!) Her debut novel, Trail of Secrets, was published in August 2015 by Fire and Ice YA. Laura's picture book, Henrietta's Hoof Polish, is forthcoming from Guardian Angel Publishing. Laura is a member of Sisters in Crime and the SCBWI. 

More about Laura here: 

It's time for another SCBWI-MI Member Spotlight. Who will it be? Find out next Friday.
Happy Halloween weekend!


  1. Thank you Laura for this great post. I'm adding some mystery elements to a WIP and this helped me think about them differently. Great job!

    1. Thank you, Erin! Can't wait to read your mystery!

    2. Thanks, Carrie! Good luck with your WIP!

  2. Excellent posting. I'm in the middle of revising a mystery and will refer back to this blog as I go forward!

    1. Thanks, Erin! Can't wait to read your mystery!