Learning how to write mystery is easy when you understand the ingredients of mystery and suspense. Every good story has unknowns readers want answered, yet a good mystery makes us need to know. Here are 6 ways to create suspense and build mystery:
First, what are mystery and suspense?
‘Mystery’ itself has many meanings. As a literary genre, a mystery is ‘A novel, play, or film dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder’ (Oxford English Dictionary).
Mystery, more generally, means ‘secrecy or obscurity’ and ‘A person or thing whose identity or nature is puzzling or unknown’ (OED).
Thus while a classic murder mystery like an Agatha Christie novel involves the puzzling nature of solving crimes, any book may have elements of the puzzling and unknown.
In a fantasy novel, for example, a villain’s real identity (or the scope of their power) may be a mystery at first. In a romance novel, the identity of a mysterious, desirable stranger may be the central mystery to begin.
These unknowns, and how a story circles around these mysteries, create suspense. Suspense is ‘a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen’. This is an integral part of all storytelling. Suspense gives the question we ask most often as readers: What will happen next?
To create mysterious suspense, you may:
1. Conceal a character’s true identity
Fiction (and not only the mystery genre) is full of characters whose true identities are unknown.
The unknown, criminal perpetrator is one of the most obvious types of concealed identity. Yet concealment isn’t only reserved for criminals. In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, for example, a mystery benefactor leaves Pip, the protagonist, a small fortune, changing his life completely.
Dickens sets us up to believe that the benefactor is the wealthy Miss Havisham, but we later discover the real benefactor was another, more unsavoury character.
In this case, Dickens conceals the doer of a non-criminal deed, and the revelation makes us reconsider everything we (and Pip) assume about why he was given his fortune.
Another classic example of suspenseful concealed identity involves gender identity. In Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, the protagonist Viola is separated from her twin brother Sebastian in a shipwreck on the coast of Illyria. She disguises herself as a man named ‘Cesario’ in order to serve a local Duke while seeking her brother.
This concealment creates suspense, as the audience wonders when Viola’s actual sex will be found out and her gender performance unmasked. A love triangle between the character, the Duke (whom Viola/Cesario falls in love with) and the woman the Duke himself loves (Olivia) complicates this narrative tension further.
Here, suspense is created by the audience knowing something about a character other characters don’t.
To create suspense by concealing identity you can thus:
- Hide the identity behind an act: Whether a murderer or a generous giver (as in the Dickens’ example)
- Have a character don a disguise or role to achieve their goals: The gap between the reader’s knowledge of the truth and other characters’ awareness of it creates suspense
[Brainstorm characters and plot events using the step-by-step prompts in the Now Novel dashboard.]
2. Create chains of small revelations
Learning how to write mystery means learning to ‘drip out’ suspense. Drop small revelations like a trail of crumbs for readers. The murderer leaves a footprint and we know their shoe size, the pattern of their treads.
These small ‘giveaways’ are useful because you can milk them for further suspense and mystery. For example, perhaps the pattern of treads in a footprint suggest the wearer has unusually small feet for a male.
This could lead the detective to be distracted all the time by the size of suspects’ feet. Prior revelations load further action and encounters with meaning and possible significance.
This approach to creating plot points – planting information like puzzle pieces – is key to creating suspense. As you create incidents that reveal just a little, ask ‘why?’ Why is this revelation useful or important?
When your mystery is a character’s identity, revelations may include:
- Physical remainders: What careless personal effects or trail (footprints, fingerprints, paperwork) does the character leave behind?
- Giveaway behavioural patterns: For example, a killer who is a scout leader might tie elaborate knots and leave other signs of specialist knowledge
- Tip-offs and rumours: In mystery, there’s always a character who knows more than they’re letting on. Even in books like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, we find out characters have more knowledge than we assumed, later in the story
Think of chains of revelation and how they stack up. To take the footprint example above, a sequence could be:
- Detective notices size of the print: Narrows down possible suspects
- They notice details of the tread: Maybe it reveals a specific brand or style of shoe, giving something to look for
- Errors behind assumptions: For example, perhaps the tread belongs to a witness who fled the scene
3. Sidetrack your sleuths
No discussion of how to write mystery is complete without the ‘red herring’. A ‘red herring’ is an item of information that leads a character (and the reader) to false conclusions. It’s an object or action that we might perceive to have major significance initially. Yet later it turns out to have led us to false assumptions or suspicions. Solving a mystery depends on following signs and associations, and signs can point your reader down dead ends.
For example, a suspect may have a particular item in their possession belonging to a murder victim. This makes them appear more suspicious by association. Yet there could be an innocent reason why they possess said object.
You can sidetrack your sleuth (investigators and readers) and create suspense by:
- Giving events misleading significance: A flashlight blinking on and off in a window at the same time every night might seem ominous at first. Yet we discover it’s two teens way to signal to each other to get on a Skype call to discuss a friend’s disappearance
- Showing false assumptions: In a mystery romance, for example, a romantic lead could mistake a would-be lover’s close friend for a romantic rival. The reader wonders how this false assumption will play out
- Creating sidetracking subplots: While investigating a crime, a detective may be roped into dealing with townspeople’s other personal problems. These may indirectly furnish further details helpful to solving the case, while also sidetracking and distracting
Once you have established the main unknown (e.g. a character’s disappearance), each little event or action may be loaded with meaning. From flashlights at night to sightings of strangers acting suspiciously near the scene of a crime, anything may provoke further uncertainty.
4. Show intriguing actions without immediate explanation
‘Show, don’t tell’ is often abused advice. Eplanatory exposition is sometimes necessary and effective. Still, in mystery showing rules. When you show unusual or odd actions without explaining their significance to the reader immediately, you make your reader wonder why. Why this specific scene/action? What does it tell me?
Take, for example, the reboot of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s cult murder mystery TV show, Twin Peaks.
Near the start of the season, the viewer sees the local therapist Dr Lawrence Jacoby spray-painting shovels gold. The action is a little creepy and we wonder what this gesture means. In the context of a murder mystery, we might associate shovels themselves with suspicious activity (such as digging a hiding place or grave).
It turns out Jacoby is a conspiracy theorist who drums up fear about government and pharmaceutical companies on his regular podcast. He also sells his golden shovels to his followers, via an infomercial where he stands in mud holding one, telling viewers to buy a golden shovel so they can ‘dig’ themselves ‘out of the shit’. The build-up of the strange ritual of spray-painting shovels turns out to lead to absurd humour poking fun at hokey advertising.
Even though strange actions don’t lead to a revelation relevant to the show’s biggest mysteries, the writers milk a simple, strange action for great narrative suspense.
The example above shows the power of delaying explanation, sometimes. Remember to trust in your reader’s patience and imaginative ability to supply their own interpretation of events until you reveal the ‘real’ meaning.
5. Build suspense through sentence and scene construction
We could discuss how to write mystery purely in terms of genre and literary terms and devices. Yet how we use language itself is also key to creating suspense.
For example, putting the ‘a-ha’ moment of a sentence in the final clause makes the sentence build to this revelation. For example:
‘It was unusual (though there were one or two brands that used a similar design), and if it were not for the manufacturer’s logo (the letters barely legible) imprinted in the hardening mud just outside a back window, the detective may have had no idea what shoe type had left the footprint. But she knew exactly the type (gumboots, Another Day brand), and even the location of the supplier’s factory outlet – just a mile out of town. She could get there before closing if she hurried.’
If we read over the sentence and examine its structure, we see how it piles on questions before answering some. Each clause creates questions: A) What was unusual? B) There were several brands of what? C) Why is the manufacturer’s logo important? Only by the time we get to ‘this particular print’ is it clear a character is trying to find further leads from a footprint.
A caveat to using suspenseful sentence construction
Delaying revelation in sentence construction and scenes is a simple yet effective way to keep your reader guessing. Yet balance building sentences like the one above with shorter, simpler ones. If we make every sentence long and climactic, the effect starts to tire. Keep this technique for moments of high intrigue (such as a detective caught in complex pondering, in piecing together evidence).
Similarly, when developing a mysterious scene, delay major revelations for final paragraphs and sentences, so your reader has every reason to turn the page.
6. Use mysterious, suspenseful dialogue
Dialogue is a great device for creating implications, mysteries and inferences.
For example take this scene: A detective visits a local dive bar. The owner inclines their head slightly towards a man sitting drinking alone in the corner, saying, “You want to keep an eye on that one.”
This brief exchange creates immediate suspense and curiosity. Why is the lone drinker a person of interest? Are they mixed up in dubious dealings? Or are they simply a troublemaker who might interfere in investigations?
Keep characters’ motives in mind when writing dialogue to create suspense. Perhaps, for example, the proprietor of the bar has personal grievances to the lone man. Great mysteries show how difficult it is to find the truth. Because everyone has a view, an agenda, a public life, a private one.
Cryptic words or phrases also help make dialogue mysterious or suspenseful. Yet don’t overdo it by making every sentence so obscure that your reader is totally lost.
In Lynch and Frost’s reboot of Twin Peaks, for example, we see a drug addict sitting at a table shouting ‘ONE ONE NINE!’ hysterically over and over. Although this isn’t explained and given any context, observant viewers noticed this is the North American emergency number ‘991’ backwards. Speaking backwards, in the world of Twin Peaks, is associated with paranormal portal-like locations called ‘lodges’ through which destructive spirits can enter our world. Thus these simple but mysterious shouts could indicate paranormal activity, or simply the character’s drug-induced ravings. Giving dialogue ‘double’ and elusive meaning at times makes it suspenseful and open to interpretation.
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