How to write a mystery: the definitive guide


If you want to learn how to write a mystery, first of all you have to know that writing a detective story means following very specific rules and schemes, like any genre novel, in order not to disappoint public expectations.

Along with the romance novel, the detective story is perhaps the one with the greatest constraints, but that doesn’t mean that all the yellows are the same or that you just need to copy the books of other crime writers to make sure you’ve written a good detective story.

So start from the study of these rules and from the analysis of the most famous detective stories, but then add your creativity.

The Yellow Genus

The date of birth of the yellow genus is usually indicated in 1841, year of publication of I delitti del via Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe, the first of the three stories in which appears the character of Auguste Dupin, an investigator who manages to solve the cases thanks to his enormous deductive abilities and without even going to the crime scene.

The character of Sherlock Holmes, the protagonist of the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, is certainly inspired by the character Dupin and in turn becomes a model for all subsequent yellow literature, populated by investigators with great logical and deductive skills: by detective Poirot of the thrillers of Agatha Christie, to the commissioner Maigret of the works of George Simenon, up to the Italian contemporaries, like the commissioner Montalbano, born from the pen of Andrea Camilleri, or the deputy manager Rocco Schiavone of Antonio Manzini.

The term yellow, however, is in use only in Italy, thanks to the fortune of the Il Giallo Mondadori series which from 1929 proposed detective novels in a graphic version with a yellow cover.

Since then in Italy yellow is synonymous (and even substitute) for detective stories, while in other countries this genre is the definitive detective novel, crime or mystery story.

The Characteristics Of The Yellow Genus

The yellow genus is therefore a genre in which rules matter a lot. Not that the rules can’t be overcome or circumvented, but if you want to write a crime novel you can’t ignore the fact that the lover of this kind of book wants to read a very precise story, it doesn’t want to understand immediately who is guilty, but wants to discover it with logic and above all it is trained to do it, so it loves precise plots and details.

The yellow reader is an attentive type and therefore if you want to write a mystery you must be equally careful.

Here are the 5 main characteristics of the yellow genus:

1) A culprit present from the beginning

The culprit can be any of the characters, even a minor character, but it must be present in the story from the beginning for the reader to follow in his footsteps.

But this is precisely the point that makes writing a mystery more difficult, because the culprit is under the eyes of the reader but the author must distract him throughout the novel so that he does not notice it.

2) A plot treated in detail

Yellow is the novel of observation and attention because thanks to these two qualities the detective can solve the case, and the reader with him.

For this reason there cannot be errors in the plot and everything must be organized by the author in detail.

False passages in the logical chain of events or errors of ingenuity in the motivations that push the characters to act would bring down all the delicate intertwining of clues cleverly disseminated on which the novel is based.

3) A logically deductible solution

Both reader and investigator must have the same possibilities to solve the enigma because all the clues are available to both and, logically connected, lead to the solution. This does not mean that all readers will understand who the culprit is, but the most experienced and passionate readers of the genre, accustomed to the mechanisms of criminal plots yes.

By the same principle the solution must be reached only thanks to the reasoning of the investigator (and of the reader, with him) and not thanks to an external help or because the investigator stumbles over it.

There may be fortuitous elements in the course of the plot that accelerate the course of the investigation, but, at least in a classic mystery, the reader must feel that the investigator would have arrived at the solution anyway and that for the offender there was no possibility of getting away with it.

4) A non-obvious solution

The greatest difficulty in writing of this kind consists precisely in organizing the plot so that the solution of the crime is not easy and immediate and for this reason the author can often lead the reader to false leads.

Moreover one of the most fascinating features of the mystery is that the crime or crime at the center of the story is a crime that anyone could have committed, driven by the right reasons. For this reason, at the center of the narration there are never crimes committed by criminal organizations, which would instead be impersonal and devoid of human involvement.

The crime that involves the most is that driven by psychological dynamics in which it is easy for the reader to empathize: greed, jealousy, thirst for power.

In this way not only is the human and psychological side of the story stronger, but it is also easier to construct false leads and sow suspicions about false suspects, because the culprit could be anyone.

5) A unique solution

During the course of the detective story there may be false leads and suspicions that suggest doubt in the reader by shifting his attention to one now and to another suspect, but in the end the solution must unambiguously clarify who is guilty and which is was his motive.

The other suspects must therefore be clearly exonerated and the doubts and suspicions previously created to art must be dissolved.

When the reader reaches the last line he must be sure that he has closed the case and must not, instead, remain with the suspicion that perhaps it could have been someone else or that perhaps something has not been clarified.

In short, unresolved cases or judicial errors leave them to reality: at least in the mystery novels the case is solved!

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