06 April 2014

How to Write a Mystery

We love surprises, almost as much as we love being right. As I see it, if I couldn't predict the ending on House or Law and Order, the show wasn't set up right. I like a puzzle, but I like one I have a chance of solving. I've got to say that the formulas were probably at least 50% of what kept me coming back (I also needed a regular character drama fix, part of what keeps me coming back to Bones LONG after the proverbial shark jump.)

It's true I don't read a lot of mystery, but I'm a sucker for some televised brain candy. It may be snooty, but that's what I think a lot of "genre" writing is: brain candy. Still, I think writing with a formula, learning to apply conventions, is an excellent exercise for the budding author. My kiddos really like it too.

Start with a Classic Example
A classic mystery calls for a classic detective, like Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, or Philip Marlowe. Fortunately for me, Red Wind by Raymond Chandler is online in its entirety. I plan to just give students a taste, the first two chapters, because mostly I want to focus on the conventions for setting up the mystery. Plus Chandler's got it all: hyperbolic narration, witty repartee, and herrings so red they glow (you might want to do a little cultural scaffolding beforehand to elucidate the meaning of "private dick" for the less mature, though).

Break down Exposition Conventions 
I really like "How to Write a Mystery Whodunit Novel" for breaking down standard plot devices, characterization, and setting. I made a Schoology "quiz" applying several of these elements to the first chapter of Red Wind, wherein students identify characteristics of the protagonist, killer, victim, and witness. Then I have them "rule out" different plot devices designed to conceal the crime that the article lists but which are not possible based on the set up for this particular Chandler story:


  • The least likely suspect
  • The most obvious suspect
  • The perfect alibi
  • Having a mastermind criminal

HOW is it concealed?
  • Playing with time of death
  • A crime that happened in the past resurfaces
  • "No one ever notices a servant..."
  • Using disguise or impersonation
  • True identities are concealed
  • The missing element

Next, students use contextual evidence to...
  1. Describe the crime scene (location, position, condition of the body)
  2. Describe the killer's methods (weapon, preparation level--accidental, spontaneous, premeditated, and escape
  3. Theorize the killer's motivations and relationship to the victim
Finally, I encourage them to get creative with some typical plot devices for revealing. They choose one of the plot devices below and sum up how the story COULD end:
  • The locked room problem
  • The primary clue is hidden in plain sight
  • A chance remark
  • The unreliable character that says true

Break down Rising Action: Clues and Red Herrings
Scott Mortenson's "Fishing and Farming: Red Herrings & Planting Clues" helped me analyze the art of adding evidence and false leads (though it's a little heavy on the--ahem--"DNA" talk to use with kiddos). I like how he starts with the old joke about the bus driver that's set up like a word problem to illustrate how to hide clues and his advice on red herrings: "...bait, leading the detective (and reader) away from the truth. But treat them like any other regular clue for the best effect."

So in another Schoology "quiz" on Chapter 2, I have students put 10 clues in order then explain how different types of evidence Mortenson cites make a character look guilty and how others make her look innocent:

  • alibis
  • murder weapons
  • fingerprints
  • physical details
  • dialogue
  • lies
  • relationships
  • behavior
I also have them take a stab at what might be the main red herring of the chapter.

Plot Your Story
Once students have analyzed the Red Wind excerpts, it's time for them to start their own stories! I think we'll start with creating labeled diagrams of their crime scenes and a timeline of the murderer's actions from the time he/she decides to kill until the time of the murder ("How to Write a Mystery Whodunit Novel" suggests plotting from the murderer's point of view, but writing from the detective's.)

Then they will come up with one clue for each of the nine categories, two of which will be red herrings. They will then arrange the clues on a "story mountain" plotline.

Flesh out Your Protagonist and Begin
We'll look at a chart comparing Sherlock to Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot and add Phillip Marlowe, maybe House or Bones or some of those CSI or NCIS guys (depending on their tastes), ourselves. Then they'll come up with some quirks, physical features, backstory, and professional roles for their "detectives" to make a character sketch.

Then we'll start the story with the protagonist arriving at the scene and making observations. Work in his/her quirks and physical features and professional role, and you're off and running!


  1. Love the idea Laura - we 'do'/solve a murder mystery in my Gr 12 class - and now I see that something like this might be a great extension!

  2. I LOVE mysteries! I read them all of the time, too. I always wanted to be a mystery writer. Have you watched Criminal Minds? It is twisted... but soooo good!