Elements of a Good Mystery


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Welcome to my new series, Elements Of, where I will be outlining the features that make a genre, character, or subplot great. Today, I want to talk about mysteries. I love mysteries, both reading or watching them, and writing them mystery. In fact one of my projects for NaNoWriMo last year was a mystery. There are many features that go into making a great mystery, from the characters, to the pacing, to the setting. In this post, I’ll  be going through some of the basic elements of good mysteries, and will take a more in depth look at how they can help your writing. Bear in mind, these are just some of the elements that good mysteries have in common. There are plenty more. Maybe even enough for a part two! If you enjoy this post and would like to read a second instalment, let me know in the comments. And now, on to the post!

Ever since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the legendary detective, Sherlock Holmes, readers and writers alike have enjoyed the intricacies of the mystery genre. Whether you’re reading a mystery, watching one, or plotting one of your own, mysteries hold a strange fascination. There are all kinds of mysteries, from police thrillers, to the Sherlockian civilian detective, to the teen sleuth. However, they all have elements in common which, if written right, can make for a compelling mystery that will have readers holding their breath to the very last page. But what are these elements?

Elements Of A Good Mystery

A Limited Cast: Having a large cast doesn’t necessarily mean that your mystery is going to be more interesting, or more complex. In fact, in many cases, having a smaller cast works better, for several reasons.

Firstly, readers need to be able to remember who the major characters are. The larger the cast, the more chance there is that your readers are going to forget who’s who. If they have to stop and flip back through the pages to find out who Coronel Smith is and why he’s important to the story then maybe your characters aren’t interesting enough, or you may have too many of them. Either way, every time your readers have to stop to remember who someone is, they’re being pulled out of the story.

Secondly, having a smaller cast allows for more interaction with each of the suspects, and a tighter plot overall. Ideally, the villain should be present to the readers very early on in the book, along with all the other major suspects. Some of the best mysteries I’ve read, or seen, have involved the villain in person throughout the story, allowing readers to know him, but concealing his true role in the story. It also allows you to give more screen time to the other suspects.

Thirdly, having a smaller cast means that you can’t be lazy with your writing. If you want the final reveal to be effective, and you haven’t got a large cast to obscure the true villain, then you’re forced to be very clever in your writing to keep readers from guessing too early who the bad guy is. And the smarter you have to think, the better the writing will end up being.

Strong Motivations: All the suspects, not just the villain need strong motivations for why they could conceivably have committed the crime. The stronger the motivations of all the suspects, the harder it will be for the detective, and the readers to identify the villain, and the deeper the mystery becomes. This helps create tension and a sense of breathless uncertainty as readers are kept guessing who the villain could be. Giving all the suspects motives for committing the crime is an important part of creating a tightly woven plot, as well as concealing the real villain for longer.

Complex Characters: Apart from having a strong motivation for committing the crime, your suspects should stray into the grey areas morally. Yes, they might not have committed the murder, but they’re also not entirely as blameless, or disconnected from the crime as they would like people to believe. Often, good mysteries give all the suspects something to hide, or an involvement that throws doubt on their innocence. The more complex their background and involvement with the crime, the harder it is to completely rule them out as a suspect. As the clues start appearing and the detective unravels the case, these secrets are then able to come out, and the mystery can thicken naturally, keeping readers mystified but intrigued.

Plenty Of Clues: When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle effectively created the mystery genre, it was acceptable to keep readers completely in the dark about the solution until the very end of the mystery, when it would be presented to the reader through the Dr Watson character in full. The mysteries kept readers intrigued, but never gave them a chance to work out the solution for themselves.

Nowadays, it’s a lot harder to pull that kind of story off. Readers want to have a fair chance of solving the mystery themselves as it’s unravelling on the page. They want the satisfaction of putting together the clues to find the solution before the detective does. And they get a great sense of achievement if they can do so. Which means that you, as the writer, have a difficult balancing act to achieve. On the one hand, you want to be able to surprise your readers with the ending. It is a mystery after all. But at the same time, you also need to make it transparent enough to give them a chance to figure it out for themselves, if they’re smart enough to put all the clues together.

There are exceptions to this rule however, as there are with many of these elements. Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, for example, never gives readers a chance to solve the mystery for themselves. However, it compensates for this by presenting the mysteries with a beautifully unique setting, placing the stories in Botswana. By including cultural elements and stories, and weaving it together inside a more relaxed storytelling style, McCall gets away with keeping his readers mystified. However, should you want to break this rule yourself make sure you include some other element to the story to keep readers intrigued and interested.

A Ticking Clock: Every good mystery needs a good ticking clock driving the plot forwards. If your mystery doesn’t need to be solved in a certain timeframe, then it becomes much, much harder to create a sense of tension and urgency in the investigation. Whether your detective has to solve the crime before a bomb goes off, or a killer strikes again, or even before unscrupulous relatives steal the inheritance, they need some deadline. Without this, it’s very difficult to create enough suspect to keep readers on the edge of their seats. If your mystery could be solved at any time, or there’s no repercussions of it not being solved, then you’re missing out on a big tool that can give your story tension and drive the plot along.

A Clear Solution: Throughout the mystery, you’ve been working to give your readers enough clues to solve the mystery on their own, while simultaneously trying to hide the solution from them so you can surprise them. But, at the end of the book, your readers need to be able to understand the solution, and how you got there. You can plot the most unique mystery, have the best villain, have great tension and keep your readers guessing beautifully until the end of the book, but none of that counts for anything if, by the last page, your readers still don’t understand whodunit and how.

Much of the satisfaction of reading a mystery comes from the ending. All the plot threads must be drawn together, the solution needs to be logical, and it all needs to be laid out before the reader in an easy to understand fashion. Readers want and deserve answers at the end. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to rehash the entire plot in a huge summary at the end of the book, as Sherlock Holmes does when explaining his process to Dr Watson, but by linking clues logically throughout the book, when the final pieces fall into place at the end of the book, readers should be able to finally see the whole picture. And, after all, a satisfying ending is what every reader deserves at the end of a book. 

Thanks for reading the first post in my new series. Let me know what you thought of it! Are you excited to read more of these in the future? What genres, or topics would you like me to cover in the future? Are you interested in seeing a part two to this post? Or more posts on other parts of writing a mystery, such as how to plot one? Who is your favourite mystery writer? And tell me, have you ever written, or considered writing, a mystery of your own?

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  1. *hugs this post* Mystery is probably the genre I am most afraid to write. I think that's partly because I'm a punster, and mysteries seem like stories that would require a lot of intensive plotting, but maybe not? But I really, really, really loved what you said about complex characters, specifically where you mentioned the fact that it's so much better when each character, even the "innocent" ones, are more involved in the case than they would like to let on, and how each one has something guilty to hide. I love it when mysteries do that--I love the moral grayness that raises so many wonderful questions about life and right and wrong and gah. *nods* I would LOVE to see a part two of this post.

    One of my favorite mystery authors would be Steven James. I think his books would be more categorized as thrillers? But they're definitely mysteries as well, and I love how he pulls in a lot of questions about life and morality and God, but not in an even remotely preachy way. And they're just so intense and wonderful. I like Sherlock Holmes a lot, but I do get more gratification from being able to figure out the mystery for myself, which is why I might even prefer Agatha Christie's stories. I also like Edgar Allan Poe's detective stories.

    For suggestions on more Elements Of posts (aside from a mystery part two, which I would love to read), I would love to see ones on Fantasy, Science Fiction, Paranormal, good love triangles (because it would be interesting to see your in depth take on love triangles), YA dystopian, and anything else that you might think of. :D (Also, I won't be offended if you don't take all or any of those suggestions, because those are a lot of suggestions.) Anyway, I look forward to your next Elements Of post. :D

    1. I totally understand where you're coming from with mysteries. I'm very much a pantser in many ways, so plotting a mystery is a very difficult process for me, though I'm coming up with a better system at last (which I'm hoping to share in a post at some point if people are interested). But yes, the complex characters do so much for the intricacy and intrigue in a mystery. I've been watching a lot of mysteries recently, actually, and the ones I've liked best have had these complex characters that are nowhere as innocent as they seems. I just love that in a mystery.

      Yeah Sherlock Holmes stories seem to have fallen out of favourite more recently, apart from retellings, probably because it's so far removed now from the style of mystery that people really enjoy reading. I'm a big fan of Agatha Christie's books though. And Edgar Allen Poe's are interesting too. I think I had to read a couple of them for uni when we were studying mysteries, and I remember enjoying them very much indeed. I don't think I've read any of Steven James' books yet but I'm noting him down right now to look up some of his books. I can always do with a good mystery writer to track down.

      Ooh, such great suggestions! I've written them all down, and I'm definitely hoping to use some of them in the future. Thank you so, so much for these post suggestions. They're going to be so helpful.

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving me such a lovely long comment Liz. I'm so glad you enjoyed this post.

  2. I have read some great YA mysteries with a large cast of characters, but as a rule, I couldn't agree with you more.
    Of course we want the ticking clock. Without that sense of urgency, so much, if at all, of the excitement is lost in the story. I am really diggin' this new feature and look forward to reading more.

    1. Certainly, done well, large casts can work amazingly well. I've definitely read some of them myself. I think the following or not of this rule depends really on how hard the writer wants to work. You have to work hard when you write a small cast, because you don't have the cover of loads of characters, but at the same time, if you have a whole heap of characters, then you have to work extra hard to make them all memorable to the reader and useful to the plot. Both have their own challenges I guess. Thanks for stopping by Steph!

  3. I LOVE watching mysteries but I haven't read them in a long time and I haven't tried to write one in a long time, either. But I do love watching them. Between Sherlock, Elementary, and Castle, I have been gobbling up murder mysteries as of late... But I don't read them much, for some reason. I used to love the A-Z mystery books by Ron Roy, and I also liked Nancy Drew before it turns out that they were all written by a man and I disagree with a bunch of the things in them. Still... I do love mysteries. Not sure I can write them, but I still appreciate how you've put them out like this so that if I ever want to, I know where to go. I look forward to the rest of the series, Imogen!

    1. I used to love Nancy Drew. Didn't realise they were written by a man though, so that's interesting. I'm so glad you enjoyed this post. I always find t interesting just being able to pinpoint what works in the mysteries I read or watch. Hopefully you get something helpful out of these posts.

  4. This is neat. ^ ^ I'd like to see more of these. I've thought of writing mysteries in the past. I love Sherlock Holmes. My other favorite mystery is Castle!


    1. I haven't seen Castle actually, but I've heard good things about it. Perhaps it's time I looked it up. I'm so glad you want to see more of these! Thank you for commenting Victoria.


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