Playing Fair in Mystery Novel Writing
By Evan Braun

Let me start with a classic example of what not to do. Say that you’re writing a mystery novel and you’re eager to surprise the reader with a shocking twist at the end. All well and good!

(Bear in mind that it doesn’t have to be a mystery novel, specifically. Even if you’re not writing a mystery, or a thriller, something heavy with suspense, chances are there will be some mystery element in any story you write. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel without some kind of mystery element, some puzzle that the characters are forced to puzzle over.)

But back to that surprise ending you’re trying to craft.

After careful thought and much deliberation, here’s what you decide to do. Your book opens with a young man being murdered while walking the foggy streets of London, and over the course of the story you introduce three suspects, all with compelling reasons to have wanted to kill that man. Your story grows and develops and the detective works hard to try to solve the mystery—and then bang! In the end, it’s revealed that the real murderer isn’t one of three prime suspects at all, but rather a previously unintroduced bartender whom the victim had failed to tip on his last night out on the town. The end.

Well, the reader is shocked all right. That ending came straight out of left field.

But does it work? I would say no, and most editors and publishing professionals would agree with me. In fact, most readers will probably throw your book at the wall hard enough to dent the drywall. Why? Because you haven’t played fair.

In other words, you didn’t leave the necessary clues. Maybe you didn’t leave these clues because you didn’t want the reader to solve the mystery before the characters did. You wanted to preserve the surprise ending at all costs.

Unfortunately, a surprise ending isn’t worth much—and it certainly isn’t satisfying to the reader—if they don’t have any chance of putting the clues together. Trying to solve the puzzle before the characters do is a big part of the fun (probably the biggest). Surprise endings only work when all the clues have been present all along, hidden in plain sight, but the reader failed to see them. The moment of a well-constructed puzzle falling into place… that’s the hit that all mystery lovers crave.

The key to preserving the surprise is to provide all the clues—but subtly, employing misdirection to keep the reader from noticing their importance. Perhaps have the clues seem insignificant. Or perhaps cause the characters to plausibly misinterpret the clues, or even dismiss those clues entirely out of hand.

After all, you shouldn’t take it easy on your readers!

So when crafting a mystery, be sure to make it hard to figure out. But note the one line you should never cross: don’t make it impossible.

About this Contributor:

Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.

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