Elements of a Good Mystery Story
Books of the mystery genre are characterized by their suspenseful, obscure nature. This is intended to excite curiosity in the reader, as well as engage the reader in the process of solving the mystery. There are a few unanimous characteristics of the mystery genre, which include a plot progression laced with clues and twists, a crime and a culprit, a detective, and a resolution or solution to the problem.
The plot is the most important part of a mystery. The plot must be believable but also progress at a fast enough pace for the reader to stay engaged. Clues must be interwoven throughout the plot and must unfold in a way that the reader may have slightly picked up on it. Above all, the plot must be thick with action and suspense, as this is what will drive the mystery of the story forward. Most mysteries plant false clues as well, to mislead the reader so that when the actual truth comes out, it is surprising and unexpected. These kinds of plot twists are very indicative of mysteries.
Crime and Culprit
At the root of a mystery is a crime and a culprit. The crime usually occurs within the first three chapters of a mystery, and the culprit remains unknown for the majority of the story. It is important that the reader know that there is a culprit, but not know who the culprit is without the build-up of clues over the course. It is also important that the reader understand the motive of the culprit. A villain without a motive will make the crime significantly less believable. The crime must be sufficiently violent but still believable; most readers are intrigued by the notion of figuring out a murder case, whereas a petty crime, such as theft, isn't quite as interesting and therefore not usually the topic of a mystery. Both the crime and the culprit act as a hook in a mystery story, making them crucial to the genre.
The detective generally must appear early on in a mystery story. The reader must be aware that there is a crime and a culprit and that there is a character striving to figure out the crime. The detective is usually likable and cautious, and the reader is essentially always intended to side with the detective throughout the progression of the crime case. It is also important that the detective figure out the crime in ways that are both rational and reputable. People most enjoy mysteries where the crime and method of solving the crime are realistic and believable.
Mystery fiction uses setting in a way that creates intrigue and generates excitement for the reader. It is generally a place that is familiar, to add a haunting element to the story, or it is at least somewhere that the reader can imagine and realistically see as the setting for a crime. Furthermore, setting is used as a tool for alluding to clues throughout the book. Sometimes authors of mystery books will casually mention a certain prop or item in the setting which later turns out to have been crucial all along in solving the mystery. Finally, grounding characters in a specific setting helps to add to the realism of the book. Even if it is fictional, the level of realness that the reader feels when reading the mystery book helps to increase and maintain the interest of the reader.
Solution to the Problem
While most mysteries wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit of the crime, they do generally ultimately do so. If the solution to the crime appears too early in the story, readers no longer have a reason to keep reading. Therefore, the solution to the problem generally appears in the last few chapters. Some mystery stories never actually arrive at a solution. In this case, the author chooses to instead have a cliffhanger ending. However, the majority of mysteries do end in some way that resolves the rising action of the plot and determines who was at the bottom of the crime the whole time.
Kathryn Stanley is a professional writer for various websites, covering fashion, science, the environment, food and baking, crafts and the arts. She studies psychology and creative writing at the University of Maryland at College Park.