So this is my simplified approach to concocting your own basic mystery. There are no set rules for what order you come up with things. Sometimes it’s best to roll with what wants to develop and leave the rest for later. So don’t feel hemmed in by the ordering. To quote Pirates of the Caribbean, the rules are really more like guidelines. Ready?
1. Every mystery needs a sleuth and they come in all genders, styles, and time periods. You have two basic categories: professional and amateur.
A professional sleuth is an investigator by trade, but you have plenty of options: police investigators, private investigators, consultants, FBI agents, and so on. Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes fall into that category.
An amateur sleuth often has some sort of personal connection to the mystery or knows someone who does. Anyone that you can dream up can become an amateur sleuth. Examples include Miss Marple and Lord Wimsey.
Sleuths are often rule breakers and risk takers. They’re determined to get to the bottom of things no matter what – or who – gets in the way. Even if it’s their job, your sleuth needs the motivation deep down to keep going despite obstacles. They can be likable, they can be ornery (and still likable), they can even be misfits. The important thing is that you like your sleuth for one reason or another.
2. Your second assignment is to think of a mystery your sleuth has to solve. While murder mysteries are common they aren’t the only way to go. For instance, something of importance could be lost or stolen, someone could disappear (she doesn’t have to turn up dead), or a shady person with lots of secrets could show up. Mystery by definition is something that’s kept secret or unknown. That leaves room for interpretation and creativity. I generally write non-traditional mysteries and I like to fuse genres. So go with what you like and what intrigues you and don’t worry about what you think you should write. Just let loose and have fun!
3. Finally, you need a villain. Someone has to take the blame for all the trouble, right? Don’t spend so much time on your sleuth and mystery and then shortchange your villain. He’s also allowed feelings and complexities and problems. In fact, one or all of these may be what drives him to do what he does. You can set out to create a villain from scratch or she may pop her head out of the already existing cast members. What matters is that her role makes sense to you and that she’s a fair match for your sleuth.
So just like that we have the three essential elements of a basic mystery: a sleuth, a mystery for him/her to solve, and a villain running amok. There is nothing like coming up with that juicy idea that leaves you scrambling for a pen or a new document on your computer. Let the ideas swim around up there and eventually you will happen upon an idea that makes you do just that!
Illustration by Nick Lee.