Storytelling

Seven Tips for a Satisfying Mystery

A set of watch gears shown through a magnifying glass.
Everyone loves a good mystery. But mystery stories have a common problem: no satisfaction at the end. That’s because everything in the story leads to a big reveal about whodunit. Reveals are always tricky to pull off, so if the story’s not firing on all cylinders, the audience will be disappointed. Let’s go over seven tips to avoid that terrible fate.

1. Establish the Supernatural Ahead of Time

A black and white photo of a magician sawing a box in half.

Mysteries are all about figuring out who did something and usually how they did it. That’s tricky enough in the real world, but in spec fic, we have magic and advanced tech to contend with as well. Any supernatural elements have the potential to turn an investigation on its head, and the more elements your story has, the bigger a problem this will be.

That’s why it’s so important to establish how the magic or tech in your story works as early as possible. Granted, this is a good idea in most stories, but it’s critical in mysteries because a big part of the audience’s enjoyment comes from speculating about the crime. That’s impossible as long as a story’s supernatural elements are a big question mark.

Consider: In a conventional mystery, a character having an alibi means they probably didn’t commit the crime. Any further investigation of that character would revolve around the legitimacy of their alibi or seeing if they conspired with someone else. But in a world with magic, that could all go out the window. If long-distance magic exists, they could have committed the crime from the comfort of their living room. If summoning magic exists, they could easily have conjured a minion to do the deed.

Both of those scenarios are valid options for a mystery, but the audience needs to know about them. Otherwise, the story will be perpetually confusing, because the audience has no idea what’s possible and what’s not.

It can work for the story to have a type of magic or tech that the protagonist doesn’t know about, but this must be carefully foreshadowed. With foreshadowing, an unknown magic power can make for a really cool twist as the hero discovers that actually Old Man Wilkins could clone himself the whole time! But if you do this more than once, it will seem like the crime-solving protagonist is wildly unqualified for this investigation. You wouldn’t get someone from the 1700s to investigate a plane crash.

2. Be Careful With Patterns and Statistics

The silhouette of a man looking at documents with data and graphs in the background.

In a lot of mystery stories, it’s common for the protagonist to make assumptions based on patterns rather than on direct evidence. They might look into a murder victim’s family and friends before investigating strangers or prioritize the people they know visited a museum the day it was robbed. This isn’t a problem on its own, but it’s easy to take things too far.

Most immediately, audiences will expect actual evidence before the protagonist decides whodunit. It’s reasonable to be suspicious of the butler when the mansion is robbed, but the protagonist shouldn’t immediately assume guilt based on that connection unless you want them to look incompetent. That might sound obvious, but I’ve seen more than a few stories make that mistake.

Going a little deeper, many of these well-known patterns are actually unfounded stereotypes, especially when marginalized identities are involved. A protagonist who proclaims they can tell a murderer’s gender based on how the murder was carried out will not only look incompetent, but they’ll look sexist too. This kind of proclamation is best avoided.

Some authors try to get around this by using statistics, but that can be deceptive too. Surely it wouldn’t be misogynist for the protagonist to deduce that the murderer is a woman because the victim was poisoned, right? That seems to check out, since a higher percentage of female murderers use poison than their male counterparts. But if you look a little deeper, men commit so many more murders overall that any random poisoner is still far more likely to be male.

So if your protagonist is going to use statistics as part of their investigation, make sure you’ve done the research to understand what those statistics mean. Getting it wrong not only annoys the statisticians in your audience but also spreads false information that can do real damage. And even if you get everything correct, the hero should still have direct evidence before they decide who the culprit is. Otherwise, the hero’s choice won’t be convincing.

3. Don’t Conceal POV Information

Two kids hiding from a third kid in a hay pile.

If you’ve ever tried writing a mystery, you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s difficult. You’re trying to line up events so that everything makes sense at the end, but also in a way that stops your audience from guessing what’s going to happen. This contradiction is what keeps so many writers up late at night, wailing and gnashing their teeth.

Given these inherent difficulties, it’s no surprise that a lot of storytellers turn to concealing information to preserve the mystery. That way they can have the protagonist act on critical information without making things too obvious for the reader.

There’s only one problem with this plan: it’s incredibly contrived. This is especially bad in written stories with a close narration, where audiences expect to know everything the POV character knows, but it’s not great in any medium. The first issue you’ll run into is that a protagonist acting on unknown information is likely to confuse the audience. If the audience doesn’t understand what’s happening, they might not stick around for the final reveal that explains everything.

Just as importantly, it makes solving the mystery far less satisfying. Instead of a brilliant detective putting all the clues together, your hero will seem like Captain Obvious. The audience may even resent them for solving the mystery on easy mode. “Yeah, I could probably have figured out who the murderer was, too, if you’d told me the knife had a pair of initials etched on the handle!”

Of course, not concealing information from the audience leaves you with the same difficulties you had before, but it’s better to deal with them head on. Having a few people figure out your ending ahead of time will do far less damage than hiding critical information.

4. Make Red Herrings Plausible

Two salmon resting on the bottom of a river. These are the ultimate red herrings because they’re actually salmon.

Red herrings are a vital tool in mystery stories. They give your hero something to do before figuring out what’s really going on, and a lot of mysteries are essentially about following a series of red herrings before getting to the truth. You can even make the real culprit look suspicious early on and then use a red herring to throw suspicion off them. For instance, you make it look like a fire mage did it and then reveal that the victim drowned. That’ll make it even more surprising when the hero learns the fire mage is also a secret hydromancer.

That said, for a red herring to work, it needs to be convincing. It won’t do for your hero to assume someone is responsible because that person gave the hero bad vibes. Audiences will wonder why the hero is wasting their time on a shoddy lead. Then no one’s surprised when the red herring turns out to be false, because the audience never believed it in the first place.

A red herring should employ all the same tools that your actual reveal will use. If your mystery is focused on why a crime took place in a specific location, the red herring should seem to explain that. If motive is in question, then the red herring should seem to have a strong motivation. Once you have these factors in place, the audience will agree to believe that maybe the false lead you’re spinning is true.

Interestingly, it’s also possible for red herrings to go too far in the other direction. If a false suspect won’t shut up about how evil they are and never misses a chance to expound on all the reasons they had for committing the crime in question, the audience will realize that’s too obvious and get bored.

Again, the key is treating your red herring the same way you’d treat your actual reveal. The real villain doesn’t announce themselves; they make the hero work for it. It should be the same with the red herring.

5. Follow Up on Clues

Clues keep a mystery moving, whether they are boot prints found at the crime scene or a cryptic message sent via a spoofed IP address. Clues are the building blocks of a big reveal, and if your mystery is an interesting one, the audience will be desperate to know what each clue means.

That’s why it’s important to have your hero follow up on each clue they get as soon as possible. Waiting on an important clue is incredibly frustrating for the audience, because they know there’s something to be explored but for some reason the protagonist is ignoring it.

Authors generally do this for one of two reasons. First, often a clue isn’t meant to be a clue at all, but rather a piece of foreshadowing. The author thinks they’re setting the mood but they’re actually dangling tantalizing information. Second, sometimes if the protagonist did follow up on the clue immediately, they would figure out the mystery too soon.

To avoid making your foreshadowing look like a clue, don’t use anything that’s directly related to the mystery. For example, if the hero overhears a lecture on how spirits can possess small objects, that’s foreshadowing for the murderer being a possessed doll. It isn’t about the case, but it plants the idea in the audience’s mind. On the other hand, if the hero notices one of the victim’s dolls is always somewhere other than where they left it, that’s probably a clue that should be investigated, especially if the hero already knows that magic exists.

If investigating a clue means the story would be over too quickly, it probably means the clue should be reduced in scope. That way it can lead to another clue, and then another, rather than directly to the reveal. Instead of a witness letting slip that they saw the killer, they can mention seeing a mysterious figure near the site of the murder. When the hero tracks that figure down, it turns out to be late-night jogger who didn’t see the killer either, but who did overhear the victim making a phone call, which leads to…

Alternatively, you can insert reasons why it will take a long time to follow up on a clue, but this should be used sparingly. The audience will probably accept that it’ll take a few days to get the DNA analysis back from the lab, but they’ll get impatient if it then takes another few days for the protagonist’s contact at the DMV to run some license plate numbers.

6. Don’t Leave the Protagonist Hanging

In many mysteries, there will come a point when all the hero’s leads seem to dry up, leaving the investigation with nowhere to go. Often, this comes after finding out that the main suspect was actually a red herring the whole time. The protagonist throws up their hands and despairs at ever solving the case. It’s a natural low point in the story.

This moment can work really well, provided it doesn’t last for too long and the author properly sets up the way out. Unfortunately, a lot of mystery stories drag it out, leaving the protagonist to wander the wilderness for page after page.

The reason to keep this moment of despair short is simple: as long as the hero has nothing to investigate, the plot can’t advance. Figuring out the mystery is the entire point of a mystery story, so if there’s no progress on that front, then the audience is left waiting for something to happen. This is boring even if the time is spent on the hero’s emotional issues or some other secondary story point. Those elements need to be weaved into the mystery, not used as filler while the mystery is stalled.

Another common problem with this pause in the investigation is how it eventually ends. If the investigation is finally restarted by the hero being given a new clue out of nowhere, it’ll feel extremely contrived, and the risk of this increases the longer the pause lasts. Authors often have no plan for how to get the mystery moving again, so they bring in some outside element to give the hero a hint out of the blue. This is super unsatisfying.

The best way to handle this kind of pause in the investigation is to give the audience just enough time to feel the protagonist’s low point, usually a scene at most, and then move on. Then when they receive a lifeline, it must be the result of their own actions. Perhaps earlier, the hero helped another character out of trouble, and now the character shows up to return the favor. At Mythcreants we call that a prior achievement turning point, and it’s a great way to jump start the plot.

7. Spice Up the Final Reveal

A major difficulty in mystery stories is making the ending reveal live up to all the hype. When you spend your entire story asking a question, be it  “who did this thing” or “what happened here,” it’s likely your answer will be a letdown no matter what it is. Some of this comes down to audience’s guessing the ending in advance, but primarily, a straightforward answer to whodunit just isn’t enough to satisfy people.

Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy way to make your answer more interesting: change the question. If your entire story has been about trying to figure out who the murderer is, you can reveal that it wasn’t actually a murder at all! The victim is still alive; they created an inert clone to fake their own death so they could escape justice for grand theft dragon.

This method provides a more surprising reveal, which in turn raises audience satisfaction. It still needs to be foreshadowed, of course, but that’s not super difficult to do. When you start off the story asking who the murderer is, the audience is on constant lookout for clues, but they don’t know to look for signs that you’ll be changing the question, so you can slip those in under the radar. So if your protagonist just happens to learn about some spells for animal cloning while investigating a magical murder, it won’t look like anything strange.

Of course, some people will still guess what’s going to happen ahead of time. That’s a statistical certainty if your story is at all popular. But even these forward-thinking members of your audience are still likely to enjoy the ending more when there’s a more dramatic twist. If nothing else, they’ll be more satisfied with themselves for guessing your less predictable ending.

This isn’t the only way to improve your mystery, but it’s straightforward, reliable, and easy for authors to use even without a lot of experience. Whatever method you decide on, everything should build to a satisfying reveal. Mysteries depend on those more than any other type of story. Anything that detracts from the reveal detracts from the story.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    There are two things I really like about the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett:

    1.) The limits of magic are established early on and they’re logical within the narrative. Magic can be used pretty much like science in our world – as a matter of fact, there’s forensic sorcerers -, but, like science, it can’t do wonders. For instance, a sorcerer can tell you whether this bullet was fired from this gun, because they have a connection through the act of shooting, but not which finger was on the trigger, because there’s not enough of a connection between the user and the gun.

    2.) Very much like in the old Scooby Doo episodes, there’s NEVER magic involved in the actual solution. The murders may look like magic, but they were committed without the use of it, with completely natural means. Even once you’ve realized that, though, the stories are still interesting, because they often play with the fact that the murder looks so impossible it CAN ONLY HAVE BEEN DONE by a magic user.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Okay I do like the fakeout of making it look like a murder was committed by magic but it was actually just an old man in a mask.

      • Cay Reet

        It’s not really like that … it just looks like there’s no way it could regularly be done. For instance, a man gets stabbed in a locked room. Magic proves the door was locked then, it wasn’t manipulated later on. The man is lying in the middle of the room, the windows are closed, the room is several stories above the ground, so even if the windows were open, it would have been impossible to get out – especially unseen, because the windows look out over a busy street. There is no weapon in the room. How was it done?

        In this case, there was a little precognition in it, but the solution was: he was stabbed through the keyhole with a long, thin foil and staggered back, thus he was found on his back in the middle of the room. In a world where magic exists, that is not the only or most obvious answer for people.

        Or a man gets killed in a ballroom locked up so the floor can dry. The only traces in the room are his footsteps in the drying varnish (and two very thin lines left and right of those – the important clue). His throat has been cut, so he must have run away from the killer before it happened (he left no blood, except by the body). There are no footsteps for the killer, so how did they manage to follow their victim?

        In this case, a long, thin wire was put across his throat and he was told to run – the thin lines are where the wire touched the ground.

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