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What Is Mystery Fiction?
Mystery stories revolve around a main character on a quest to solve a crime. Also known as a whodunit or detective story, a mystery creates intrigue by revealing the identity of the antagonist only at the climax of the story. Mystery writers drop clues throughout the plot to invite readers to join in the investigation. A murder mystery novel can be categorized as a subgenre of crime fiction or detective novels.
10 Elements of a Mystery Story
The mystery genre has been entertaining readers for hundreds of years. Edgar Allan Poe was a master of mystery writing, with works such as his short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” from 1841. A good mystery has certain literary elements to intensify the suspense and build up to a big finale. These elements include:
- A strong hook: A great mystery should invite the reader to try to solve the crime, and a great opening is critical to piquing their interest. A mystery should start with just enough information about the crime to build intrigue from the first line. This is the defining moment when a reader chooses whether or not they want to continue. If the dramatic element is missing from the beginning, the reader expects the rest of the book to be the same. The first chapter should initiate the mystery, aligning the reader with the central character on the crime-solving adventure.
- An atmospheric setting: Stories in this genre should create an ominous, uneasy mood through setting to support the anxiety of an unknown antagonist lurking in the shadows. Think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes slinking through the London fog in search of a killer. Settings in mysteries also offer opportunities to plant clues and red herrings.
- A crime: A crime is the event that fuels the plot in a mystery novel. Revealed in the first chapter, a crime creates the central conflict that launches the investigation, sending the main character on their quest and spurring the narrative arc.
- A sleuth: At the heart of every mystery is a main character determined to solve the crime. Mystery writer Raymond Chandler created private detective Philip Marlowe to be a crime solver in his novels. A writer can raise the stakes by making the detective personally invested in solving the crime. Mysteries can center around an amateur investigator—an average citizen who solves the case. The character development of the sleuth is important; they need a backstory that connects them to the crime or the killer, and a motive that explains why solving this crime is important to them.
- A villain: A mystery is often called a whodunit because the culprit is unknown until they’re caught at the end. The story follows their movements, which propel the story forward. The main character and the reader discover the criminal’s identity as the plot reaches its climax.
- Narrative momentum: A mystery plot is in constant motion thanks to a cat-and-mouse narrative thread. The pacing will quicken the closer the plot moves towards the climax and the closer the main character gets to solving the crime.
- A trail of clues: Clues are the literary element that allows mystery stories to engage readers on a deeper level than other types of fiction. The reader becomes an amateur sleuth, following the trail of clues to try to discover the identity of the culprit. When writing mysteries, an author needs to have an organized writing process in order to keep track of what clues they’re creating, when they appear, and who knows what in order to make sure the plot lines make sense.
- Foreshadowing: Mysteries often drop hints of things that will happen in the future. This is known as foreshadowing. A writer can hint at a future event with a small clue or through character dialogue. Writers can be more or less direct with foreshadowing, either subtly hinting at future events or explicitly stating what will happen.
- Red herrings: A good mystery throws the reader off track. Red herrings are an essential element in mysteries. These false clues build tension by creating other suspects and distracting the detective—and the reader—and leading them away from the real culprit. A writer creates red herrings by placing extra emphasis on an object, event, or character that catches a reader’s attention, making that element seem more significant than it really is to the storyline. In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, there are 10 characters who are all potential suspects. Christie creates red herrings by killing off each character one by one, creating plot twists that send the reader into new directions in search of the killer.
- A satisfying ending: At the end of great mystery novels there is the big reveal—the sleuth discovers the identity of the culprit. An ending should also provide an alibi for any other suspects to strengthen the identity of the real killer and eliminate doubt, tying up loose ends.
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