7 Amazing Ways to Write a Mystery Short Story
Have you ever started to write a mystery short story and have it stall on you? Have you gotten to the middle section and realized you have no idea how to end the story, much less how to keep the pacing, momentum, and dialogue enthralling for your potential readers? You may not even be sure who the real villain is!
Unless you manage to sort all that out, two things are likely: either you give up writing the story altogether, or you finish it somehow and hope the magazines you send it to won’t notice the problems. Of course, they will notice, and you will receive a rejection message you’d rather live without.
You want to keep readers (and magazine editors and publishers) turning the pages until the end, preferably in one sitting. The thing is, many of us create good characters, have a great setting, and indeed, know who our villain is, BUT . . . what if our plot is in limbo?
Tips to Bring Your Mystery to a Grand Conclusion
Here are 7 ways to write a mystery short story that just might help you pull that plot together, discover its inner logic, find its core purpose, and speed forward to a timely — and satisfying — conclusion:
- Write the plot backwards. Seriously. Write the ending. Write down what happens just before the ending. Write down what happens just before that. Do this for ten steps back. You’ll be amazed at what you discover. Sometimes this process can reveal hidden elements of a character’s behavior, or even lead you to change who the villain is!
- Read what you have written so far out loud to yourself. When you get to the point where you’ve stalled, put down the pages, look steadily into the space in front of you, and keep telling the story. Don’t worry if it sounds ridiculous, just keep talking for at least three minutes — nonstop talking and no thinking is the key. (This can be done in a train station or a grocery line, safely — pretend to be one of those people who wear Bluetooth devices and constantly look like they’re talking to themselves.)
- Sometimes the stall in your writing is because you don’t relate to one or more of the characters. This is a good time to write up some back story — information you’ll never put into the story but that makes the character more real to you. You aren’t likely to include in the story the fact the female detective has a hobby making bead earrings to relax, but it adds a dimension to her character and that makes her more accessible to you. The villain could have a back story that includes a violent temper that is never shown (until the end). Every character benefits from a bit of back story, and so does your writing.
- Read the first line of your story as it would be spoken by each character. This will change your perception of your opening line, and help you decide if it is a good hook, and it will also help you see if you have set up the story well. A stall in the writing can occur if you are not sure about how (or why) everything begins.
- Turn the pages you have written upside down and skim through them one after the other. Of course you can’t read them that way (unless you’re a typesetter, and few of those are left anymore) but you will get the feeling of how much you have done. Looking at the pages upside down, you can’t distract yourself by editing anything, so you get instead a feeling-tone, the weight of what you are doing, and this holds power.
- Write six titles for the story that do not resemble each other. Throw them in a box and pick out one at random. Type it as the title of your mystery story on the computer (or write it on your yellow legal pad — P.D. James used to write in longhand, and so does Stephen King). Imagine adding that title to the “Subject” line in emails you send to magazine editors. Then discard it. Do the same for two more you pick at random. Discard them. Leave the story title space blank. Amazingly, the plot begins to surface with a clarity that wasn’t there before!
- Listen to the characters you have created. They always have something to say, and often they can reveal (or become) the solution you need to whatever plot point is stopping you from finishing the story.
Red Herrings Can Be a Skillful Distraction
One more aspect to remember: you don’t want your readers to figure things out too soon, so giving substance to your plot with mysterious red herrings helps bring more twists and turns, too. You can make a list of possible red herrings you might want to place into the story here and there — just be sure to explain each one before the story ends.
Red herrings are not foolproof for even the best mystery writers, however. Agatha Christie, who was so famous for her genius in distracting the reader’s attention from knowing who the villain was, often read aloud her latest story to her family. Her mother and her husband invariably guessed “whodunnit” by the end of the first few pages…
Mystery stories are incredibly popular. People love to escape into them. They also love to try and figure out what is going on.
Writing a mystery short story is a wonderful thing to do. Give it your patience, and trust. Keep in mind it is a willing collaboration between your imagination and heart.