How to Write (and Read) a Mystery: The Mechanics of a Whodunit

If you’re a fan of mystery novels, you’ll know just how addicting they can be. You find a book with a plot that draws you in. A crime, perhaps, that begs to be solved. And you ask yourself, Can I solve it? Of course, you happily accept the challenge.

The mystery is both one of the most popular forms of crime fiction and one of the most challenging to create. I see aspiring writers ask for advice about how to write them all the time. So, let me tell you the number one thing you need to know about writing a mystery. And, it applies to reading a mystery, as well.

A whodunit is both a work of literature and a game. That’s right, a game. When Sherlock Holmes famously says, “The game is afoot!” his meaning is quite literal. A mystery is a battle of wits between the reader and the writer. And it goes like this…

The writer spins a complicated puzzle. The writer holds all the answers to the puzzle and doesn’t reveal them until the end of the book (the end of the game).

Meanwhile, the reader begins with no answers but has the desire to find them. The reader scours the book for clues. They try to solve the puzzle before the writer tells all at the end. If they figure it out, the reader wins the game. If they don’t, the writer wins.

Think of it another way. In a mystery, there are typically two primary characters facing off against one another: the investigator vs. the villain. Like the reader, the investigator begins the story without the answers they need to solve the crime. The villain, however, commits the crime, so they have all the answers.

So, a mystery works by allowing readers to substitute themselves for the investigator character.

In effect, the detective is a proxy for the reader, and the villain is a proxy for the writer.

And that’s how the reader gets to play the game. They try to beat the writer by solving the puzzle before the reveal, just as the detective tries to beat the villain in the fictional story.

It’s important to note that a reader must, by the reveal at the end, have all the information they need to solve the case. Otherwise, it’s not a fair game. In fact, T.S. Eliot wrote an essay about classic detective fiction, in which he emphasized the importance of this idea, which he called, “fair play.” So, don’t conceal any crucial information. You can save an important detail until right before the reveal. But, all the clues must be in place by the time you tell the reader “whodunit.”

This competitive dynamic between reader and writer, this game, is the primary mechanic of a mystery. If you write your story with this mindset, you’re in good shape. And if you read a mystery with this mindset, you’re in for a fun experience trying to beat the author. And it’s a blast when you win against the best mystery writers out there.

So, get reading and get writing!

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