March is National Reading Month. Mystery readers, are you tired of cracker-bland mysteries you put down in sheer boredom? Dear mystery writers, are you sick of writing dull-as-plain-toast plots that readers barely nibble at? Here are mystery story starters for tales readers will gulp down whole and beg for more before the first even digests. Use these writing prompts and mystery story starters to write gulp-down-whole stories. This article covers detective stories and mystery story starters for crime fiction, affectionately called the whodunit.
Basics of mystery story starters. Every mystery story needs an introduction, characters, plot, climax, denouement and conclusion. Detective stories are all about detail and sequence. But crime fiction doesn’t necessarily need resolution and closure–a very effective literary device is to leave mystery unsolved. Charles Dickens was known for writing several endings and letting the readers choose (!) Ending on a cliff-hanger has the advantage of paving the way for sequels and more sequels.
Develop plots for detective stories. There are different school of thought on whether writing prompts should start with character or setting creation. Settings seem the best as they give a framework to place other elements in. Regardless, always write what you know. If you grew up in Michigan in the 1940’s or Mozambique in the 1990’s, write to that specific knowledge. Use your cultural or religious background or family history. Don’t try to write about what you don’t know unless you plan to do a barge-load of research.
Choose a general time period and locale. You can set your story in any time period or place, as long as you know enough about it to make your myster story credible. If your idea of medieval life is Game of Throne, probs best to avoid the middle ages (just saying!) This author once tried to write a 1930s English country house murder mystery like her hero Ngaio Marsh. Without having lived then and lacking enough research, the result was a schmaltzy cardboard pastiche.
Mystery story starters require a specific setting. Where did the whodunit take place? Permission to go a tad Scooby-Doo here–an abandoned mental hospital, a disused school, onboard a ship, in an old lady’s ancestral home are common (dead common) places. Try to get away from stereotypical mystery settings if possible. Tie it to your own locale so you can envision the details better (the disused factory on Third St that you drive by every day, the historic St. Adelbert’s Catholic Church you attend, for example). Be precise in description–setting drives mystery stories more than any other genre.
Crime fiction writing prompts requires all this and may have a detective character. Or it may not–Agatha Christie’s best-loved mystery story “And Then There Were None” is crime fiction with no solver of the crime. Whodunit detective stories obviously require a detective main character. So at this point start thinking characters, beginning with the detective. Depending on your setting, match an appropriate person. Your detective can be of any age, strata of society, occupation or nationality as long as you (stop me if you’ve heard this before) know something about it!
Writing prompts for detective stories main character. How will your detective will interact with official authorities? Is he a policeman or a PI? Is she an amateur crime-solver like Miss Marple? Does she solve mysteries as a hobby, but assist with investigations? Maybe he hasn’t always been on the side of justice., such as Father Brown’s friend Flambeau once the greatest jewel thief in Europe, turned detective. Perhaps your detective operates separately from public investigators or is too young to work professionally (like the Three Investigators, Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys). Your detective may have a different occupation altogether: librarian, pharmacist, garbage man (trash collectors see lots of dirty secrets).
Plot writing prompts for detective stories: Frame the crime. It may involve a celebrated murder, international heist or art theft or it may be a local incident that affects only certain people. Maybe it’s just an odd occurrence that unravels a larger problem. It could be a victimless crime fiction but victims make it more interesting. Details about what happened should come out little by little. The detective should be lead on a few wild goose chases finding out whodunit. Outline and sequence the problem. Create a timetable for personal reference and draw a map of the crime scene and environs. These become the plot, but you can also add your map to the book. Mystery readers love it when authors provide maps.
Detective story characters writing prompts: People the story. Who are the dramatis personae? Flesh out characters. Determines criminals, witnesses, suspects, accessories and assistants. Perhaps it’s a airplane crew, or members of a club or a family in which the whodunit occurs. That narrows the field.
Detail writing prompts. Scatter some clues. Toss in details that a witness may notice and mention to the detective, but not understand. General clues are okay but try to spice them up. Tire marks could be from certain vehicle. Character clues–buttons from uniforms, grandfather’s cuff links, Mrs. Highbrow’s jewelry, a girl’s personal perfume–could lead in one direction but be left by someone else. A smell of curry and a trace of rice might have been planted to frame the Indian gentleman. These are called a red herrings and are useful if not too obvious. Also, don’t make clues so complicated that only an expert would understand them.
Identify the MMO: Every crime is based motive, method and opportunity. The motive is the reason a character might have for committing a crime (money, jealousy). The method is how the crime committed (think Clue here–in the garage with a tire iron). The opportunity means who was available to have committed the crime.
Identify the alibis (or lack thereof) for characters. According to the timetable, decide who was where and when at the time the problem occurred or crime was committed. The detective may remove someone from the suspects list and then re-add them as she finds new information. It really does work to make the criminal the least likely person, perhaps someone hovering in the background or someone who isn’t who she claims to be.
Write a climax. Generally, something intense happens which brings all the events together. It’s usually an event of some drama, seemingly unrelated, with some element of surprise. You might include death, danger or disaster. It is this event that ultimately explains the mystery. There should be an explanation for why she did it, but it doesn’t have to make sense. Grudges, scores settled, paybacks usually have deep roots. As the saying goes “old sins cast long shadows.”
Write your denouement: This is the resolution of the mystery. This is when secrets come out and loose ends are wrapped up. Some details will reveal themselves in the plot and your detective can articulate the rest: the what, who, when, where, how and why. Or, as was discussed before, you can leave some loose ends hanging, some questions unanswered. If the crime is wrapped up, summarize with a short conclusion on the outcome. As readers part company with the detective, you might even give a few hints about her next adventures, Be sure to read a few detective stories for inspiration.