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How to Write a Mystery: A Guide for Screenwriters

Writing a mystery can be a rewarding and fun experience because it allows you to challenge your readers and keep them interested until the end. However, keeping your readers guessing can be a difficult task that requires careful planning and execution. This article will go over some tips and tricks for how to write a successful mystery.

Begin with a strong premise.

Before you start writing, you should have a good idea of what your mystery is about. This includes the central mystery or crime to be solved, as well as the characters and setting. A strong premise will provide you with a solid foundation to build your story on and will keep your readers interested.

One way to come up with a good mystery premise is to ask yourself, “What if?” For example, “What if a wealthy businessman is found murdered in his office and all the evidence points to his wife?” or “What if a young woman disappears from a crowded beach and no one saw her leave?” Asking “what if” questions can help spark your imagination and come up with intriguing scenarios for your mystery. If you need a jumpstart on mystery ideas, check out this blog post.

Hook the audience from the beginning.

The opening of your mystery is crucial, as it is the first thing that your reader will see. It needs to be engaging and captivating, and it should set the tone for the rest of the story.

One way to do this is to start with a hook—a compelling opening line or scene that draws the reader in and makes them want to keep reading. You could also introduce an intriguing puzzle or crime right off the bat to immediately get the reader’s attention.

Build tension and keep the audience in suspense.

Tension and suspense are critical elements in a mystery story. In a good mystery, the audience is constantly trying to figure out “who done it” as the landscape within the story constantly throws them off track. Here are some tips on building suspense and tension.

  1. Use time constraints: Creating a sense of urgency can help to build tension in your story. This could be a deadline that the characters need to meet, or a limited time frame in which a certain event needs to occur.
  2. Increase the stakes: Raising the stakes for the characters can also increase the tension. This could be through physical danger, emotional stakes, or high-stakes situations such as a high-stakes competition or a life-or-death decision.
  3. Create uncertainty: Keeping the reader or the characters in the dark about certain aspects of the story can also increase tension. This could be through withholding information, creating mysteries or puzzles, or leaving open-ended questions.
  4. Use foreshadowing: Dropping hints or clues about future events can create a sense of anticipation and build tension for the reader.
  5. Create a sense of danger: Introducing threats or dangers to the characters can also increase tension. This could include external dangers like a physical threat as well as internal dangers like inner turmoil or self-doubt.
  6. Use descriptive language: Using descriptive language to paint a vivid picture of a tense or suspenseful scene can help to increase the tension for the reader.
  7. Use characters’ emotions: Showing the characters’ emotions and reactions to tense or suspenseful situations can help the reader feel the tension along with them.
  8. Increase the pace: Quickening the pace of the story, either through shorter sentences or faster-moving events, can also help to increase tension.

Create compelling characters who all seem guilty.

In a mystery, the characters are just as important as the central crime or puzzle. After all, they are the ones who will be involved in solving the mystery or trying to cover it up. So it is crucial to create well-rounded and compelling characters that your audience will care about.

To do this, try giving your characters distinct personalities, backgrounds, and motivations. This will make them feel like real people and help the audience relate to them. It can also be helpful to give your characters flaws or secrets, as this can make them more interesting and add layers to your story. Having characters that are believable and relatable is an essential part of storytelling.

Your suspect cannot be the only possible criminal for there to be a mystery. To keep readers guessing, show that your other suspects have any two of the following:

  • means (do they have the ability to commit the crime?),
  • motive (could they have benefited from the crime?),
  • and opportunity (did they have a possible chance to commit the crime?)

To further complicate matters, investigate your victim’s relationships with all of the suspects, not just the perpetrator. A morally dubious victim with a tumultuous past and complicated relationships will add spice to your murder mystery. The audience is given numerous alternatives and must rule them out one by one as new information becomes available, exactly like a real professional investigating the crime.

Plant clues and red herrings.

In a mystery, it is important to provide your audience with enough information to help them solve the puzzle but not so much that the solution is obvious. This means planting clues and red herrings throughout your story to keep them guessing.

Clues should be subtle and well-hidden, but not completely obscure. They should also be relevant to the mystery and fit in with the overall plot. Red herrings, on the other hand, are false clues that are meant to mislead the reader. They can be a useful tool to keep your audience off the scent, but be careful not to overuse them or it will become frustrating for the reader.

Here are a few tips for writing effective red herrings:

  1. Make them believable: While red herrings are meant to mislead the reader, they should still feel like believable elements of the story. This means that they should fit in with the plot, setting, and characters, and not feel like an unnecessary or forced addition.
  2. Use them sparingly: Too many red herrings can be frustrating for the reader and can make your story feel too convoluted. It is important to use them sparingly and only when they serve a purpose in the story.
  3. Plant them carefully: When planting a red herring, try to make it feel like a legitimate clue. This means hiding it in plain sight and making it fit in with the rest of the story.
  4. Make sure they have a purpose: Every element in your story should serve a purpose, and red herrings are no exception. Make sure that your red herrings are meaningful and contribute to the overall plot in some way.
  5. Reveal them at the right time: It is important to reveal your red herrings at the right time in the story, typically towards the end when the mystery is being solved. This can help to add an element of surprise and keep the reader engaged.

Establish the setting.

The setting of your mystery can play a significant role in the story, so it is important to establish it early on. This includes not only the physical location, but also the time period and any relevant cultural or societal factors.

A well-developed setting can help to create a sense of atmosphere and immersion for the audience, and it can also provide clues or red herrings for the mystery. For example, if your mystery takes place in a small town with a tight-knit community, the limited pool of suspects could be a key element of the story.

Have a satisfying resolution.

One of the most important aspects of a mystery is the resolution—the moment when all the clues come together and the mystery is finally solved. It should be satisfying for the reader, but not too predictable.

To achieve this, try to include a twist or surprise in the resolution. This can be something that changes the reader’s perception of the story or adds an unexpected element to the solution. It is also important to tie up any loose ends and tie up all the plot threads in a believable and logical way.

Here’s some strategies and examples on how to write plot twists.

Edit and revise.

Like any writing project, it is important to take the time to edit and revise your mystery. This can help to improve the pacing, tighten the plot, and ensure that your story is as strong as it can be.

Some things to consider when editing your mystery include:

  • Check for consistency: Make sure that your story is consistent in terms of plot, characters, and setting. This means that you should double-check that your clues and red herrings are properly planted and that your resolution makes sense in light of the rest of the story.
  • Look for plot holes: Try to identify any plot holes or inconsistencies in your story and fix them. This can help to make your mystery more believable and satisfying for the reader.
  • Tighten the pacing: Make sure that your mystery has a good balance of action, tension, and mystery. If your story feels too slow or rushed, try to adjust the pacing to keep the reader engaged.
  • Cut unnecessary scenes: If there are any scenes that don’t contribute to the overall plot or character development, consider cutting them. This can help to streamline your story and keep the focus on the mystery.

Finally, the best way to improve your mystery writing skills is to practice and revise. To learn how to write a mystery effectively, this means not calling your screenplay done after the first draft. You can revise as you go along or afterwards, but you will need to revise. Screenplays are the blueprint of the movie and will constantly evolve as it makes its way through production, so don’t be precious about your first draft.

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Jay Carver

Jay Carver is a screenwriter, director and producer. Through his production company J-Style Films, he has done work for companies such as Turner Broadcasting. In the past, he has worked with Hollywood actor Omari Hardwick and won several film festivals including "Best Director".

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