Everybody loves a mystery. Trying to find out who done it or why is one of the great joys of genre fiction. Most people who try their hand at writing mystery, unfortunately, get it wrong. There is a good reason for that. Writing mysteries — successful mysteries — is one of the hardest things you can do as a writer.
I suspect it is especially difficult to write mysteries if you are a ‘pantser’ rather than a plotter. Writing by the seat of your pants means that you scatter clues around like wildflowers — you have to point the finger at everyone because you have no idea how the story ends until you get there.
Later you have to go back and prune the growth until it is possible for a discerning reader to figure out the crime at about the same time it gets revealed in the narrative. Getting to the end of a mystery should not be like stepping off a curb and getting hit by a bus you never saw coming. Twist endings are only satisfying if you have some inkling of the twist before it happens. While, as a writer, you don’t want the crime to be solved by the average reader fifty pages before the ending, you don’t want the majority of readers to wonder WTF? after they close the cover either.
Writing mysteries in short fiction is even harder than in novels. There are far fewer suspects, far fewer opportunities to divert the reader/detective’s attention. So most people rely on obscurity or plain old cheating to carry them through. But obscurity is not the same thing as mystery. To obscure is to hide something where as mystery is all about the slow reveal. Everything has to be in the open so that you can hide the real clues in plain sight. If you throw twenty objects on the table and then provide a method to separate the wheat from the chaff, the reader can at least feel they have a chance to figure it all out.
Which is why I plot my mysteries quite firmly — though I try to avoid rigidity. I start with the crime and plot backward to its origins. Then I weave that into the forward story of the detective or narrator. Despite that, sometimes it becomes clear in the midst of writing the story that my subconscious knows better than I do who the villain is. The clues I’ve carefully planted to point at one suspect can, seen in another light, implicate another. This is a bonus. Instead of having to trim extraneous clues, I can instead plant a few additional ones. Or, more fun, refute certain clues with new ones that call into question the truth of the matter or the reliability of the narrator. Mystery then becomes a matter of interpretation. It was all there to be seen but the reader discovers they were looking in the other direction.
You see, Watson, but you do not observe. One of the greatest clues to successful mystery writing ever given.
And that’s ten minutes.