Most people love a good mystery, but it can be a challenge to write an effective one unless you know some of the key rules that make it possible to turn a crime story into an engaging and thrilling mystery. The template for the genre was laid down by Edgar Allan Poe in the early nineteenth century and perfected by Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the century progressed. During the twentieth century, writers such as S. S. Van Dine, Dorothy Sayers, and others created a general set of rules that good mysteries should follow. While no one rule is unbreakable, they still form a pretty good template to help aspiring mystery writers develop an effective narrative—and for discovering when it’s OK to break a rule for dramatic effect.
Van Dine outlined twenty rules in 1928, and we can take a look at ten of them to see how you might improve your own mystery fiction with a little help from the classics.
- “The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.” This means that even if you bury your clues in the story, you can’t omit key information or spring a last-minute fact that the reader doesn’t know to solve the crime. Many TV detective shows try to cheat this rule by pulling out a surprise that wasn’t part of the preceding narrative, and that usually feels like a “cheat.” Always tell the reader everything—but you don’t have to make it obvious or point out why information is important until the resolution.
- “There must be no love interest.” This is the most frequently broken rule in detective fiction. Van Dine thought love interests distracted from the mystery, but most writers favor a lesser form of the rule, namely that the mystery should always take precedence.
- “The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit.” This is why Dexter was a crime drama but not a mystery. If the detective is the culprit, the writer has to intentionally withhold key information from the reader, violating rule 1.
- “There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice.” CBS’s Sherlock has been criticized for following this rule too closely, and both many of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Poe’s “Purloined Letter” crafted fascinating mysteries from other high crimes.
- “The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means.” This means that ghosts and psychic information can’t be used in a good mystery because they undermine the realism and end up violating rule 1 by providing information the reader couldn’t obtain. There is, however, a subgenre of occult or psychic detective stories that involve supernatural powers. The modern form of the rule would better state that you need to define your fictional universe for the reader and follow its rules logically and rigorously, with no cheating.
- “A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit.” Too many Victorian and Edwardian mysteries ended with the maid or the butler committing a crime at a country estate, creating a cliché that is still taboo in mysteries today. But 2001’s Gosford Park brilliantly broke this rule to devastating effect by wrapping its story in an examination of social class.
- “A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide.” De Vine considered this to be a cheat on the reader and a waste of time. However, breaking this rule can be effective when the reason for the suicide is exceptionally powerful and the lengths used to make it look like murder are sufficiently clever. These types of stories tend not to be mysteries, though, since the emphasis is rarely on the investigation, and there is no moment of revelation to create a powerful climax.
- “Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story.” Their presence borders on the occult and leads to lazy writing where key facts end up hidden from the reader because they are known only to the members of the secret society.
- “The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story.” If the reader doesn’t remember the character, the solution will feel like a cheat and fall flat.
- “A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages.” De Vine felt that detective stories are plot-delivery mechanisms and should avoid literary flourishes. It’s possible to have a literary detective story, but the more you slow the story with affectation and description, the less effective the build-up to the climax will be.
Follow above mentioned guidelines and be successful in writing your paper online either it is a research, narrative essay or a mystery story.