How To Write A Mystery Short Story - A Quick Guide

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How To Write A Mystery Short Story

The short story can be a tricky literary form to get into for many reasons. That is to say that writing a short story can be a bit of a mystery. And that is before we even consider how to write a mystery short story!
You'll no doubt know that any kind of fictional writing will need some amount of planning. But it is a common mistake as a beginner to micro plan every little detail when you start. Letting the plot and characters grow with the story you are telling is fun. Drafting your story can allow you to weave it all into a sensible completed work afterward.
But unlike the novella or the novel, short stories tend to be difficult to write because of the word count. You don't have the length to fully develop characters. With this in mind, you need to rely on telling a great story with minimal character development.
On the other end of the scale, you don't have the restrictions that come with flash fiction or micro-fiction. A short story can't just be a 'snippet' of a larger world and larger plot.
So, where exactly does the short story fit into the literary world? Well, this answer and the answer you are seeking in how to write a mystery short story share similarities. I'm no Agatha Christie but I am a fan of all things crime, thriller, and mystery driven - so let's delve!

What Is The Short Story For?

The short story literary form is great for developing ideas that may not fit naturally into your other projects.
It is also ideal for exploring a concept or idea. Be it a social idea, cultural idea, philosophical idea, or ideological idea. Short stories serve as literary criticisms of the real world's current socio-political climate.
Take the anthology series Black Mirror as a prime example. Each episode is a self-contained nugget that approaches a socio-political construct. Through the plot and characters, Black Mirror explores those concepts in greater depth. When sitting down to begin a short story, you should have an idea or concept in mind that you want to explore through characters and situations.
Yet, it is very easy to fall into the trap of worldbuilding with short stories because of focussing on an idea or concept. Worldbuilding has little to no place in a short story. That isn't to say worldbuilding can't be in a short story. But rather world building should be surface-level at most and only exist to advance the plot.

What Components Go Into A Mystery Short Story

Now that we have the basis of what function a short story plays in the literary world, we can begin to break down what makes a mystery short story. Like any mystery story, there should always be a paramount question in the mind of the mystery readers when reading.
Some popular tropes in the mystery genre could be:

  • Who committed the murder?
  • Who committed a crime?
  • Who shared a secret?
  • What is my past?
  • Who is X?
  • What is X?

And, forgive my use of 'X' but 'X' stands for whoever, or whatever, is in question. Now, those are some very basic questions but all of which are generally found in long-form mystery stories; i.e. novels and novellas.
There's nothing to stop you from using these questions to structure a mystery short story. But these questions tend not to touch on anything socio-political. They can, but these questions tend to be character-centric.
When you structure a mystery short story around an idea or concept, these questions begin to make more sense:

  • What does X mean to the characters?
  • What could X mean in the future?
  • How will X develop as we progress into the future?
  • What could X be in the future?
  • How has X changed since the past?
  • How has X changed the character?
  • What has X forced our character to do?

These questions can also have a character-centric focus. And while too much character development can take away from the story, do keep in mind that some development is needed. However, the mystery in these questions lies in self-discovery through the main character or characters in the story.
Do keep in mind that these bullet points are by no means a comprehensive guide into structuring a mystery, but they are a very good place to start

How Do I Decide What To Write About?

Serial killers? Bad guys? A small town murder? A good mystery lies in pushing the msytery reader to want to know more. Deciding what to write about is another common question that I see popping up on things like Reddit and writer groups that I am a part of. Unfortunately, there isn't really a definitive answer to that question. That being said, there is some advice that I have that may help you along the way.
When selecting what to write about stick with what you know. If you have never been to Japan, don't know about Japanese history, and don't want to learn, then don't write about Samurai in the 12th century.

Looking at popular stories within the mystery genre like Sherlock Holmes can help give you some guidance. Read up on what has worked and what plot points are ideal for writing a mystery.
But, again, that doesn't mean you can't explore new ideas with your writing. It means that you need to be accurate with the subject that you are exploring. This is first and foremost for the sake of the reader and secondly for your reputation as a writer.
I often look inward and focus my stories on subjects that I find interesting. Ideas you find interesting will not only be fun to write about and learn about, but you will find more motivation to continue developing your story.

How Do I Start My Mystery Short Story?

Again, this is another common question that I keep seeing popping up on forum boards. If you are writing with a sole question in mind or about an idea, how do you actually start the story?
This question is a question that spans all kinds of genres and there are many different ways to answer it. For the mystery genre, you want to have an opening sentence that is a grabber of attention. A shocking statement or a statement that challenges logic or reasoning are good examples.
The first paragraph is where the genre matters most. If it is a sci-fi story, you want to set a scene, and establish the kind of sci-fi you are writing (soft or hard and so on). For mystery, that driving question that will keep your reader hooked should be established by the end of this first paragraph. Otherwise? Your reader will lose interest.

What Next? How Do I Structure My Story?

For a short story, a simple, defined, and shortened version of the full 3 act structure works - and it works for a reason. This is just as true for writers of mystery as it is for any other genre. Don't stray too far from established writing norms and rules if you are just starting out. It may be a fun thought to have about being different and breaking the rules, but you need to thoroughly learn and practice these rules first.
Focus on getting feedback and enhancing your storytelling. Make conscious choices about plot points, how they play into the story, and why. Only after you have become fairly comfortable writing should you even begin to think about bending the rules - never mind breaking them. You need to learn about how to write within these rule sets to understand how and when breaking them works.
I mean, I don't want to gatekeep, but this will teach you valuable writing skills. I am only recommending this as it worked for me.

Some Final Notes

If this is your first mystery short story, it won't be easy. It is also worthwhile remembering that not all mysteries need to be crime fiction.

It'll be frustrating, tedious, and difficult to begin with - but these are all signs that you are learning. If it were easy, anybody could do it and everyone could do it well.
Use these tips as a launchpad to prepare yourself for delving into this brilliant genre! You'll be having fun weaving your master-crafted mysteries in no time at all.

About This Article's Author:

Stewart Storrar is a professional writer, poet, and filmmaker from Glasgow, Scotland. He is working on numerous literary projects and when he isn't writing or reading, he is pursuing his passion on Skateboarding over on YouTube.
If you are interested in his work, you can find him on Twitter.

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