Kids love mysteries. I love mysteries, too. It’s one of the first genres I latched on to when I was young, and it has followed me into adulthood. In many elementary schools, children study the mystery genre and try their hands at writing them as well. It’s not easy to explain to kids how to go about writing a mystery. It’s a rather mysterious thing, when it comes right down to it.
At its core, a mystery is a puzzle. Just like a puzzle, a mystery story has pieces. A mystery starts with a question. The more puzzling the question, the better. This question will be what you solve in the story.
Who took the jewels from the sealed tomb?
What if my best friends stopped talking to me and I didn’t know why?
And of course, the traditional…
Who is the murderer and how did they do it?
Another piece of your mystery is your main character. He is the one who solves the mystery. He is your detective (whether amateur, accidental or professional). He’s the one who will figure out the clues in your mystery. In other words, he’s your hero.
When developing your main character, consider giving him/her unique character traits. Set him apart from the pack. Eccentric habits are great. Remember, Hercule Poirot was a fastidious neat freak who loved his waxed moustache, and Sherlock Holmes played his violin to relax.
Kids can have eccentric habits, too (as we parents well know). For example, your main character could:
Chew gum constantly.
Never go anywhere without her stuffed yellow cat.
Talk to his pet tarantula about the clues in the mystery.
Another way to "build" your detective/main character is to give him special skills.
Maybe your hero:
Knows baseball history inside and out
Plays the piano brilliantly
Likes to collect coins
But how can you use this special skill when you write your mystery?
If you know the ending of your mystery - what your hero/detective is searching for - what he needs in order to solve the mystery, you can go back and lay in a special skill that will help. A special skill that will be useful in solving the mystery.
Here’s a simple example: let’s say that your mystery involves a valuable coin (maybe a rare penny!) that has been stolen. The bad guy takes the coin and stashes it in a penny jar where he hopes to come back and get it later. Make your hero a coin collector. He is the one that recognizes it from all the coins in the jar. Use your hero’s skills to help solve the mystery.
Expertise in a subject is just one kind of special skill. Here are a couple of examples of different special skills from other authors:
Her photographic memory comes in very handy when she has to solve a mystery. She can remember everything she sees, including all those visual clues.
A Series of Unfortunate Events:
Each Baudelaire orphan has a special skill, even little Sunny with her strong bite. Sister Violet is an inventor; brother Klaus reads everything he can get his hands on, and remembers what he’s read.
Artemis is an Irish child prodigy and a ruthless master criminal who has amassed his family’s fortune using his special talents in crime. He is an eccentric anti-hero.
You might want your hero to have a sidekick as well. The advantage of having a sidekick is your hero can discuss the mystery with him. Best friends make good sidekicks. Lots of times sidekicks can be funny. They can comment on the action in your story. But remember, your main character must solve the mystery in your story. Dr. Watson just helped out.
Of course, there is a lot more to writing a mystery including: victims, villains, clues, suspects, alibis and motive. Beginning your mystery with an intriguing question and a protagonist that has eccentric habits and special skills will give you (or your student) two important pieces of the puzzle.
To find out more about writing mysteries (and fill in some of those other puzzle pieces), take a gander at Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America by Sue Grafton. There is a specialties section that focuses on mysteries for young people and short story mysteries.
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