Universal Class: Over 500 Online Certificate Courses
Mystery Writing: The Narrative
Mystery Writing: The Narrative
The perspective a mystery is written from should never be underestimated. The narrator can be a major character in the piece, or simply a means of telling the story. This article gives advice, not on how a mystery should be narrated, but on what a writer's options are in terms of telling the story. By knowing your options, you can make the right decision for your own piece of mystery writing.

The Narrator

The Narrator should be thought of as another character in your story. Even if the narrator is not one of the actual characters in the action of the story, his voice will influence the way the reader reacts to the story.

First-Person Narrative

A first-person narrative comes from the 'I' point of view. The narrator is a character in the story and refers to events as they happened to him or her. For example, the following extract is from a mystery story written using a first-person narrator. This can become overbearing on the reader if not written well and with due consideration to the development of the character of the narrator.

I watched him as he advanced towards the car.The look of menace on his face became a look of shock as I started the engine and reversed, the wheels spinning and screaming. I spun the car around and made my way as fast as I could along the narrow alley and through the junction onto the well-lit highway.

Third-Person Narrative

Third-person narrative is when the narrator refers to the characters as "he" or "she" or "they." A third-person narrator may focus on one particular character and not reveal anything that this character does not directly experience. The above paragraph, rewritten in third-person would follow as below. Note the increased distance this narrative style puts between the reader and the character.

She watched him as he advanced towards her car, saw the look of menace on his face become a look of shock as she started the engine and reversed, her wheels spinning and screaming. She spun the car around and made her way as fast as she could along the narrow alley and through the junction onto the well-lit highway.

Third-Person Omniscient Narrative

Third-Person Omniscient refers to a narrator that has access to all the characters in the story. For example, take a look at the same paragraph, rewritten using third-person omniscient narration. As you can see, this form of narrative allows the writer to introduce the feelings or experiences of other characters, but this can be risky in terms of making the text too busy or confusing. Care should be taken not to give too many characters too much attention or unwarranted insight.

She watched him as he advanced towards her car. He saw the terror in her eyes as he drew closer. The look of menace on his face became a look of shock as she started the engine and reversed, her wheels spinning and screaming. His anger mounted as he watched her spin the car around and make her way as fast as she could along the narrow alley and through the junction onto the well-lit highway.

To help you decide, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you want to explore the experience of one main person, letting the reader into the person's mind and taking them through the mystery as this person experienced it? If so, it would seem that first-person narration would be best suited to your own particular mystery story.
  • Do you want to focus on the story and plot, rather than a particular character? Is it important to your story that the reader is presented with different points of view and perspectives? If this sounds more like your aim, you should probably consider writing in the third person for your mystery story.

Internal Dialogue

One of the most interesting aspects of narrative can be when a character's internal thoughts are written into the story. In first-person narrative, this is more common. See the following example to give you an idea of how this works.

I watched her get up from the table and smooth her clothes.

"Can I get you anything?" she asked, smiling.

"No, I'm fine," I replied. You are all I want…

You can see from this example that giving the reader an insight into the internal working of the character's mind can add another dimension to your writing. There is one important thing to be careful of when using this technique: Don't overdo it! If you use the technique of writing internal dialogue too much, the reader will be tired of it, frustrated by too much "telling" and not enough "showing."

Showing and Telling

Remember one of the golden rules of fiction writing in general is to show, not tell. Of course, telling has its place, but it is essential that you consider whether it may be better for your story to show through action rather than tell by narrative. Consider the following examples. The first is from a mystery story that "tells" far too much. The second is the same paragraph rewritten to combine both telling and showing, resulting in a much better piece of writing.

Paragraph 1

He had a long face, a long, thin body, and even his fingers seemed stretched and elongated.The overall effect was sinister, and as he approached me, I felt increasingly uneasy. His stride was sloping and angular, as if he were trying to cover as much ground as possible in as few strides as necessary. He smiled as he reached me and I introduced myself in as friendly a manner as I could manage. I couldn't help but shiver as he sat beside me.

Paragraph 2

"You must be Mr. Smyth?" He smiled a weak smile, his thin lips drawn up at the corners.

"Yes, please call me John," I replied uneasily, taking in his sloping, angular stride as we moved to the seating area. He seemed to be trying to cover as much ground as possible in as few strides as necessary. I shivered as we sat down and he folded his long thin body into the seat next to me.

You can see from these examples that while the first paragraph communicates all the information to the reader and doesn't seem to have many problems, the second paragraph is much more effective. The reader can more easily visualize the scene; they feel like they are experiencing the event, rather than being told about it.The following writing exercise should help you enhance your writing skills by bearing this advice in mind.

Writing -- and Punctuating -- Dialogue

When we write dialogue, there is a specific way that we need to punctuate what is said. Many writers have trouble with this; it seems to be one of the first things we forget when we leave school.

This is simply a section that will brush up on those rules. If you'd like a more in-depth review, a great book that can help is Writing Dialogue, by Tom Chiarella
Back to our review:
To set off quoted material, you'll use a comma. This sets the quoted bits off from the main body of the sentence, in sentences that contain quotes. If the main body of work precedes the quote, your comma will appear between the end of the main body and the beginning of the quote. Sound confusing? It's really not. Here's an example:
Want to learn more? Take an online course in Mystery Writing.
Michelle said, "Hand me that book."
The boy thought, "Why doesn't anyone understand what I'm trying to say?"
For those two examples, when you are setting off the quoted material -- what is said or thought -- from the speaker, the comma is outside the quotation marks. But if the main body follows the quote, the comma (or other punctuation) goes inside the quotation marks.
For example:
"I am so happy!" she screamed.
"I think you are going to win," Jim told Alexis.
The comma is there (or the other end punctuation) to show that this is still part of the same sentence. If it were not, then you would put a period to end the sentence.
For example:

"I think you are going to win." John then turned to Alexis and shook her hand.
Now, if the spoken words are broken up, here is how you would punctuate the sentence:
"Well," she said, "there goes the ball game."
The main body, above, comes between the first piece of what is said and the second. Note that your punctuation is inside the quotation marks on both sides.
Mysterious Elements: The Red Herring
A red herring is a solution or revelation that solves some part of a mystery, or does it? A red herring misleads the reader, takes them on a wild goose chase. It is a staple of the mystery genre. We look at the dos and don'ts of placing pitfalls for the reader to fall into.

Don't Make it Too Easy

Make sure the reader doesn't immediately recognize the red herring for what it is. If you are planting a false clue, or leading the reader down a path that will later turn out to be a dead end, don't signpost it as such!

Don't Make it Too Hard

At the same time, don't allow the reader to feel that they were cheated. Make sure the false clues pointing to a false solution are not more plausible than the true solution in the end. Remember, you will have to contradict this version of events later in favor of the truth. You might find that as you write, your red herring becomes more endeared to you than the planned solution to the mystery. In this case, you may be able to swap your true solution around and make it the red herring on your reader's journey to the truth. Play around with versions of events that fit, and work out what will be most satisfactory to the reader.

Put the Effort In

False clues and misleading events should have as much effort put into them as any other part of the mystery story. Mystery writers often slip the red herrings in to bulk up the plot in a redraft, the result being that the red herrings clearly haven't been thought out well and planted carefully in the plot, so as to blend in. This is frustrating for a reader, and mystery fans love the misleading paths that lead nowhere, spotting them and returning to the right version of events is one of the most enjoyable elements of any mystery story and so it should be treated with care, not hurried!

Try a Shoal

Lots of red herrings makes for a much more complex plot and if this is structured well and each false clue is carefully considered, your mystery can become multi-layered and rich in complexity. Give the reader a number of possible versions of events, each with supporting clues and allow them to experience the process of discovering the truth behind the mystery along with the sleuth. Making the sleuth follow a few false paths that the reader also follows, can help your reader identify with the sleuth, and suddenly they seem a much more likable character, easier to relate to, and infinitely more human.

Reveal the False Answers Before the Real Ones

It is essential that the false clues have been resolved before the final revelation of the mystery. If the red herrings have not been revealed as such to the reader before the end of the story, then the ending will seem rushed. The best approach to dispelling any false versions of events is to do it gradually throughout the mystery, leaving the true version of events until the end. Be careful to ensure that alternative solutions to the mystery are tied up properly: There must be clues that enable the sleuth and/or the reader to dispel them. They should rarely just remain as possible solutions until the truth is revealed. This may make the reader feel they have been short-changed and may again make the ending feel rushed, or as if it has not been given the same attention or effort as has been put into the rest of the mystery story.

False Clues left by Characters

Not all false clues need to be planted by the writer in the way of the sleuth and the reader; sometimes the real villain can be used to leave false clues that mislead. From here, this seems the perfect place to look at a common aspect of mysteries, the ultimate red herring – the frame-up.


The concept of framing someone most likely comes from the phrase, "to put in the picture frame of suspicion." The person being framed is innocent, and the person framing them is either the guilty party; or someone who wants the guilty party to escape punishment, or has a vested interest in getting the victim of the frame-up into trouble, punished, or jailed. This is a very common theme in mystery novels and is especially popular in television programs and popular movies.

Pros and Cons of Using Frame-Ups

A frame-up can be used to completely surprise the reader. Especially if they are led to believe one party is guilty; suddenly making them realize the presumed guilty party is actually the innocent victim of a frame-up can provide a thrilling plot twist that will keep the reader glued to the pages of your mystery. The problem with using a frame-up as a storytelling device is that the number of times this technique is used bears no relation whatsoever to how often frame-ups actually happen in reality. In real life, it is very rare that a criminal will frame another person for a crime. This is a complicated, brave thing to do in comparison to simply running off and escaping detection. So consider carefully before framing one of your characters for a crime: Is this necessary and are you doing it in an original way, or is this simply a way of tying up the story in a way that will surprise the reader? Mystery fans will have come across hundreds of frame-ups in their time and they won't appreciate being short-changed by a poorly executed frame. Ask yourself the following two questions if you are tempted by the frame-up as a twist in your mystery.

1. Can I invent a frame-up that is original, one that will stand out from the rest in innovation and inventiveness?

2. Is there any other way I could resolve the mystery without the frame-up, or could I lead the reader to believe there has been a frame-up and then stun them by revealing there has been none?

Popular Courses
Learn More! Take an Online Course...
Follow Us Online
  • Follow us on Google Plus Follow us on FaceBook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on YouTube
© Copyright 1999-2019 Universal Class™ All rights reserved.