Magic tricks, when done well, tend to be structured in a way that will be familiar to writers. They usually have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Take a simple coin vanish. The magician borrows a coin from a spectator (beginning), makes it disappear (middle), and then, when it seems the coin is lost forever, makes it reappear (the end). The routine, albeit short, reaches a satisfying conclusion.
Now imagine a routine where the magician borrows a coin, makes it disappear, then just stands there. The routine doesn’t end, and there’s no satisfying conclusion. Even if you don’t know what’s supposed to happen next, you still get the sense something is missing. The same is true when we tell stories. All types of stories have certain elements that must be present or else the reader is left with a sense that something is missing.
This month, let’s look at three essential ingredients of mysteries. To illustrate these essentials, we’ll look at two great middle grade mysteries: “The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity” written by Mac Barnett and “Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief” written by Wendelin Van Draanen. But first, what are these three essentials for mysteries?
#1: An Interesting Mystery. This can be a crime or question that needs solving or answering. Most importantly, it must be something the reader will care about. It also must be something you character cares about. Which brings us to essential #2.
#2: A Compelling Sleuth. Your sleuth most care about solving the mystery. Your reader must care about the sleuth. This will keep the reader engaged with the story, cheering on the sleuth even if they make mistakes or fail. Which they must, as we learn from essential #3.
#3: Ever-Growing Complications. No matter how brilliant your sleuth, they won’t keep your readers’ interest unless they’re forced to deal with complications on the way to solving the mystery.
Now, let’s look at how our two examples address the essentials.
#1: An Interesting Mystery
In “Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief”, Sammy is staring at the hotel across the street through her binoculars when she spots a thief stealing money from one of the rooms. The thief stops and stares back at Sammy. Did he see her? Yes. How do we know? Because Sammy waved. She instantly regrets it, of course, but the damage is done. Who is this thief? Will he come after Sammy? This is the mystery that hooks the reader and drives the story.
In “The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity”, the mystery begins when Steve Brixton is assigned a social studies report and attempts to check a book out from the library. Within minutes, the library is under siege, and Steve is on the run. Before long, Steve is a fugitive from justice and must figure out who Mr. E is, and what Mr. E is truly after.
With the Interesting Mystery set up, let’s look at Essential #2.
#2: A Compelling Sleuth
On the surface, but Sammy Keyes and Steve Brixton seem like average middle school kids. Below the surface, not so much.
Sammy has a secret. Her mother is gone, off chasing her dreams, so Sammy lives with her grandmother. That’s not much to worry about, except that Sammy’s grandmother lives in a retirement home, and kids aren’t allowed to live there. Basically, Sammy is living there illegally. That might be okay, except that nosy neighbor Mrs. Graybill is doing all she can to catch Sammy. Still, Sammy’s brilliance and independence shine through, and she makes the perfect sleuth.
Steve Brixton loves mysteries. That’s a gross understatement. He has read every Bailey Brothers Detective book, most of them more then once. His detective skills are evident when he solves the case of the Blackbird Robber for his mother’s police officer boyfriend, Rick. His use of outdated jargon, picked up from reading the Bailey Brothers books, gives him a unique voice. As a sleuth, he’s fun to watch in action, and his skills, bolstered by excerpts from the Bailey Brothers’ Detective Handbook are authentic, even if they are a bit unusual (his undercover sailor’s costume is a good example of this).
So, we’ve got an Interesting Mystery and a Compelling Sleuth. Now it’s time for the Ever-Growing Complications.
#3: Ever-Growing Complications
Sammy Keyes first complication, of course, is her living situation. But that’s not the only issue she has to face. She quickly discovers that the police think she might the thief. Then she discovers that the thief has sent a threatening note meant for her. And things aren’t much better at school. She manages to get suspended on the first day of school. As the stresses in her life grow, her relationship with her grandmother suffers. She soon realizes that the only way to get some sort of balance in her life is to find the thief.
Steve Brixton runs into his own complications. After escaping from the Librarians, Steve finds himself in trouble with the police, and on the run from a gang of thugs. Every interaction he has seems to push him farther away from his goal of figuring out what is going on. Good thing he has the Bailey Brothers’ Detective Handbook to help him along the way.
“Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief” and “The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity” both have all three of our essential ingredients. It’s no wonder both books, and the series they spawned have collected such a loyal following. If you’re interested in writing a great mystery, check these series out. You won’t regret it.
Well, that’s all for now. Happy writing. Have a magical month!