(Spoiler Warning: The following blog post contains spoilers from both the Pretty Little Liars books and TV Show.)
I had a vague idea about wanting to write a mystery last fall. But filling in the exact plot didn’t happen so I put the idea aside and started working on other writing projects. However, the concrete details about the story just came to me--one night several days prior to writing this blog post--before falling asleep when I wasn’t even thinking about the project. The novel idea is a YA Mystery/Thriller about the death of a wealthy family’s matriarch, and the how the grandson (who is the main character) slowly unravels the mystery. The details are about 90 to 95 percent clear right now. The events surrounding the murder/identity of the murderer changed since it shifted from a fight about someone being cut out of the will to someone in the family hiding a secret. Yet I still like the idea of making the town a character and intricate details about the main character’s family present in the novel. And I ultimately can’t help thinking about elements of good mystery writing while embarking on this new writing project.
Pretty Little Liars (PLL) is one pop culture phenomenon that relates to the mystery genre. The show and books are different from each other. Still, they both have the undercurrent of mystery and suspense and their own strengths.
The show is really good at handling romance and fleshing out main characters and side characters while the books make the mystery feel more urgent. While well-developed characters make the TV show more authentic and less cartoon-like, the details eventually become superfluous. It’s easy to see that there are a bunch of side characters that don’t move the plot forward. There are also too many red herrings on the show. One red herring might be okay. But red herring after red herring gets old. Yes. A mystery can’t just be solved overnight because concrete clues are needed. However, there comes a point when the mystery needs to have actual ramifications in the present moment.
The PLL books make the mystery more direct because readers have a good idea of who the third A is in the first book of the third mystery arc. (Side note: the Pretty Little Liars series encompasses 16 books. There are 4 books in the first arc, 4 in the second arc, and 8 in the third arc. Each arc has a new A. Although it’s the same A for arcs 2 and 3 because the second arc ends with Emily, Spencer, Aria, and Hanna not knowing if A [Alison DiLaurentis] survived the fire in book 8.)
Knowing that Alison is probably still alive and the third A in the books is essential. No disrespect to past pop culture, but people are entitled to higher level storytelling. A mystery TV show or book series shouldn’t be predicated on only finding out who is the villain or murderer because that can feel boring. However, the PLL books don’t get stale even though readers have a good idea Alison is the third A before official confirmation since the story builds on itself. Emily, Spencer, Aria, and Hanna soon realize Alison can’t be doing every bad thing herself and that there must be a helper A.
The PLL show gets redemption right, though. Alison is only a bully and not the major villain in the show. It’s important to note that she starts acting nicer to people when she returns to her hometown after people thought she was dead. A redemption arc is important because it shows that people are complicated. Yes. Thinking people are only kind might be ideal, but it isn’t realistic. People sometimes think or say things they shouldn’t. The show also gets approaches romance well. There are several on and off relationships on the PLL TV Show (Emison, Spoby, Haleb, and Ezria), and the show gets the issue right by the couples never being permanently off the table. A show or book needs to have a clear romantic vision before becoming popular. Fans shouldn’t ruin a television show like the Delena (Damon+ Elena) fans ruined the CW show The Vampire Diaries by wanting Delena to be endgame even though the relationship was unhealthy and toxic compared to Stelena (Stefan and Elena).
The discussion about the Pretty Little Liars books and TV show applies to my writing because I have a good idea about the structure of my novel. I will limit myself to one red herring in the first third of the book because it will make the novel more realistic by giving an alternate explanation of the crime. Then it will be clue after clue, which leads to the murder’s unmasking. But the novel won’t stop at unmasking the murderer. There needs to be a payoff, which means exploring what happens after the main character finds the killer. People like to think crime doesn’t pay even though it sometimes does. In my novel’s case, that means knowing who committed the murder isn’t the same as having the person arrested by the police or being found guilty. Romance will also be a part of the novel since I want the main character to have a love interest. However, it won’t be a “will they or won’t they” romance. Those types of romances are boring. Not being together or being together shouldn’t be the only type of romance plot because it can easily seem cheap and gimmicky. Conflict still exists even after a couple gets together because new challenges will eventually happen. Like deciding when they should sleep together for the first time or if they should ever get married.
My advice for writing mysteries can be summed in a few key points. Not having too many red herrings is important for mystery writers because they feel tedious and cheats readers about finding clues for the actual mystery. Having a concrete trail of clues should be incorporated into mysteries since clues give a mystery specificity. Through this technique, readers can go back and realize there was a foundation for the murderer’s identity. For example, if someone is having an affair or secret forbidden relationship, you could have several clues. One clue could be Character A realizes Character B is acting different. Another clue could be Character A following Character B and discovering Character B out on the secret date/engaged in a tryst. The next step could be Character A confronting Character B about the discovery. Clues also add a fun element to mysteries because they make the character(s) active as opposed to being passive. The last major tip for writing mysteries is to push the mystery forward in the present moment in order to give readers a payoff beyond a revelation. This part works easier if the detective is an amateur, not affiliated with law enforcement, and is investigating the mystery because of a personal connection. For example, the evidence for solving a murder could be destroyed and the murderer makes life impossible for the main characters. The main characters could then kill the murderer after a heated argument, which would create a new mystery because of the main characters needing to cover their tracks.
Those are my tips for writing mysteries. Do you have any tips or even mystery stories that you’d like to share?