HIGH SCHOOL is a key point in a student’s education because of the importance it carries in terms of writing skills. Writing is a big part of every High School student’s life. In fact, students write more than ever before – from school research papers to essays on standardized tests to texting their friends. Yet, writing problems abound.

In my second instalment on Writing Activities For High School Students, I am going to explore the Mystery/Detective Writing. My first instalment was on REALISTIC FICTIONWriting Activities For High School Students – 1

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This mystery genre is a type of fiction in which a detective, or other professional, solves a crime or series of crimes. It can take the form of a novel or short story. The purpose of a mystery novel is to solve a puzzle and to create a feeling of resolution with the audience.

The Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie novels and many other short stories/novels are excellent examples of mystery genres.

Genre: Mystery Short Stories

Task: Read and annotate three or four short mysteries.

Directions: Read 3-4 short story mysteries from one or more of the following:

While you read and annotate:

  • Identify the mystery to be solved. What could be possible motives or opportunities for the incident to have occurred?
  • How does the setting affect the story? Does it add to the suspense or create opportunities for multiple locations for events to happen?
  • Watch for clues –which can be something that a character does, says, or an object that is found. Some authors use foreshadowing or flashback techniques to provide clues. When you think something may be a clue, ask yourself if it gives information about a suspicious character, or answers “why” something would happen.
  • What perspective is the author writing from? Does it have multiple perspectives?
  • Consider the purpose of the story: To engage in and enjoy solving a puzzle.
  • Explore moral satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) at resolution. Consider human condition and how to solve or avoid human problems.

What Are The Key Elements Of A Mystery?

There are five components to explore: the characters, the setting, the plot, the problem, and the solution. These essential elements keep the story running smoothly and allow the clues to the solution of the mystery to be revealed in a logical way that the reader can follow.

In 1928, the novelist S.S. Van Dine, wrote a much-acclaimed article called Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories. Among the lot, Van Dine outlined the key issues which must be apparent in any short story mystery:

  1. The detective story is a sporting event and the author must play fair with the reader.
  2. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
  3. The detective should never turn out to be the culprit.
  4. The culprit must be discovered by logical deduction, not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession.
  5. The detective story should never contain no long descriptive passages.

I am going to explore some of these in some detail.

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Ingredients For A Mystery

When cooking up a mystery, authors use this tasty recipe.

 CHARACTERS: Detective or mystery fiction follows the solving of a crime, so we usually see the story through the eyes of the detective. This means that the writer has to make the detective’s character interesting and appealing to the reader. Other characters include:

  • Suspects: Characters believed to have possibly committed the crime
  • Witnesses: Characters who saw the crime being committed

SETTING: This is the location where the mystery takes place. Decide where your story will take place. A mystery can take place anywhere, but here are some ideas: a school, an amusement park, a field, your house, an airport, the mall, or the library. Don’t forget to include the time the crime was committed in the setting of your story.

PLOT: When reading a mystery, the story is usually linear including one of the following:

  • A problem that needs to be solved.
  • An event that cannot be explained.
  • A secret.
  • Something that is lost or missing.
  • A crime that has been committed.

CLUES: Clues are hints that can help the reader and the detective solve the mystery. They can be things people say or do, or objects that are found that provide important information. (Go back to your mystery readings and check if the mystery you read had clues.)

RED HERRINGS: These are distractions or false clues that may lead the reader or the detective off track. Red herrings often make it more difficult to solve a mystery. (Go back to your mystery readings and check if the mystery you read had a red herring.)

 BUILDING DESCRIPTIONSAccording to Van Dine’s rules, detective fiction “should contain no long descriptive passages.” Although description is not as important as plot in this genre, it is still needed to build a picture, to build tension and to engage the reader in the story.

 RECIPE FOR A MYSTERY: How to write a mystery

Most mysteries are set up the same way. The structure of a mystery usually looks like this:

BEGINNING: Characters are introduced and the reader learns about the problem. In detective stories, openings are quite interesting and should contain two keys elements. Firstly, you must introduce a character or situation which the reader wants to find out more about; and secondly, include details to intrigue the reader and make them want to find out what happens next.

REMEMBER: The more questions you make your reader want to ask, the more you will intrigue them.

Some Story Starters may include . . . .

  1. My hair stood on end, a shiver raced down my spine and a lump came to my throat. It was him…
  2. The gravestones stood silently, row upon row like soldiers long forgotten, a scream shattered the silence…
  3. It was there and then it had gone, why would a rabbit be on my bathroom floor?
  4. Bleary-eyed, I went downstairs for breakfast, the house was empty, even the furniture had gone…
  5. The lights flickered and then went off, then the sirens started, it was coming, and we knew it wouldn’t be the last time…
  6. The date was 13th July, my 45th birthday… it would be my last…
  7. Three of us.  We were the only ones left, the only ones to make it to the island.

MIDDLE: Detectives work to solve the mystery by interviewing suspects and gathering clues. Tension is created through the situations in which the writer places the characters, and the dialogue they are given.

END: The mystery is solved

WatchPlanning A Story

Planning is the most important stage in any piece of writing. With planning you will produce a text that will hold a reader’s attention and interest. Without planning, you will produce a text that starts, goes on for a while and then stops.

LASTLY, just remember to have a checklist of some sort: The ingredients for the detective genre must include

  • A setting: time and place
  • Some suspects
  • A murder and a victim
  • Some witnesses
  • A detective
  • Some clues and some red herrings
  • A resolution

Good luck in your endeavours.


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