*This competition is now closed but you are still welcome to read through the published writing and blog posts. *
From unsolved crimes to detective whodunits to Private Eye escapades—it’s no mystery that mysteries are among the most popular books on the shelf. They reel us in with intrigue, keep us guessing with red herrings, shock us with revelations. This month, dear writers, thrill us with your thrillers, and keep us turning pages with your own tales of suspense.
What to write about? Keep in mind that mysteries can take many shapes. In The Bourne Identity, for example, the protagonist is on a quest to discover who he is and why he’s trailed by assassins. In The Da Vinci Code, the suspense centers around a series of clues that could upend the modern understanding of Christianity. In The Mystery of Hollow Places, the narrator goes in search of her missing parents. And in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a fifteen-year-old investigates the death of his neighbour’s dog. So, dear writers, your mystery tale can tread far beyond the traditional detective story.
SET-UP: What makes a mystery a mystery? A question or puzzle—seemingly unanswerable—lies at the heart. As you begin spinning your tales, make sure that a question (or puzzle) emerges front and center, guiding your narrative, and building suspense.
SUSPENSE: Another way to think about suspense is the withholding of information. Rather than answering questions too soon, think about slowing down when the reader wants you to speed up, or even moving to a different scene or period of time. Keep your readers wanting to know more!
CHARACTERS: As best-selling crime author Michael Connelly wrote, "The best mysteries are about the mystery of character." In other words, to care about the mystery, the reader has to care about the characters involved, and the motivation behind their actions. Think Sherlock Holmes! Or Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, the detectives in Agatha Christie’s mysteries—some of the most popular of all time. What draws readers into these stories is the feeling that they personally know these characters, and understand their flaws and gifts. So, dear writers, take time getting to know your characters and finding what makes them tick and what trips them up. Check out our “Character Study” resource for more.
CLUES: Mystery writer Elizabeth George describes this genre as “a game” between the writer and the reader. As the story unfolds, the writer plants clues and red herrings for the reader to discover. This participation in solving the mystery is one of the joys of reading this genre. Think of your plot as a trail of breadcrumbs, or a series of puzzle pieces, and invite your reader to act as a detective.
SETTING: A thrill of reading a good mystery is feeling like you’re in the world of the characters, haunted by the same inexplicable scratching sounds or the unsolved crime or the missing heirloom. Invite your reader into the setting where your mystery takes place, giving attention to sensory details such as sight, sound, and smell. What is the time of year? Does the story take place in an urban landscape or rural setting? What sounds does your narrator hear out her window? Through your details of setting, in addition to locating the reader in time and place, remember that you are also creating a sense of mood.
CLICHÉS: Write away clichés! If any phrases sound familiar or tired to you (“It was a dark and stormy night”), they will to your reader, too. Replace clichés with your own fresh descriptions. Instead of writing “the blood curdling scream” or “shivers up my spine” (phrases used thousands of times), describe these details in a fresh/new way for your reader.
Who is Eligible?
Young writers ages 13-18
600-1,000 words. Your entry can be a short story, or an excerpt from a novel.
What’s Different about Write the World Competitions?
Prizes: The winning entrant will receive $100, and the runner-up and best peer-reviewer will receive $50.
Professional Recognition: The winning entry, plus the runner-up and best peer review, will be featured on our blog, with commentary from our guest judge.
Expert Review: Submit your draft and get feedback from our team of experts—writers and teachers.