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What is a Mystery Short Story? And How Do You Write One?

by John Floyd

I'll begin by answering part of that question:

I think of a short story as a piece of fiction less than around 20,000 words in length (usually between 2,000 and 5,000 words). It often focuses on one event, one problem, and one character or a small set of characters.

Others have defined it in more simple terms. H.G. Wells said a short story is any piece of fiction that can be read in half an hour, and Chekhov said a story is a problem a writer must solve for a reader. Those definitions are also accurate.

Now, what is a "mystery" short story?

It's the same thing, except that a crime of some kind is central to its plot. By that I mean the crime is a significant part of the story, to the point that if you remove the crime from the story, the plot has no meaning. Be aware, however, that some mystery markets consider a short story to be a "mystery" if it merely involves a crime, or even the threat of a crime.

The point here is that a mystery story does not have to be a "whodunit." It often is, but it doesn't have to be. If a crime plays an important part in the plot, the story should be considered appropriate for submission to short mystery markets. Of the seven stories I've sold to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, only two were true whodunits, where the identity of the murderer is withheld until the end. The other five were just regular tales about characters directly involved in some way with a murder, robbery, burglary, etc.; these stories dealt more with how a particular crime was committed and/or solved than with who did it. And only one of the nine stories I've sold to Woman's World (they buy 1000-word "mini-mysteries") was a whodunit. Again, if you build your story around a crime of some sort, it can and should be considered a mystery. Period.

You should know, however, that there are different categories of mystery stories. This is important for two reasons: (1) since most editors and readers are aware of them, you as a writer should be also; and (2) some publications specify a preference for one kind or the other.

What are these different categories of mysteries? There are many. The Index of Categories in Mystery Writer's Marketplace lists the following: amateur sleuth, cozy, dark mystery, espionage, hard-boiled detective, historical, humorous mystery, juvenile, light horror, malice domestic, police procedural, private eye, romantic suspense, surrealistic mystery, suspense, thriller, trial story, urban horror, young adult.

Enough types for you? Here's another dose. According to Sue Grafton in her introduction to Writing Mysteries: "The term mystery is an umbrella that shelters a variety of subgenres: the traditional whodunit, the private eye, the classic puzzle, the police procedural, action/adventure, thriller, espionage, psychological and romantic suspense."

Let's break all this down a little. I think all of us know what a police procedural is, and a PI story, and most of the others. The terms that always confused me were "cozy" and "hard-boiled." I've always associated cozies with little British ladies and hard-boiled with Mickey Spillane, but what do they really mean? Here's what Larry Beinhart says, in How to Write a Mystery: "The conventions that divide them can be summed up pretty quickly: The hard-boiled has a professional detective, violence, and sex, and takes place on the mean streets. The cozy has an amateur sleuth, takes place among 'regular' folks, progresses through ratiocination rather than physical action, and sex is not something people do, it's what they have secrets about." He goes on to say that "most cozy readers are women and so are the heroines." The opposite is true for hard-boiled. Or at least it used to be.

The fact is, though, I really doubt you'll need to bother too much with trying to categorize your mystery. Just create a story about a regular person faced with a hostile or threatening situation of some kind, have him suffer a bit in the process, and then have him win. That should do the job.

Some Short Fiction Basics

Because of its abbreviated length, a short story must be focused and compact. It should contain no more information than absolutely necessary. This is extremely important to remember. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word, must be meaningful to the story. Everything that does not in some way move the story forward must be cut out.

You will probably find this kind of editing hard to do. Especially if you've worked to describe a particular setting, or character, in beautifully flowing prose. But is all that flowery description necessary in order for the reader to effectively visualize the setting, or know the character? If it is, leave it in -- but if not, cut it. Mercilessly. You'll have a stronger story as a result. And believe me, editors have very little tolerance on this point. If your short story isn't focused and tight, it'll be rejected.

One more observation here: This rule about spare, tight prose doesn't only apply to short fiction. Even the longest novels, if they're good, are tightly written. Learn early to weed the chaff from your writing, and practice it.

Another basic fact about short stories (and especially mystery fiction) is that you should try to use a lot of dialogue. Most readers like dialogue. They enjoy hearing the characters speak. Dialogue is also a great way to develop your characters. It keeps the writer from having to resort to lengthy description; a character can just as easily be described by the things she says and how she says them (or by what others say about her). And I'll give you another reason it's a good idea to include dialogue: mystery stories with a lot of dialogue are easier to sell

On the subject of what's marketable and what isn't, here's another fact. Short stories with a touch of humor are easier to sell. They're also a lot more enjoyable to write, and to read. And I'm not talking about comedy stories, or black humor, or slapstick; what I'm talking about are just regular stories -- mysteries, mainstream, literary, etc. -- that happen to include some humor now and then. It could be an interaction between friends, or an embarrassing situation, or even the way a character thinks of himself. Anything's fine, as long as it brings an occasional smile to the reader's face. Some of the best serious stories are filled with humor. Examples: the works of Donald Westlake, Nelson DeMille, Larry McMurtry, Robert B. Parker, Lawrence Block, Martin Cruz Smith, Stephen King.

One more note about marketability: shorter stories are usually easier to sell than longer stories Especially for beginning writers. Why? There are a number of reasons. For one thing, since shorter pieces take up less print space, they're easier to fit into an issue of a magazine. Also, many readers seem to gravitate first to the shorter stories in a publication before moving on to the longer ones. (Don't ask me why.) And I've even heard editors admit that shorter stories have a better chance of acceptance -- especially if a writer is new -- because the editor is more apt to hang in there and read the whole story before making a buy/reject decision. To again use a personal example, my first two sales to Hitchcock were stories of less than 2,000 words -- one was barely 1,000. The third was 13,000 words, and though the higher word count did result in a higher payment, I'm not at all certain that that editor would have accepted the longer one if I had submitted it before the others.

Why Write Short Stories?

Novels are of course the flagships of fiction. They are certainly rewarding (in many ways) to write. The publication of a bestselling novel is the obvious goal of any fiction writer, including me, and for obvious reasons. Having said that, and having tried my hand at writing both novels and short stories, I'll suggest an appropriate question:

Why would anyone want to write a short story instead of a novel?

There are several reasons, some of which I borrowed from Edward D. Hoch, who published more than 700 short stories:

  1. The short story lets you (the writer) know you've completed something, and that's good for the ego. At least it is for mine.

  2. If you write it and it doesn't sell, you haven't wasted months or even years of your life.

  3. It's great practice. I can't think of a better way to develop your writing skills.

  4. Short-story editors usually respond (decide) within a few weeks, instead of the extended period of time required for a novel.

  5. You don't need to get an agent.

  6. You can sell a short story over and over and over again.

  7. It can allow you to build credentials for later, larger sales.

  8. It's fun.

(As you've probably figured out by now, I think the last reason is the most important.)

Now... Can you write a short story, if you've never tried? Let me answer that by quoting a fellow writer. Larry Beinhart, an award-winning mystery author and teacher we've already mentioned, says that if you (1) can write a clear sentence, (2) can organize your thoughts, (3) know and love your field, and (4) make the commitment, you can write a publishable story.

One very important thing here is, you must know your field, or your market. Know what kind of stories are out there, and what kind of readers, and what they like. How do you do that? The simplest way is to read a lot of what's being published in your chosen area or genre. You like mysteries? Read every mystery (novel and short story) that you can. If it's fiction, the basic concepts are the same. I read all the time (not just mysteries) and I do it because I enjoy it. But it also helps my writing. I always try to write the kind of stories I'd like to read, if I were the one buying the publication.

And you don't have to read only good mysteries. You can learn from any story, good or bad. I'm not saying you should seek out stories you have heard are substandard and read them; but if you're reading one that turns out to be less than brilliant, don't worry. Your time's not been wasted. It's worthwhile to see and study the things writers shouldn't do, as well as the things they should.

Generating Ideas

That's fine in theory, you're probably saying. But how do I come up with an idea for a story?

It's not as hard as it sounds. Ideas are everywhere. The main thing is, keep your eyes and ears open. Teach yourself to be observant of everything and everyone. One writer I know consistently gets her ideas from the newspaper headlines, another gets ideas from the business people he meets in the course of the day. My ideas usually seem to come from situations I see or hear about, either locally or on TV. The source really doesn't matter -- the raw material for ideas is out there and available to us, all the time, if we'll just take notice. And once you do see or hear something that plants the seed of a story in your mind...

Ask yourself "What if?"

What if. Those two words are sometimes all you need to transform some common, everyday scene into a fullblown mystery tale. See the well-dressed woman driving the old pickup truck? What if she's late for an executive interview, and saw the keys left in a truck in the Kroger parking lot after her Lexus wouldn't start? And the pretty girl crying on the street corner? What if she's just found out her boyfriend's been taken to jail for a robbery she committed? The black policeman leaning against his squad car, eating a donut? What if the owner of the bakery shop next door is the brother of the bigot the cop arrested yesterday, and the donut's poisoned?

Okay, I'll admit those are pretty farfetched. But you get my drift. Take something ordinary, spoon in a healthy dose of criminal intent, and see what happens.

Practice by focusing on someone you see today (or saw yesterday) and ask yourself questions about him or her. What's she doing here? Where's she going? Where'd she come from? What's she thinking? Is she meeting someone, or running away from something, or plotting a crime? Try to picture things that could cause problems for her, maybe create an argument or a confrontation or a misunderstanding.

You don't even have to directly see or hear whatever launches your idea. The whole thing could come prepackaged, straight out of the fertile fields of your imagination as you lie in your backyard hammock. It might be a trainload of people with a bomb on board, or a housewife with a flat tire at night in the wrong part of town, or a newlywed answering the door and meeting the long-lost husband his wife thought had been killed while backpacking in Peru.

If you're like me, you'll find that many of these out-of-the-blue ideas come to you in the middle of the night. I'm one of those people who keep a pen and notepad on the bedside table. If you don't write them down, detailed dreams are never quite as detailed after you wake up the next morning. (You might want to invest in a tiny penlight, though -- sleepy spouses sometimes don't seem to understand this overwhelming need to light up the bedroom and jot down your thoughts at three in the morning.)

And I think a lot of beginning writers expect that first hint of an idea to be somehow bigger than it really is. Actually -- at least for me -- it's usually more of a glimmer than a beacon. It's just a tiny inkling of a situation or a turn of events that, after a little thought, can become much more. In fact, a finished story is almost always the result of several ideas, most of them sparked by that first small one.

I've heard writers say they receive their initial inspiration in various ways. Some have told me their story ideas always come to them first in the form of a setting. A hotel lobby, a windswept mountain pass, a lonely pier, a PTA meeting, a tropical beach. Others say they always start with characters -- accountants at a convention, a frustrated housewife, inmates on death row -- and then build a plot around them. Others begin with the plot itself: a gangland killing, the theft of a school backpack, an embezzlement, the kidnapping of a public figure, etc.

Whatever the idea, and however it came about, it usually involves (when fully baked):

  1. a handful of characters,
  2. a problem they have to solve,
  3. an obstacle that makes the solution harder, and
  4. a way to solve the problem.

Elmer Rice once said the same thing in a different way: He said a drama, in its simplest form, involved the following:

Act 1. Get man up tree.
Act 2: Throw stones at him.
Act 3: Get him down.

Copyright © 2003 John Floyd
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Mississippi writer John Floyd (jfloyd "at" teclink.net) has sold more than 500 short stories and fillers to 100+ publications, including Strand Magazine, Grit, Woman's World, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. His stories have been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and the Derringer Award.

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