Characteristics of a Mystery

genre elements

The Basic Definition

  • A subgenre of narrative fiction; often thought of as a detective story.

  • Usually involves a mysterious death or a crime to be solved. In a closed circle of suspects, each suspect must have a credible motive and a reasonable opportunity for committing the crime. The central character must be a detective who eventually solves the mystery by logical deduction from facts fairly presented to the reader. This classic structure is the basis for hundreds of variations on the form.

The Purpose

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.

Tip-Offs or Rules of Notice

  • Mystery, crime, or another puzzle to be solved.
  • Main character who is a detective who sets out to solve a mystery.
  • Suspects and their motives; these must be weighed and evaluated.
  • Overt Clues about the crime are presented.
  • Hidden Evidence is presented, i.e., essential details are offered in such a way that they seem unimportant.
  • Inference Gaps—mysteries, by their very nature, do not tell the whole story. It is up to readers to notice the gaps in the story and try to fill these gaps by using and connecting the information that is presented.
  • Suspense—having to hold various possible conclusions at bay as you wait to see what happens; reader is expected to enjoy the suspense, and to read to find out what will happen.
  • Foreshadowing—clues left by the author as to possible outcomes.
  • Red herring—a kind of foreshadowing clue that leads the reader to false conclusions.

What a Mystery Requires of a Reader

The reader’s job is to put the puzzle pieces offered by the author together to figure out the mystery, to appreciate the detective’s craft, and to take moral satisfaction from the solution to the mystery. To do this, readers must notice and make meaning with the codes offered above, i.e., they must notice the various forms of evidence and evaluate them; they must notice inference gaps and try to fill them.