Writing a ‘Great’ Mystery Short Story by Steve Shrott

We all want to write great short stories.

A tale that will be lauded by the experts for generations and bring us awards and speaking engagements and perhaps (when they get around to creating it,) The Nobel Peace Prize for Mystery Short Story Writing.

But before all the above can occur (especially The Nobel Peace Prize thing,) we have to ask ourselves the question, “What makes a story great?”

You may say that you make the greatest chocolate chip muffins in the world, but I guarantee there’s someone down the street who says their muffins are better.

The truth is that everyone has their own idea about what makes something great.

In terms of stories, some might enjoy specific types of characters or situations while others have completely different tastes.

For example, one mystery magazine publisher told me that she didn’t like twists in stories, while another told me that she loved twists.

While we want to please publishers we just can’t know what they like or don’t like.

So we need to write stories that we, as writers, feel are great.

If that involves a twist, it might not sell to a publisher who doesn’t like twists, but it has a good chance of selling to the publisher who loves them.

However, I do believe there is one basic element that is true to all great stories.

It must hook the reader at the beginning and keep her hooked until the end.

That’s it!

To do this you may need to use a variety of techniques. Here are some that I suggest—

1) Open with Excitement

There are stories that start off something like this—

There was a terrace behind the house where roses and dandelions grew together amidst ancient trees. A ditch separated the garden from a deep meadow where various animals grazed.”

There’s nothing technically wrong with this, however, I would never use this type of opening.

In my opinion, it does not attract attention and make the reader want to continue with the story.

Contrast that with this simpler opening—


Immediately you want to know who needs help and what she needs help with.

Of course, the first line can be longer but it’s important that it be an opening which would make the reader continue with the story.


2) Make it Simple and Easy

Many people choose short stories because they may not have the time to read a novel. Generally, they also want an ‘easy read.’

I recently read a short that had a very original premise. It was something I had never seen before. It was terrific!!

However, the sentences were often poorly constructed and did not flow together properly.

This took away from the ‘greatness’ of the idea.

The easier to read our story is, the more impact it will have. If you examine the classics of genre fiction you’ll find that most of them are great ideas written in a simple manner.

Make your story a classic!

3) Cast Lightly

Novels are complex so they need many characters to tell a story.

Of course, a novel is four hundred pages, give or take, so you have time to gradually introduce the characters.  In a short story you are more limited, so stuffing in fifteen people would be very confusing.

The reader will definitely have to search her memory–was Winifred the electrician with the twitch or the hypochondriac waitress with the mole? You definitely don’t want that. It takes away from our rule of being easy to read.

4) Don’t Arc

I love when characters change during a story and become more courageous or caring. However, most short stories do not need arcs and in fact, they don’t work most of the time.  (I’m particularly talking here about a tale that is less than five thousand words.)

In a shorter tale, an arc could seem rushed because in real life it takes a long time for a person to change.  Short mystery heroes generally remain the same person at the end as they are at the beginning.

I do think the replacement for the arc is often a twist at the end. So while your character may not grow, he might appear different than when we first met him.

For example, I wrote a story where a man seems good-natured throughout the tale, but at the end we learn that he is a killer.  So while he hasn’t changed his character (as he was a killer all along,) he has changed in the reader’s perception.

5) Don’t Move Too Much

A reader expects there to be lots of scene changes in a novel. It would be boring if it took place in a house for four hundred pages. A scene change refreshes the reader in a book.

However, in a short tale, a lot of scene changes disrupt the flow and smoothness of your story. Each time you describe the new location, it takes the reader out of the world you’ve created, and gives her a chance to put down the story. So limit your scene changes.

6) Make Them Different

Creating a hero who is unique in some way adds a freshness to your tale. The great part is that it generally only takes one trait or characteristic to make them different. You might give your protagonist a strange hobby such as playing with a yoyo to help him think. Perhaps your detective is not Scottish or Irish, but wears a kilt as he solves crimes in New York City.

The same holds true for criminals. Generally, they are shown to be tough guys. Maybe your crook is into interior design or maybe he’s a thief who suffers ‘robber’s remorse.’ Think out of the box.

7) Make it New

We all want to read something fresh. So take out the clichés. They are the elements that we find repeated in many stories. They can be phrases such as, “Leave no stone unturned,” or “Let’s touch base.”

There are also be plot clichés. Your hard-core mystery writing fans have read too many stories about a new client going into a detective’s office, and saying his wife has disappeared.

This duplication of ideas may cause your reader to stop reading the tale. So you need to either alter these ideas so they appear new or create something more unique. The only way to know what’s been done before is to read a lot of stories.

8) Can You Feel it?

Emotion is a big part of romance stories. However, it’s not something you hear mentioned in terms of mysteries.

I do believe that adding this element to your story raises its quality.

Maybe your character has a deep love for someone who is on the opposite side of the law. Perhaps you have a character who sacrifices herself for someone else.

Now, of course, you can’t shoe-horn emotion into all mystery stories. However, I do believe it can be very effective in the right tale.

I hope you found these techniques useful.  If you want to learn more, then join me for my workshop:


Steve Shrott is an award-winning comedy writer who has been affectionately nick-named, "Comedy writer to the stars." He has written for a ve...