Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Short Mystery Fiction

By Ron Brown
Suspense and Mystery Moderator

2001, Ron Brown 

When considering mystery in the short form, many writers are faced with a dilemma that seems insurmountable.  How can they, in limited space, both show the steps of crime-solving and develop characters well enough to create a fulfilling and entertaining piece of fiction?    The answer is simple you can't.  Furthermore, you really shouldn't try.

Mystery, or crime fiction in general, as a short story is an exercise in slicing.  You must glean the portion of the story you wish to tell.  Consider an often-used plot in mystery. 

A young man returns to his home to reconnect with his past.  A murder takes place.  He discovers that the murder impacts old friends, one of whom is wrongly accused.  The police are convinced his friend is guilty, and their investigation is limited to proving their case.  The young man must independently discover the truth behind the killing to clear his friend.  During his investigation, he discovers new secrets about his own past and receives threats to his life.  After foiling attempts on his life and removing roadblocks to the truth, he identifies the culprits and his friend is freed. 

Variations on this plot can be found in numerous mystery novels, and on the whole, this is the foundation for a novel-length story.  However, the amount of activity, combined with the character development, is too much for a short story.  Many would say this is a novel-length idea, and therefore can't be used for a short story.

While that is true for the entirety of the story, there are many short stories found inside the overall idea: 

A young man returns to his home to reconnect with his past when a murder takes place. It is legitimate for the story to end here if the murder is set as the climax.  He may have been going home to see a father he had never known, only to find him murdered.

The young man must discover the truth behind the killing to clear his friend. Start the story after his friend has been arrested, and you can focus on the young man's quest to free him.  This story can end when the young man knows the culprits, but before he has enough evidence to prove it.

After avoiding attempts on his life, and removing roadblocks to the truth, he identifies the culprits and his friend is freed. Showing just the end could be another story of its own.  This could be either the trial when the evidence is presented, or the young hero taking the proof, and possibly a confession, to the police and demanding that his friend be released.

You could also focus on an element of the story not fleshed out in the above story outline.  You could show the killing take place.  From the point of view of either the killer or the victim, showing the actual murder is also a powerful story and one that is easily relayed in the short form. 

Any of these pieces could be turned into a short story that would be complete and fit nicely into a mystery or crime fiction publication.  Though the overall story is too large, and is indeed a novel-length idea, neither of those facts precludes the development of a good short piece.  Take an idea floating around in your head, or staring at you from your notes, and try to find the short stories held inside.  Some powerful short fiction could be waiting to be written.