Mystery is a genre of cinema and television that’s been around since the early 1900s, captivating audiences and forcing them to the edge of their seat while they wonder what the answer to the mystery is. Even today, there are countless mystery-oriented or mystery-inspired shows such as Criminal Minds and Supernatural.
There’s a reason audiences love anything having to do with Mystery, even if it’s not totally related to the typical Mystery genre, such as the show Stranger Things. Still, it can be challenging for scriptwriters to know how to craft an excellent mystery script.
After all, with the genre being around so long, it’s challenging to develop a truly original story that doesn’t follow the typical clichés so many people could easily predict. With this in mind, we’re going to discuss a few key things you should keep in mind while writing a mystery script. Let’s take a look!
Still from 'Knives Out'. Photo credit: WTOP
Establish Unique Characters
If you were to look at any successful mystery show or film, they always have unique characters. Although you can make the argument that any great piece of cinema has excellent characters, it’s especially true with mystery scripts. Whether it’s the cast of Knives Out or Dale Cooper and Audrey Horne from Twin Peaks, they’re incredibly intriguing characters.
You’ll also find your story will be easier to tell with characters that have quirky traits. It could be as simple as a butcher shop owner that has an obsession with a particular kind of gum. As odd as that description might sound, coming up with exciting character premises like that can add an entirely new layer to your script.
Your Protagonist is Everything
Similar to the notion of having totally unique and interesting characters, the case becomes especially important with your protagonist. Usually, you want your protagonist to have some sort of likability since you want the audience to cheer for them while they try to achieve the goal of solving the mystery.
However, when it comes to writing the likability of your protagonist, you don’t need the character to be painfully flawless. There are plenty of mysteries throughout cinema where the protagonist has negative traits on top of the reason why an audience would root for him. Try to get creative with the matter and how the character can develop.
Have an Interesting World
World-building is largely what makes a mystery compelling or not. If a world isn’t unique or different from the modern era, it tends to make a story that isn’t as interesting. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need the story to be in the past or future, all it means is you need to figure out a setting that isn’t quite common.
For instance, if you have a mystery in a modern-day prison, that’d be a compelling twist on the setting most people are familiar with. The idea is to figure out a way to tell the story in a setting or scenery that isn’t relatable to most people. People enjoy stories that seem out of place, especially mysteries.
Utilize Clues Correctly
The phrase clue typically goes hand-in-hand with the mystery genre, and it’s easy to see why. You can’t have a good mystery story without the proper use of clues to go along with it. Still, there’s an important distinction between having clues that benefit the story and ones that give away the story.
The primary idea is to write clues that enhance the story instead of spoiling it prematurely. This might be a different feat, but think of it with respect to how a story is typically told. You have your initial clue that introduces the mystery, a couple in the middle, and one that resolves the story. Being mindful of that structure can do wonders for the actual longevity of your script.
Don’t Have the Answer Be Obvious
Going back to the notion of clues and implementing them correctly in your script, the main point of any great mystery script is to not have the answer be obvious. If someone can easily guess the twist or who is behind the mystery, then you obviously have a bad story. Still, there are some mysteries that give away who the antagonist is right away, but there’s typically another twist with it.
Don’t Overthink The Ending
Whenever someone comes up with the idea to write a mystery script, they tend to overthink the ending more than anything else. As a result, try to not overthink it, meaning your ending doesn’t need to be the massive answer everyone is looking for. Take your time with it, think about what makes sense, and go from there.
Sometimes Ambiguity is the Answer
Besides not overthinking your ending, there is another school of thought tied to ambiguity. A lot of people have a difficult time with ambiguity in mystery scripts since they can polarize audiences so much. However, there are plenty of great mystery scripts that focus on ambiguity being the answer. If you’re familiar with David Lynch at all, then you know uncertainty is a massive part of his storytelling.