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HOW TO WRITE A MINI-MYSTERY

by Penny Warner

Here's a fun way to teach your students how to improve their writing skills--let them write a mini-mystery! Mysteries have all the elements of fiction that kids love: interesting characters (just like them!), a good puzzle (that's not too hard to solve), and lots of exciting suspense (to keep their interest peaked.)

Here's how to get the kids started on their own mini-mysteries:

1. Start with the main character. The best way to create a main character is to base it on yourself! Have the kids pick out a few of their own physical characteristics and personality traits that would work well for the protagonist. Here are some characteristics to consider:

  • Describe your body size and shape, your hair and eye color, and any other physical characteristic that is unique to you. For example your main character might be tall and slim, with short brown hair, green eyes, lots of freckles, and dimpled cheeks.
  • Dress your character in your favorite clothes. For example, you might have him wear baggy jeans and a logo T-shirt, or have her wear khaki pants and a tank top.
  • List your favorite subjects in school and what you're especially good at. For example, your character could be good in math, which helps her figure out a puzzle. Or your character could be a great soccer player, which makes him good at running away from bad guys.
  • List the things you're not so good at and include them in your character's makeup. For example, if you're not good at science, maybe your character does chemistry experiments that are always going wrong. If you're not so good at paying attention in school, maybe your character misses something important.

2. Put your character in an interesting setting. The easiest way to create a setting is to use a place you know well, such as home or school. For example, you could describe your bedroom, filled with sports equipment or games, and find something mysterious hidden among these items. Or you could set the story at school and discover something missing from the classroom. Here are some ways to help you describe the classroom setting:

  • Name something your character sees, such as her messy desk, the science charts on the wall, or the clock that never seems to move fast enough. In that messy desk, your character might find a clue?
  • Name something your character hears, such as the ticking of the clock, the clicking of the teacher's pen, or the whispers of the kids sitting behind you. Maybe the whispers are about something mysterious in the classroom closet?
  • Name something your character smells, such as the bologna sandwich in her desk or the perfume coming from the teacher. Inside that sandwich there might be a strange note?
  • Name something your character feels, such as the breeze coming from the open classroom window, or your hair being pulled by the student behind you. Maybe there's something outside the window that seems puzzling?
  • Name something your character tastes, such as gum that's lost its flavor, or chalk dust from all the scribblings on the blackboard. That gum could come in handy when you need to hide a note under your desk?

3. Create an intriguing mystery with a puzzle to solve. Your character needs something mysterious to happen so he can solve the puzzle. For example, the note in the bologna sandwich might be a clue about the missing lunchboxes in the classroom closet. Or the whisperers behind you might be talking about the strange thing outside the window. Here are some puzzles to get you thinking:

  • Something has been stolen from the classroom.
  • Something is missing from your desk.
  • Something strange is found on the playground.
  • Someone has disappeared from the school.
  • Someone is sending you strange notes.
  • Something is wrong with the teacher--she's acting weird.
  • Something is hidden in the classroom closet.

4. Build up the tension to keep the story exciting. There are several good ways to build tension and keep up the suspense. Try one of these:

  • Have the main character try to solve the puzzle, get close, then fail a couple of times before he finally finds the correct solution.
  • Have the main character get into trouble and have a hard time getting out of it.
  • Have the main character's weakness interfere with solving the puzzle, such as a fear of the dark.
  • Have several more things become stolen or lost.
  • Have more mysterious notes arrive with more clues.
  • Have the adults not believe the main character when he's trying to tell them about the mystery, so he has to solve it himself or with his friends.

5. Include some thrilling cliffhangers to keep the story entertaining. At the end of a scene, have the main character get into some trouble that won't be easy to resolve. Here are some examples to try:

  • The main character is alone in a dangerous place.
  • The main character has to face the bad guy.
  • No one believes the main character and he's in trouble.
  • The main character is trapped somewhere.
  • The main character is about to be hurt in some way.
  • The main character is going to lose something important if he can't get out of jeopardy.

6. Resolve the mystery with a satisfying conclusion. Wrap up the story with the solution to the puzzle and have the main character be a hero or change in a positive way. For example:

  • The main character saves someone.
  • The main character figures out the puzzle and saves the day.
  • The main character saves herself and is changed by her courage.
  • The main character reveals something surprising about the puzzle that no one expected.
  • The main character overcomes obstacles, such as his fears, to solve the puzzle.
  • The main character proves himself when he's really in trouble.

7. MORE CREATIVE EXERCISES TO HELP THE WRITING PROCESS:

  • Brainstorm mystery topics, such as a theft, disappearance, odd occurrence, falsehood, fraud, mysterious stranger, and so on.
  • Brainstorm "what ifs" for the main character to encounter, such as "What if he was trapped alone in a dark room?"
  • Write intriguing opening lines, such as "Outside the classroom window, Susan saw something strange land in the baseball field."
  • Give the students an opening line that you have created and see where they go with it, such as "When Matt opened the door to his closet, he never expected to see?"
  • Show the students mysterious pictures to stimulate their imagination, such as a UFO, a stranger, a piece of jewelry, a locked room, then have them write a story about the picture.
  • Set out the game of Clue and have small groups write a mini-mystery involving the characters, rooms, and weapons in the game.

8. Share the finished mini-mysteries! Let the students read their stories to the class and have the class draw illustrations to go with the stories. Or let the students read each other's stories and see if they can solve the mystery along with the main character.