Fifth-grade students love puzzles. Ten and eleven year olds are just beginning to leave the safe realm of the basal reader to branch out into sampling various reading categories. Therefore, the puzzle-like form of a mystery story should stimulate an appreciation and enjoyment of this genre. The mystery story can be an excellent stimulus for utilizing study skills needed to be a good critical reader, such as cause-and-effect, logical deduction, and assessing vital information and facts. These same skills are also valuable in forming a “budding” writer.
This Unit will be an on-going one through the year. First, students will read mystery stories, reporting on them in book reports and discussing them in class in teacher-directed lessons. In the discussions children will be led to discover the “main elements of a mystery”; defining a problem to be solved, looking for clues or evidence, assessing of evidence, and finally arriving at a solution.
In using the main elements to describe the mystery story’s format, the student can be shown how the problem-solving skills of sequencing, analyzing, cause and effect, and the use of logical deduction are used when reading and writing this genre. The final “poetic justice” endings give great satisfaction to a fifth-grader’s sense of “fair play” and innocence redeemed.
As pupils gain more critical-reading skills, they can advance to the reading of more mature stories by authors such as Phyllis Whitney and John Fitzgerald. He wrote The Great Brain series.
In the conclusion of the unit, students will do some creative short-story writing of their own using the mystery story format. In this way, they will have an appreciation for the skills needed to write a “truly good mystery” and, I hope, will have started a life-long love for reading.
For, as Howard Haycraft states in his introduction to
Treasury of Great Mysteries,
. . . people read mystery stories for a diversity of reasons. Some, for the intellectual challenge of the puzzles they present, others for the vicarious pleasure of the chase. Others believe . . . that the vast popularity of the genre lies in the fact that, in a disorderly world, it represents one of the few fixed points of order and morality, where justice may be counted on to emerge triumphant.
This facet of the mystery story definitely appeals to a fifth-grader’s sense of fairness and emerging creative reasoning skills.
, in his preface to the
states what a mystery story really should contain in its structure. He calls them the “rules of the classic mystery.”
Rule 1: There must be a crime and the reader must want to see its solution, his interest must be aroused and then he must long to see the mystery solved.
Rule 2: The criminal must appear reasonably early in the story. The villain must be evident for a goodly portion of the book.
Rule 3: The author must be honest and all clues must be made available to the reader. The reader must know everything the protagonist knows.
Rule 4: The detective must exert effort to catch the criminal and the criminal must exert effort to fool the detective and escape from him. Coincidence is taboo.
Although these are the devices of the mystery story, they are the hallmarks of all storytelling; the problem, the characters needed to make the reader care about them, the events that occur in their solving of the problem and, in the end, the reader feels a satisfaction in being included in the solution.
The structure of the mystery story lends itself well to teaching children how to write one. Many approaches may be used to introduce a child to mystery writing.
The first, and most important, is to begin
them. Let a child discover the enjoyment of reading a good mystery story. Some of Phyllis Whitney’s, Elizabeth Levy’s and David Kherdion’s can be used to stimulate discussions and invoke the child into becoming a “discerning” reader.
The Shadow Nose
by Elizabeth Levy is a modern story, using an urban setting and basketball as background. The title is a pun taken from the old radio show,
, and his motto, “The Shadow Knows.” The main character is a boy named after the Shadow, Lamont Cranston. After reading it, the student could be guided to find the clues, asked to write when did you see the solution, and an opinion of the mystery’s title.
For reluctant readers or those more interested in a comic book format, the Hergé series published by Magnet Press would be an interesting starter. Students could read the adventures of TinTin, which are beautifully illustrated in a comic book format.
The plot of a mystery story is most important, and many times the hardest part of the writing. Pauline Bloom
reminds us that good story structure demands that you not only involve your main character in trouble, but that you resist the temptation to have him work out his solution too promptly and too easily. In good fiction and in good mystery fiction particularly, the conflict must
The process of writing a well-developed mystery then has to be step-by-step. This process is easily understood by young students, as this is how they have been learning so many of their skills up to this point. They can then very readily use this step-by-step process in their reporting of their reading. Who are the main characters? Where are they? What has happened? What is the mystery to be solved? How did they begin? Did you recognize any clues? Did an event surprise you?
When the time comes to introduce students to the writing process, the newspaper can be an excellent starting point.
Headlines could be cut out and the student asked to create a story using the facts needed to answer the 5 W’s: who, where, when, what and why.
Richard Martin Stern
, in his essay on
, writes that “suspense is the stuff of which all fiction is, or ought to be, made.” He adds that plot alone will not make the reader care, characters and suspense are needed. He calls the important words, “intention” and “anticipation”, the positive openings to the rise of suspense in the reader’s mind.
Time is a powerful tool in the producing of suspense. It helps build up to the climax of the story and is a device used in many stories to heighten the suspense.
Sequencing is another important factor in the building of suspense. It helps to walk the student through a recapping of the story’s time elements to see just when events occurred. You can guide the reader to see the building of the story, realize how the pace adds to the excitement and recognize how the author pulled him along to make him keep turning the page to read more. This, Stern feels, is the “essence”. This
suspense—the art of making the reader turn the page.
In planning the story structure, Charting and Clustering are two very useful tools. The student should be shown how important
is before beginning to write. Charting, a skill which is easily followed by ten year olds, consists of charting out the main facts of the story in a paper.