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Posted on Dec 02, 2020

How to Write a Mystery: The 6 Secret Steps Revealed

A great mystery novel will draw in readers with compelling characters, tricky twists, and a clever trail of clues. Of course, the secret to writing a hit like Gone Girl isn’t going to fall into your lap. But in this post we’ll help you strap on your deerstalker, grab your magnifying glass, and crack the code of great mystery architecture!

1. Investigate the subgenres of mystery

You may already know what sort of mystery you want to write. However, it still pays to read plenty of mystery books to get a good grasp on the genre before you start! When it comes to mystery and murder mystery subgenres, here are the usual suspects:

Cozy mysteries

Cozy mysteries often take place in small towns, frequently featuring charming bakeries and handsome mayors. Though the crime is normally murder, there’s no gore, no severed heads in boxes, and no lotion in the basket. As a result, there are rarely any traumatized witnesses or family members in these murder mysteries — making cozies perfect for a gentle fireside read.  Example : the Miss Marple series by Agatha Christie.

Recommended reads

  • A Guide to Cozy Mysteries [blog post]
  • And Then There Were None: The 10 Best Agatha Christie Books [blog post]

Police procedurals

Police procedurals commonly center on a police investigation (betcha didn’t see that one coming). They feature realistic law enforcement work, such as witness interrogation and forensic science, and require a great deal of research to convince seasoned readers of their authenticity.  Example : Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series.

How to write a mystery | example of the police procedural subgenre

Noir detective novels

Most associate “noir” with black-and-white films of cynical gumshoes and femme fatales — but did you know that dark, gritty noir novels came first? Their flawed characters and complex plots are renowned for leaving readers in the grey. ( Did the investigator do the right thing? Was the culprit really evil?) The crime may be solved by the end, but the mystery itself is rarely so open-and-shut.  Example : The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain.

Prefer your detectives a little more clean-cut? Check out our guide to reading the Sherlock Holmes books !

A suspense mystery is all about high stakes and unexpected twists — elements that make it nearly impossible to stop reading. The mystery builds throughout the narrative, clues are painstakingly planted to divulge just the right amount of information, and things are constantly edging towards a dramatic, often shocking climax.  Example : Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl .

  • The 50 Best Suspense Books of All Time [blog post]

Which genre (or subgenre) am I writing?

Find out which genre your book belongs to. It only takes a minute!

2. Commit to a crime before you write

While some authors like to write without an outline, improvisation doesn’t lend itself well to the mystery genre. To build suspense effectively and keep your readers engaged, you’ll need to drip feed information bit by bit — which means you’ll need to know your crime and its culprit inside out before you put pen to paper.

Consider not only who committed the crime, but how they pulled it off, and why. Is there anything unusual about their methods, or any specific details you can include that will add texture to your story — say, the lingering smell left behind by a specific real-world poison, or the unusual wounds created by an unconventional weapon? Would anyone else have witnessed the crime — or thought they witnessed it — and if so, how might your criminal keep them silent?

By mapping out and researching your crime, you can think about telltale clues that may have been left behind, and when best to reveal these clues to your readers to keep them hooked. Just make sure you clear your browser history afterwards.

3. Research and pick your setting with purpose

Setting is the backbone of mystery; it fosters the right atmosphere and typically plays a significant role in the plot. But according to crime fiction editor Allister Thompson , far too many mysteries are set in the same old places. “The world doesn’t need another crime novel set in New York,” he says, “or in London if you're British, or in Toronto if you’re from Canada.”

How to write a mystery - still from Breaking Bad

Instead of an overused urban setting, why not set your murder mystery someplace unique? “Not only does it give you more interesting material, it also gives you a really good marketing angle,” Allister says. “The distinct cultural mix and geography of Albuquerque, for example, was a huge part of Breaking Bad’ s hook.”

For more tips from Allister, check out this Reedsy Live on mystery writing mistakes and how to avoid them.

This all requires research to execute well. Local news sites should give you an idea of what matters to an area’s residents, the problems they face, and what’s interesting about their community. You’ll come to understand what might actually unfold in a setting like this one, adding depth and authenticity to your mystery.

4. Carve out an intriguing cast of characters

Mysteries are largely about human intrigue, and to pull that off, you’ll need to assemble an interesting cast of characters . Dedicate time to fleshing out your victim, perpetrator, suspects, and sleuth, and you’ll have a much easier time getting readers invested in cracking the case. 

To ensure you know your characters inside out, try filling out a character profile — check out our free one below. 

FREE RESOURCE

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Reedsy’s Character Profile Template

A story is only as strong as its characters. Fill this out to develop yours.

Create a memorable sleuth

Your sleuth, whether they’re a nosy neighbor or a chief inspector, serves as the eyes and ears of your novel — so it’s important that the reader cares about them from the start! 

To do this, establish some baseline stakes by determining your sleuth’s motive. What’s stopping them from saying “I guess we’ll never know” and walking away? Would an innocent person be jailed? Will the killer strike again? Or is your sleuth’s motive less selfless, maybe a promotion or a cash reward?

Your sleuth doesn’t have to be a quirky mega-genius a la Sherlock Holmes, but even your “everyman” amateur detective should still be a well-rounded and unique character. Give them idiosyncrasies, interests, and a life outside of the crime, including perhaps a history or connection to the victim that makes them especially invested — “ this time, it’s personal… ”

Profile your perp

To write a killer culprit, you’ll first need to get their motive right. Your entire plot hinges on this character and their reason for committing a crime, so it has to be thoroughly believable! 

Unless you’re dealing with a serial killer (in which case their motive might be more nebulous and unhinged), figuring out your culprit’s motive should always involve the question: What does the killer stand to gain or lose ? More often than not, the answer will involve money, passion, or both — or perhaps the oft-pilfered title of “best village baker”, if you’re writing a cozy. 

how to write a mystery | the suspects

Explore the dynamics between the victim and suspects

For there to even be a mystery, your culprit can’t be the only possible criminal. To keep readers hunting for the truth, try to show your other suspects having any two of the following:

  • means (did they have access to a weapon?), 
  • motive (how would they have benefited from the crime?), 
  • and opportunity (were they close to the crime scene?). 

It’s then the job of the sleuth (and the reader in tandem) to dig out whether they have all three — and even if so, whether they actually did it. 

To muddy the waters, explore your victim’s relationship to all the suspects, not just the culprit. A morally grey victim, with a messy past and complex relationships, will allow for more intrigue in your murder mystery. Readers are presented with multiple possibilities, and will have to rule them out in turn as new information comes to light, just like a real detective.

If you want to develop amazing characters to populate your mystery, why not check out our free 10-day course on the subject?

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5. Build tension throughout the story

The central pillar of any good mystery is the push-and-pull between question and answer. As the author, it’s your job to draw the reader’s attention to the right things at precisely the right moment. 

The best way to ensure this is to nail your story structure ! By expertly planning your novel’s shift from the unknown to the known, you’ll produce the gripping rise in action that all great mystery novels possess. Here’s how to do just that.

Looking for inspiration for your next mystery story? Look no further than our mystery plot generator !

Hit 'em with a hook

Every story should start with a great first line, but mysteries are particularly fertile ground for first-rate hooks. Many authors open with the crime. The opening line of Darker than Amber , for example, is brief, unexpected, and action-focused:

“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.” — John D. MacDonald, Darker than Amber

There’s no one “right way” to open your mystery novel. But to make sure it’ll capture readers' attention, try to write an opening that a) jolts readers into paying attention, b) leads them to ask further questions, and c) introduces some stakes (conflict, danger, etc.).

Pull out the red string and connect your clues

You’ve successfully enticed readers with your hook! Now, to keep them engaged, you’ll need to structure your plot around the clues to your mystery’s solution. 

How to write a msytery - diagram of the Fichtean curve

This moment takes place when the pivotal clue turns up, or when your sleuth realizes the significance of a forgotten lead. What happens at that point leads to your novel's ending.

Give your sleuth time to think

While you may want to make your story as action-packed as possible, it's also important to slow down at times.  As well as including those action-oriented info-finding scenes (think: examining the crime scene for physical clues, talking to suspects to glean their alibis), you'll want to include more cerebral scenes that show them thinking or talking through their theory of the case, says Reedsy mystery editor Anne Brewer .

"These types of scenes give you an opportunity to sign post to the reader where the investigation is going (you can even employ misdirection here by having the sleuth make mistakes and get things wrong sometimes), as well as show off their special skills that make them a good investigator."

Consider red herrings

Because they lead the reader down the garden path and away from the truth, you might think red herrings would cause frustration. But when done well, they’re part of the fun, and that’s why they’re a tried-and-true trope of murder mystery. 

By upping the tension and escalating the pace, even if it’s towards a dead end, red herrings conjure the signature push-and-pull of the mystery genre. (Not to mention, they keep readers from guessing the answers too soon!)

For a classic mystery bait-and-switch, you might consider:

  • a character who appears complicit, but isn’t;
  • an object that seems more important than it is ( cleverly subverting Chekhov’s Gun !); or
  • a misleading clue that was planted by the culprit.

Finally, remember that when it comes to the ending of your mystery, it’s important to play fair. Don’t suddenly introduce an evil twin as the final twist without setting it up earlier! The ultimate conclusion should be both unexpected  and  earned if you want to satisfy readers, says Reedsy editor Alyssa Matesic . "You don't want to hint too obviously at the twist (such as who the killer is), because then the reader might put the pieces together prematurely and the reveal scene will feel lackluster and anticlimactic. At the same time, you don't want the twist to feel like it comes out of left field, because then you'll lose the reader's trust. You need to leave just enough breadcrumbs throughout the story so the reader feels like the twist has been right under their nose the whole time."

6. Revise your mystery (with the help of experts)

Once you’ve finished your first draft , you should absolutely celebrate with party poppers and champagne… but then it’s time to transform it into a truly standout mystery! After taking the time to perform a thorough self-edit , summon the courage to send your manuscript out into the world — the world of beta readers , that is. 

Beta readers

Beta readers are the invaluable people who read your draft and provide honest, third-party feedback. They can tell you which characters they connected with and which they didn’t, identify plot holes, and point out any other issues you’ve become blind to during your revisions.

As well as asking for general feedback on your story, ask your beta readers to record their working theories as they read. This way you can see whether readers will pick up on clues at the right moment, and whether they’re misled just the right amount by your red herrings.

Professional editor

An experienced mystery editor who eats, sleeps and breathes these books can offer suggestions that even the most talented beta readers will struggle to express. 

In the first stages of editing, a developmental editor will provide you with a holistic, in-depth review of your manuscript, helping you examine characterization and redistribute your clues to build to a stunning conclusion. 

After producing a second draft, Thompson recommends working with a copy editor : “It’s too competitive out there not to put your best work forward [...] without errors, bad grammar, or spelling mistakes.” So polish up that manuscript like a magnifying glass if you want it to stand a chance of success!

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So, there you have it! If you follow these six steps, you should be well on your way to giving mystery readers what they crave — a thrilling tale of bad guys, cliffhangers, and diligent sleuths. But if you want to test out your new knowledge on a smaller scale first, head over to Reedsy Prompts and investigate our archive of mysterious short story starters to kick things off.

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The Write Practice

How to Write a Mystery Novel

by Joslyn Chase | 1 comment

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Mystery stories appeal to our need to survive by figuring out the puzzles, problems, and sometimes crimes that affect our lives (or those of a character we care about).

Today we continue our series on how to write each of the nine types of stories  with how to write a mystery novel. Let's dive into how to tell a great mystery!

How to Write a Mystery Novel

The best preparation for writing a mystery novel is to be a mystery reader . You need to be able to rely on reflexes developed after years of reading experience. And you’ll need the devotion of a true fan to get you through the rough spots.

I’ll be honest—there’s a heck of a lot that goes into writing a mystery novel whether it's a murder mystery or another sub-genre. However, if you put in the time and effort to make it happen, you’ll get a heck of a lot out of it on the other end. So, let’s get started.

What makes a mystery a mystery?

If you want to know how to write a mystery novel, you have to understand the conventions of the mystery genre ; you have to know what makes a mystery a mystery. Dean Wesley Smith , one of the most prolific mystery writers of our day, defines a mystery as a story that involves a crime or puzzle to be solved, and it must be resolved by story’s end.

“Do not ignore this convention,” he warns, “unless you want to piss off your readers.”

I can attest to this, from a reader’s perspective. My own fault, I’m sure, but I read Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend , thinking I was reading a mystery, and nearly flung the book against a wall when I reached the end, mystery unsolved.

People who read mysteries like to solve puzzles and anticipate a resolution at the end. But reader expectations go far beyond that. Readers want to identify with the hero, to experience the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction of seeing the perpetrator punished.

Fulfilling reader expectation is of paramount importance in writing a novel in any genre, but it’s crucial to writing a mystery. The mystery genre attracts a massive following, accounting for roughly thirty-three percent of fiction sales in the English language. If you can please even a portion of that audience, you’re setting yourself up for success in the mystery field.

Which type of mystery best suits your writing style?

Many sub-genres nestle under the mystery umbrella, and different writers are suited to different types of mystery.

Cozies , for instance, require a great deal of setting and character description, maintaining a slow pace while keeping it interesting. Cozies are gentle, characterized by a bloodless crime, often featuring a victim with few emotional ties to any of the characters, and the violence takes place off-stage.

Cozy writers must be able to produce upwards of 60,000 words, without a lot of action, and still make it engaging. Focus is on the amateur sleuth (and the community), rather than the crime.

Police procedurals , as well as medical and legal mysteries, require extensive specialized knowledge. These are suited for professionals in these fields, detail-oriented writers who love the nitty gritty of procedure. Readers will chew you up and spit you out if you get it wrong, and light research is not enough to get you through.

This type of writer should also be good at building teams for their characters, as much of the clue gathering and analysis will fall to a group, each member contributing to the solution of the crime.

In Private Eye/Noir novels and detective fiction, readers expect a really interesting, believable main character. The PI will have interactions with police, and those must be realistic, so knowledge or research in this area is necessary, but not to the exacting degree required for police procedurals.

Well-known examples of this type of detective fiction include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlcok Holmes and Agatha Christie's Poirot stories.

The protagonist often makes a living solving crimes, doing background investigations, and such. Modern PI’s are crack computer experts, so a background in IT or related fields would be helpful to a writer who wants to tackle a PI novel. If the tone of the novel is dark, gritty, particularly bloody, or brazenly urban, it’s probably a noir. 

There are also historical mysteries which combine a setting from the past with the usual puzzle or murder inherent in a mystery (see Deanna Raybourne's Veronica Speedwell series). You also have paranormal mysteries, those that include some element of the supernatural (like those by Charlaine Harris). Historical settings and supernatural elements can be combined with any of the subgenera above as well. 

And then there’s suspense —but that’s a subject for another day.

Know the tropes

Mystery, like all genres, is rife with tropes, common themes or devices readers recognize and understand by implication. Some examples are “the butler did it” or “locked room mystery.” While these may strike you as trite, most of them are time-honored and beloved by mystery fans.

The trick is not to avoid them, but to innovate them, finding fresh ways to approach them so that readers get the best of both worlds—a comfortable familiarity and a rush of surprise.

Have a plan

I’ve heard there are mystery writers who write without an outline , striking boldly into the dark and trusting that all the threads that go into weaving a mystery will align in miraculous fashion. How they accomplish such a thing is the real mystery. I suspect there are more closet plotters than we’ve been led to believe or they spend an inordinate amount of time revising.

Knowing the end from the beginning is particularly important when crafting a mystery, so if you’re adept at using an outline, that’s a big step forward in completing your novel. And crafting the outline for a mystery novel can be a boatload of fun. It may even be my favorite part.

An outline should never be a confining box, but more like a scaffold to support you while you construct the story. I’ll cover outlining in more depth in another post. For now, let’s take a quick look at four suggestions from Lester Dent , creator of the Doc Savage series. Some say he was a hack, but for a hack, he sure got a lot of things right.

When writing a mystery, he suggests you consider these four areas:

  • Murder method. Try to find a fresh slant on what’s been done before. I did a quick Google search for innovative murder methods and, as you might imagine, the resulting list was scary long. Explore at your own risk. Another source you might consider for generating unusual ideas is the Darwin Awards .
  • The antagonist’s goal . What is the bad guy ultimately after? Dent describes it as treasure of some sort, literal or metaphorical. Even a serial killer (or maybe especially a serial killer!) has some larger goal in mind, whether it is respect, revenge, justice, restitution, or some other goal. 
  • The setting for the story should be determined by the crime and the villain. Once you have those nailed down, the setting should follow.
  • The hero’s motivation. Another way of looking at this is to ask, “What’s at stake?” What will the hero gain if he reaches his goal? What will he lose if he is defeated?

One more quick suggestion for outlining, this from Scott Meredith and Algis Budrys . Formulate a…

  • In a setting
  • With a problem
  • Put your protagonist through a series of try/fail cycles while solving the crime, escalating the stakes with each cycle
  • The last try/fail cycle is the most perilous and challenging of all and is followed either by the hero’s success in catching the murderer and bringing him to justice, or his ultimate failure

Remember, in a mystery, the puzzle must be solved by the end. So, if you decide to have a tragic or ironic ending with the hero’s failure, you still have to provide a solution to the puzzle and satisfy your mystery savvy readers.

If you use this type of outlining, it may be helpful to expand those try/fail cycles to include a list of clues, crime scenes, potential suspects, false clues, wrong suspects, and maybe the crucial clue that helps the sleuth put it all together.

A mystery requires cause and effect relationships. When a diligent sleuth is presented with a potential clue, they go check it out. They work from a list of suspects and try to eliminate as many as they can by establishing alibis, means, motive, and opportunity.

Make sure that as you plan or revise your mystery stories that you make those cause and effect relationships clear, as well as deepen your character development. You want your readers to be invested in the sleuth and the puzzle.

A few mystery tips

Once you've chosen your sub-genre, studied the tropes, and created your plan, you're ready to write. Here are a few more things to keep in mind when writing a mystery.

Most mysteries open with the crime. It’s a good way to grab reader interest right up front. Cozies are an exception to this rule. If you’re writing a cozy, you need to spend a couple thousand words grounding your reader in the setting, with the character, before you allow the crime to intrude on that world.

Just because you have an outline doesn’t mean you have to write from word one to the end. Writers are unstuck in time. We can move freely through the landscape of our novel, write the climactic scene first, then go back and make sure we set it up right in earlier scenes. Don’t feel like you have to plod forward on a rigid track.

You have to be fair to the reader, putting the clues in plain sight. That said, there are ways to obscure bits of information so readers don’t really see them.

One of the best ways is to use a list. Readers absorb the first three items on a list, and maybe the last one. Anything that occurs between number three and the last item blurs out and virtually disappears from the reader’s memory.

You can make the amateur sleuth focus on one clue based on what they know so far, leaving the major clue or biggest clue behind to resurface later.

It takes time for a reader to get through a full-length novel. You can practically give the reader the solution up front and by the time they reach the middle of the book, they will have forgotten it.

So don’t be afraid to lay out what the reader needs to know. As long as you don’t surround it with fanfare, it will fade out until the end when the readers thinks, “Oh yeah, I remember now.”

This is not to say that mystery readers are dumb. Not by any stretch of the imagination is that the case. My biggest challenge in writing mysteries has been to find the balance between holding back too much and giving it all away.

The award-winning mystery writer  Kristine Kathryn Rusch advises never to hold back information from the reader. Give it all away, she says, but do it skillfully. Experience has proved her right.

Keep learning

How to write a mystery novel is a huge subject, and goes far beyond the scope of this article. Read books in the mystery genre, but also read and study widely from those who have written good mysteries. For more information, here are a few good resources:

  • Writing The Modern Mystery , by Barbara Norville
  • How To Write A Damn Good Mystery , by James N. Frey
  • Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by The Mystery Writers of America , edited by Sue Grafton
  • Writing Mysteries, Online Workshop by Dean Wesley Smith

Keep studying and learning your genre. But don't let study keep you from writing. The best practice comes through writing, so if you want to write a mystery novel, give it a go!

What are your favorite types of mysteries and why? What tropes or other common elements of mysteries intrigue or repel you?  Share something about it in the comments .

Consider your writing style and choose a mystery sub-genre you think is a good fit: cozy, police/medical/legal procedural, private eye/noir, or suspense. Write the opening scene for such a mystery, making sure you respect the conventions and reader expectations .

Write for fifteen minutes . When finished, s hare your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop , and leave feedback for a few other writers. Not a member? Join us . 

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Joslyn Chase

Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind , an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense , Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com .

mystery clues

What if one day you wake up and you see a dead body on the floor with a hand outstretched and grabbing your bed sheets? What if you never heard any sounds that night, but slept peacefully? What if, by the time you realize what’s going on, the police already bursts through the door and handcuffs you? Then there’s only one way out. To prove you’re innocent. But how? Those were all questions running through the mind of Dr. Brian Walker, who was now sitting at the table with two skilled detectives, trying to wrap his mind around the whole thing. Sweat trickled down his forehead, the light bulb was too bright, the room too cold. What is it with detectives and their weird settings? Can’t they discuss a murder on a cozy couch with floral wallpaper and some soft drinks fizzing on a glass table? Dr. Brian tried his best to answer the questions, but he could clearly see the conviction in their eyes, like a stamp with the words ‘’Guilty’’ imprinted in their irises. ‘’ And how you’re going to prove it?’’ One of the detectives asked, by far the most peculiar he’d ever seen. He looked like a teenage punkster and at first, he thought he was another suspect in the case, until the man placed his badge on the table. The coffee was steaming, but with no clues. Either that or he wasn’t psychic enough to read steams.

A dead body, a groggy doctor. The man in his room was stabbed only once, through the stomach. There was a pool of blood by the bed, but no sign of a struggle. Both the dead man and Dr. Brain had no bruises or any other possible marks. ‘’ I’m trying to understand what kind of man you are. Stabbing someone in your own house and then going to sleep as if nothing happened. Good thing the gardener saw the dead body through the window and called the police. ‘’ The other detective said, carefully brushing his long hair. What kind of department had hired people looking like TV Stars in their twenties? ‘’ I don’t even have a gardener.’’ The doctor remarked, furrowing his brows. ‘’ What you didn’t have was the opportunity to get rid of the body. You must be a real psycho to think you’d wake up early and get rid of the body before anyone saw it. ‘’ At that point, he didn’t know who said what. He stopped looking at the two men and focused on his feet, on the floor shaking underneath. The whole world was shaking. Everything seemed like part of a dream. It was like someone woke up one day and decided to die in his house just to spite him.

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Home / Book Writing / How to Write a Mystery (from the author of 16 books!)

How to Write a Mystery (from the author of 16 books!)

If you’ve ever tried your hand at crafting a mystery, you’ll know it’s not the easiest thing to do. It’s not rocket science, of course, but it still takes effort, planning, and understanding what needs to happen and when. That’s probably why the mystery genre is considered a difficult one to write in.

Consider this article your crash course on how to write a mystery. After all, it would take more than one post to perfect the art of writing mysteries–by the way, point me to the person who’s done that apart from Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But, there are simple things you must get right  if you want to provide a satisfying read for mystery lovers.

In this article, you will learn:

  • How to pick an antagonist.
  • Why motivations are important in mysteries.
  • What red herrings are and how to use them.
  • How to intertwine your main plot with your side plot.
  • What not to do in a mystery.

Table of contents

  • Your protagonist must have:
  • The steps for crafting your cast of suspicious characters:
  • Actionable steps:
  • The basic idea is to note down the following:
  • Here are a few mystery don’ts to bear in mind when writing your story.
  • Conclusion: How to Write a Mystery

Disclaimer: I’m primarily a cozy mystery author, so I’ll be framing this around that genre, but the basic techniques provided here will work for other sub-genres too.

Step 1: Craft Suspicious Characters

The basics of crafting an interesting character in any story is just about the same. In learning how to write a mystery, the difference is you get to make them suspicious. And that’s fun. Mystery and suspense are based on the unknown and on potential. The kind of potential that the friendly old lady down the street has to murder her next door neighbor… and all over a recipe.

Never underestimate the ability of a human being to do the worst to get what they want. That sounds negative, sure, but that’s the type of attitude you’ll use when crafting your characters . In your mystery, you want all of your characters to have a hint of mystery and suspicion. (i.e. you want to give them traits that make them seem suspicious to the reader.)

After all, if your antagonist, the murderer, is the only suspicious-seeming character or even the only innocent-seeming character, your reader will figure out whodunit, right away. The best emails and reviews I get from readers are always ones that say something along the lines of, “I didn’t figure it out until the end!”

The only character who won’t be suspicious is your main character. And you should follow the same steps you would for character creation for any other protagonist.

  • A conflict and stakes. Jessica is recently divorced and doesn’t want to trust anyone–she’s focusing on her little bakery in the new small town she’s moved to. But when one of her customers drops dead after eating a donut in her store, Jessica’s bakery might be in trouble. If Jessica doesn’t open up, she’ll never solve the murder and saved her bakery.
  • A goal. Jessica now wants to overcome her internal conflict of keeping to herself as she uncovers the truth about the mystery by liaising with the other people of the town.
  • A growth arc. Jessica overcomes her conflict by the end of the book. She’s starting to fit into the town. She’s also solved the murder mystery with lots of hiccups along the way.

The fun part comes next. You get to craft the cast of suspicious characters, all of whom might just have killed the victim. Or they may have had a reason to do so to get back at our protagonist, Jessica.

  • Write a list of characters you want to include. Make it varied and interesting. From the granny down the street to the enemy baker across the road who’s just opened up shop.
  • Give each of them a minor goal. Granny’s goal is to get the secret donut recipe from Jessica. She wants it because she’s planning on opening a shop of her own.
  • Give each of them a flaw. Her flaw is she’s duplicitous. She’s a lovely woman, but she’s got a sordid history–including a rap sheet for theft. She’s lived a hard life and wants to follow her true passion for baking.
  • Give each of them an enemy. Granny’s enemy is the new baker in town who wants the recipe too.

As you do this for each character, you’ll start crafting motivations for murder. It could be that Granny is the murderer, or that it’s the new baker across the street. Or it could be someone else. Don’t be shy about creating a subplot that runs alongside the main plot. Maybe, Granny’s not involved in the murder at all. But she sure seems suspicious, and she’s definitely been snooping around the bakery.

Step 2: Decide on Who’s Dying, Why and How

Probably one of the most important steps in learning how to write a mystery is deciding who’s going to kick the bucket. Or have their bucket kicked.

In cozy mysteries, the victim is usually someone who is hated by all in the small town. This serves to complicate things for your sleuth–they’ll have loads of people to suspect and investigate during the course of the unraveling mystery.

But you don’t have to stick to that. You can pick anyone in your list of characters to become the victim. You just have to have a clear idea as to why. What part of their conflict or goal makes them the perfect target?

This is where you connect your characters and their motivations. You can make the victim innocent of misdeeds or hateful and mean. Perhaps, they’ve been stalking their ex-wife or husband? The ex-wife’s new partner takes offense to this and murders them. Naturally, you’ll write down all of this information, but you won’t divulge it all upfront.

How the victim is murdered is important too. You can use the murder weapon as a clue for solving the mystery, whether it’s a gun, a poison, a knife or a blunt option. However, make sure to do your research on your chosen weapon. Readers are sticklers for certain things in mystery–you’ll get away with a sleuth who interferes in police work, but you won’t with a poison that doesn’t have the correct side-effects.

In short, you must have a reason for why the victim is killed and how they’re killed, when and where. Kind of like writing Clue. You note all of this down, and intertwine the information into your story by dropping clues to your protagonist.

  • Pick your victim.
  • Note down why they were killed, and connect them with several suspicious characters with reasons why those characters may have wanted to kill the victim.
  • Select a murder weapon and research it.
  • Give certain characters access to the murder weapon. (i.e. A chemist has access to certain medicines, but so does his assistant or the receptionist who may have broken into his private store.)

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Step 3: Pick an External Conflict

This is kind of an optional step. It depends on how long your mystery is going to be. In cozy mystery, books usually range from 20,000 words to 70,000. If you’re writing a longer story, you’ll need more intrigue, more conflict, and more plot.

This is why I’ll generally pick out an extra external conflict to include in the story. Say we use Jessica’s bakery as an external conflict–she’s being stolen from and things have been going missing in her apartment above the store. What could it mean?

The theft and the murder can be unrelated, or they can be part of the same motivation for the death of the victim. That’s up to you to decide. You can include several sub-plots for characters who Jessica is friends with too.

Perhaps, her new friend is being stalked, or has recently come into money and some of it has gone missing. Or she’s just broken up with an ex-boyfriend, who keeps threatening revenge on the bakery. All of these subplots add up to equal little clues.

The trick is to make the clues of one subplot connect with the main murder mystery. For example, Jessica is suspicious of the theft in her store, and when someone breaks in and steals her journal, she’s not sure if it’s the thief or the murderer.

Important to note: you don’t have to tie off every subplot with a neat ending as you close the book. You can leave some of them open for further exploration in the series. But, you should always give the murder mystery a satisfying conclusion, and your protagonist resolution of their current conflict or goal. Jessica has saved her bakery, she throws a party with her friends afterward to celebrate.

  • Write up a list of external conflicts you want to use in your story and how they connect to each character.
  • Pare the list down to one or two subplots.

Step 4: Write up a List of Clues

Another fun step!

Here, you get to write down all the clues that pertain both to your subplot and your main plot. You’ll do this by identifying the crime scene and the clues that are already present there. Since you have the inside edge–you know why your victim was killed and by whom–you can plant evidence over the course of the story that will redirect your protagonist.

You can also plant false evidence, or clues that make it seem like someone else commited the murder. These are called ‘red herrings’ — and they must be believable. All your clues and red herrings have to make sense, after all.

Motivations and clues tie in with each other. Granny wants to get into Jessica’s bakery, so it would make sense that Jessica would walk in on Granny rummaging through her things. Granny can make an excuse, but Jessica will have her suspicions–is Granny the murderer? We know Granny isn’t, but Jessica doesn’t–that’s a red herring that makes sense.

And now, because Jessica believes that Granny might have something to do with the murder, she’ll start following her and unraveling more of the mystery that is Granny’s motivation. Ultimately, she’ll hit a brick wall when she realizes that Granny can’t possibly have commited the murder… until Granny gives her another clue that leads Jessica onto the next suspect.

  • Write down a list of clues that connect the characters to the crime scene or make them suspicious.
  • Organize the clues in the order you want them to happen. (i.e. Jessica finding Granny in the bakery after hours. Jessica follows Granny and finds her meeting with Jessica’s enemy etc.)
  • The list doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but it must make sense and tie into your murder and sub-plots.

Step 5: Outline Your Story

I’m not going to go into the outlining process in full here because that would take another article’s worth (and more) of information. However, if you’ve followed the steps above, you’re halfway there. You just need to organize your clues into an events list, and then have your protagonist take action throughout the story.

Let’s look at our example of Jessica and her bakery.

  • Jessica’s conflict and goal.
  • Her external conflict.
  • An events list of what happens.
  • A short scene or chapter-by-chapter breakdown.

We already have Jessica’s conflict and goal, as well as her external conflict. Now, we need an events list that ties in with all of the above. An events list is a short breakdown of what happens over the course of the three-act story. The events are important plot points that drive the mystery forward.

  • The inciting event. This is what starts off your entire mystery. Jessica’s customer drops dead after tasting her cupcake.
  • The first act climax. Here, Jessica believes she’s closer than ever to solving the mystery–thus casting her back into her comfy ‘not trusting anyone zone.’ Jessica finds a clue that leads her to believe Granny is the murderer.
  • The midpoint reversal. At this point, your character’s goal is flipped. Where Jessica didn’t want to trust anyone before, now she has to. Jessica snoops in a suspect’s house and gets caught. She’s arrested and has to rely on her friend to bail her out.
  • The second act climax. Things get even worse. Jessica is completely stumped. She’s been reprimanded and her bakery is no longer popular because of the suspicion that she’s murdered the victim. At the end of this period of sadness, Jessica will discover or connect two clues together that she hadn’t before. Now, she really knows who did it.
  • Climax. Here comes the building action and climax of the plot as Jessica faces off against the real murderer.

There’s a denouement–a resolution–as well, where Jessica and her friends celebrate their victory. Jessica will have resolved her conflict. She now loves the town and its people, and trusts her friend. Her bakery is also doing fine again.

After deciding on your events, you’ll pepper them with your clues and find unique ways to solve the mystery and tie the subplots into it.

Bonus Step 6: Mystery Don'ts

Don’t fall into the trap of relying on easy fixes in mystery stories. The readers in this genre are voracious, and they enjoy being challenged. They want you to keep them guessing until the end.

  • Don’t make it too obvious. Readers don’t want to figure out who did it in the first few chapters. They’ll stop reading the book.
  • Don’t bore your reader. Don’t use too many unnecessary details or backstory elements that don’t matter. Intrigue is the key. Less is more.
  • Don’t provide too much information. You want to pepper in those clues, not have two per chapter — otherwise you’ll overwhelm your reader with information, some of which doesn’t pertain to the murder mystery.
  • Don’t provide too little information. You don’t want your reader to feel cheated. Give them enough clues to try to work out the mystery by themselves, but be clever about it. You don’t actually want them to solve it before you do.
  • Don’t murder someone too late. Murder mysteries need to have a dead body somewhere near the beginning of the story. It doesn’t have to be in the first chapter, but you’ll need it somewhere close to the front of the book. Foreshadowing is your friend.

Follow these steps, and you’re on your way to crafting a mystery that will keep readers turning pages. Ultimately, you’ll need to read mysteries to write them–there are loads of books out there in your genre that will give you an idea of how to go about crafting the mystery element of the story. Have fun!

Rosie A. Point

When I’m not sipping tea with princesses or lightsaber dueling with little Jedi, I’m a book marketing nut. Having consulted multiple publishing companies and NYT best-selling authors, I created Kindlepreneur to help authors sell more books. I’ve even been called “The Kindlepreneur” by Amazon publicly, and I’m here to help you with your author journey.

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A detective in vintage clothes and hat writing a mystery story on a typewriter

How to Write a Mystery Story: 12 Powerful Writing Tips

Mystery stories have a unique allure, drawing readers into a world of crime, suspense, false clues, secrets, and intrigue. If it’s done well, they will imagine themselves in the sleuth’s footsteps, shrouded in a cloak of apprehension, unraveling the enigmatic clues that lead to a spine-tingling revelation.

But what makes a mystery story truly engaging, and how can you write one that will keep your readers guessing until the very end?

In this guide, we’ll share 12 powerful mystery writing tips that will show you how to write a mystery novel, transforming your storytelling process and leaving your readers eager to turn the pages, desperate to uncover the truth.

What Makes a Mystery Story?

A detective in vintage clothes looking at a mysterious puzzle piece

Mystery is a genre that revolves around a puzzle that needs to be solved. This question can be a crime, but it can also be another type of mystery, such as a supernatural occurrence or a missing person.

These stories contain a central character who takes on the responsibility of unraveling the mystery and uncovering the truth. Readers are invited to follow the investigator’s thought processes, reasoning, and fact-finding methods as they diligently pursue leads, analyze evidence, and piece together the puzzle’s fragments.

Mystery Story Definition: “A mystery story is one in which the central plot revolves around the resolution of puzzling or sinister events, led by a detective or amateur investigator.”

To heighten the narrative tension, mystery stories usually employ elements of conflict , suspense and surprise. Authors reveal clues and evidence gradually, as well as introduce red herrings—misleading details or plot twists meant to divert attention away from the real villain or actual solution.

As the story progresses, readers become amateur detectives themselves, actively participating in the investigation by piecing together clues, speculating on motives, and attempting to solve the mystery before the characters do.

As such, this genre harnesses the innate human fascination with the unknown, the uncanny, and the insatiable curiosity to unearth hidden truths.

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9 Types of Mystery Stories

A detective in vintage clothes sneaking around with a pulled handgun

Mystery stories come in various subgenres, each with its own unique elements and characteristics. Here are some of the different subgenres, along with descriptions of each.

1. Cozy Mystery

Cozy mysteries are known for their light-hearted and non-violent approach to crime-solving. They typically feature amateur detectives, often in a small-town or village setting, who solve crimes with wit, charm, and the help of their community. These mysteries emphasize the puzzle-solving aspect rather than graphic violence or suspense.

Some popular cozy mystery series include Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series, Donna Andrews’s Meg Langslow novels, and Leslie Meier’s stories with reporter/investigator Lucy Stone .

2. Hard-Boiled Mystery

These unsentimental mysteries are gritty and realistic, featuring tough, cynical, and morally complex protagonists, often private investigators or police detectives. These stories delve into the darker aspects of crime and society, with a focus on urban settings, violence, moral ambiguity, and the bending of rules to solve cases.

Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade series, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books represent this subgenre with aplomb.

3. Police Procedural

Police procedurals offer an in-depth look into the workings of law enforcement agencies. These stories emphasize the step-by-step investigation process, including interviews, forensic analysis, and legal procedures. Authors often research and accurately depict police work and criminal justice systems.

Here you will find Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta forensic pathologist novels, and Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series.

4. Legal Mystery

This mystery type is centered on lawyers, prosecutors, or legal professionals who solve mysteries within the context of the courtroom or legal proceedings. These stories often involve complex legal dilemmas, courtroom drama, and ethical quandaries.

The most famous contributor to this subgenre is John Grisham, ably accompanied by Scott Turow, Steve Martini, and Richard North Patterson.

5. Medical Mystery

These science-focussed mysteries involve the investigation of perplexing medical cases, diseases, or outbreaks, often featuring healthcare professionals, medical detectives, or amateur sleuths who strive to uncover the underlying medical cause, solve medical puzzles, or prevent potential health crises.

Almost all Robin Cook and Michael Palmer books fall into this category, together with Leonard Goldberg’s Daughter of Sherlock Holmes series and Michael Crichton’s ” The Andromeda Strain”.

6. Historical Mystery

Historical mysteries are set in the past, often featuring a historical period, event, or figure as a backdrop. These stories provide readers with a sense of time and place while incorporating historical details and mysteries that fit within the chosen era.

In this subgenre, you will find Anne Perry’s Thomas Pitt novels situated in Victorian-era London, C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series from the Tudor era, and Lindsey Davis’s Falco series set in ancient Rome.

7. Supernatural Mystery

Paranormal or supernatural mysteries incorporate elements of the paranormal, such as ghosts, vampires, or supernatural phenomena, into the mystery plot. These stories often blur the lines between the natural and the supernatural, creating an eerie and mysterious atmosphere and an unusual mystery that requires substantial out-of-the-box thinking to solve.

Some of the most famous authors include Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen King.

8. Whodunit Mystery

Whodunit mysteries, also known as classic or traditional mysteries, emphasize the puzzle aspect of the story. The central question is “Who committed the crime?” Readers are presented with clues and red herrings, and they are encouraged to solve the mystery alongside the investigator. The crime is usually a murder, and the protagonist is a detective who is trying to solve the case.

Here the classics are Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, and the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy L. Sayers.

9. Psychological Mystery

Psychological thrillers, also often called psychological mysteries, blend elements of mystery and suspense with a focus on the psychological and emotional aspects of the characters. These stories usually involve unreliable narrators, mind games, and the exploration of the human psyche.

These books have been particularly popular since the turn of the century and include “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins, and classics like “Strangers on a Train” by Patricia Highsmith.

How to Write a Mystery Story

A detective in vintage clothes writing a mystery story on a typewriter

If you feel motivated to write your own mystery story but you feel like you need some guidance on the practical aspects of constructing one, this section provides a step-by-step guide on the art and craft of writing a mystery novel that will keep your readers eagerly turning the pages. So, let’s get started.

Step 1: Understand the Genre

By immersing yourself in the genre, you’ll become familiar with its conventions. This knowledge helps you create a story that resonates with readers who appreciate the specific characteristics of mysteries.

From cozy to supernatural mysteries, explore the subgenres so that you can choose the one that aligns with your writing style and interests. Knowing the nuances of each subgenre helps you tailor your story effectively.

While reading, analyze the structure of the novels. Identify common tropes and plot devices used in the genre. Consider how authors introduce clues, red herrings, and character motivations.

Take notes on what works well in the novels you enjoy. Pay attention to character development, pacing, dialogue, and how authors handle suspense and revelations.

Step 2: Craft a Mystery

While this step looks impossibly huge, you don’t have to work out all the details here. You can fill in much of it in later steps, so don’t feel overwhelmed.

But at least start by clearly defining the central mystery or crime that drives your story. This is the core puzzle that your protagonist will aim to solve. The mystery can be almost anything: murder, theft, missing persons, kidnapping, identity theft, sabotage, blackmail, cybercrime, a political conspiracy, a secret society/cult, or some other unexplained phenomenon.

Consider your own interests and passions. Writing about a mystery that fascinates you will make the storytelling process more enjoyable and authentic.

Real-life events, news stories, or historical incidents can serve as inspiration for your story. Adapt these events and add fictional elements to create a compelling narrative.

Use the “what if” technique to brainstorm potential mysteries. Start with a simple question like “What if a famous painting went missing?” or “What if a small-town librarian discovered an old diary with hidden secrets?”

Step 3: Develop a Backstory

A desk covered with investigation files, books, and a magnifying glass

Every crime or action to be investigated should have a motive. Why did the perpetrator commit it? The motive should be logical and compelling, providing a strong reason for the actions taken. Some possible motivations include the following:

  • Greed: Greed or financial gain are powerful motivators for crimes like theft, embezzlement, fraud, and murder.
  • Revenge: Revenge and personal vendettas can lead to crimes such as murder, blackmail, or acts of sabotage.
  • Envy: Jealousy can drive individuals to commit stalking, harassment, or even violence against those perceived as rivals.
  • Desperation: Dire circumstances like financial ruin, addiction, or a desperate need to protect loved ones may lead to criminal actions as a last resort.
  • Power and Control: A desire for dominance and control over others can motivate crimes like kidnapping, human trafficking, or abusive behavior.
  • Political or Ideological Beliefs: Some characters may commit crimes in the name of political or ideological beliefs, leading to acts of terrorism, espionage, or subversion.
  • Love and Passion: Romantic or passionate relationships can lead to crimes of passion, including murder or acts of violence committed in the heat of the moment.
  • Curiosity and Experimentation: Some mysteries may stem from characters’ curiosity, experimentation, or a desire to test boundaries, leading to unforeseen consequences. Think scientific experiment gone wrong, exploring forbidden areas, opening sealed containers, dabbling in occult rituals, AI experimentation, dark web exploration, etc.

Together with constructing a reason why the mysterious event happened, start thinking of the relationships your story will have to include to make sense of this reason. While you can develop your characters in depth later, describe the family dynamics, friendships, rivalries, or past connections that may have contributed to the events.

Step 4: Establish Clear Stakes

Define what’s at stake in the story. Why is solving the mystery important? What consequences will result if it remains unsolved?

Stakes give your protagonist a compelling motive to investigate the mystery. They also create tension and suspense, as characters race against time to unravel the mystery and prevent negative consequences. In short, they make readers care about the outcome.

The most immediate and high-stakes consequence of failing to solve a mystery is life or death. But such a failure can also lead to imprisonment, reputational damage, financial ruin, loss of valuable artifacts or knowledge, trauma, guilt, or danger to a community or political system.

Step 5: Create a Protagonist

A detective with old-fashioned clothes and a gun roams around

Your detective or main character serves as the driving force behind the narrative, and their qualities, quirks, and motivations can greatly influence the reader’s engagement. Include the following in their profile:

  • Characteristics: Consider unique physical traits, personality quirks, or habits that set your detective or protagonist apart from the typical investigator.
  • Motivations: While you can include the stakes of investigative failures here, also describe personal or ethical reasons why your character wants or needs to solve the mystery.
  • Backstory: Explore their past experiences, traumas, successes, and failures. Understanding their history will help you portray their motivations and vulnerabilities effectively.
  • Flaws and Weaknesses: Introduce character flaws, weaknesses, or personal challenges that your detective or protagonist must overcome. Weaknesses that relate to the challenges they will confront are particularly appealing.
  • Unique Skills or Expertise: If there is a particular profession, hobby, or talent that make your character well-suited for solving mysteries, describe them here.
  • Character Growth Arc: Consider how your protagonist’s experiences throughout the story will shape them and lead to personal development.

Step 6: Create Supporting Characters

Populate your story with a cast of diverse and interesting characters, including potential suspects, witnesses, and allies for your investigator. Each character should have their own motives, secrets, and function in the story.

The allies will be people with unique skills, knowledge, or expertise that complement the protagonist’s abilities. They should have their own motivations for helping with the investigation. To make it interesting, you can also develop complex relationships between the protagonist and their aids in the form of conflicts or tensions that arise as the investigation progresses.

The potential suspects can be either heroes or villains, but should, by definition, not be the main character responsible for the crime or mystery. Consider these elements of suspects:

  • Motives: Give each suspect a clear and distinctive motive for being involved in the mystery. These motives should be believable and provide a plausible reason for their potential involvement in the event.
  • Backstories: Explore their personal histories and experiences to understand what drives them and what secrets they may be hiding.
  • Alibis: Establish alibis for your suspects that can be investigated and verified by your protagonist. This will help you to construct clues and red herrings later.
  • Relationships: Consider the relationships between suspects. Do they have alliances, rivalries, or conflicts with each other? These dynamics can create additional layers of intrigue.

Step 7: Build a Setting

Building a rich story setting is essential for immersing readers in your mystery and enhancing the overall atmosphere and believability of your narrative. A setting can be so suitable and well developed that it almost serves as another character.

Draw inspiration from real places, events, or settings that align particularly well with your narrative. For example, a snowed-in Victorian Mansion is a good place for a paranormal investigator to investigate a haunting, since they cannot simply leave when events become too scary.

Sherlock Holmes did this particularly well in his Arthur Conan Doyle stories, where the foggy and atmospheric streets of Victorian-era London with their ancient alleyways, echoing footfalls, and glimpses of silhouettes contribute to the sense of menace and intrigue in the stories.

Alternatively, you can pick a setting that contrasts with your mystery in a way that is memorable in some way. In “Death on the Nile,” for example, Agatha Christie transports readers to the beautiful, exotic, and romantic setting of a luxurious riverboat on Egypt’s Nile River, where a murder mystery soon develops.

Engage readers’ senses by describing sights, sounds, smells, textures, and even tastes that characterize the environment.

Step 8: Craft Clues and Red Herrings

Layering clues and red herrings is a crucial step in crafting a captivating mystery story. Clues propel the investigation forward and guide readers closer to the truth, while red herrings are false leads designed to misdirect and create suspense.

Clue vs. Red Herring

If a detective finds a hidden compartment in a suspect’s desk containing a photograph of the victim and an old love letter, it can either be a clue or a red herring, as follows:

Clue: The suspect had a romantic relationship with the victim, potentially leading to a motive for the murder.

Red Herring: The photograph and love letter were planted by someone else to frame the suspect, diverting attention from the real culprit.

Crafting Clues and Red Herrings

To craft good clues and red herrings, keep these factors in mind:

  • Core Clues: Identify the core clues that are essential for solving the mystery. These are the pieces of information that, when combined, lead to the ultimate solution. These clues should be logically connected and scattered throughout the story to help readers solve the mystery, but avoid introducing them too early.
  • Red Herring Opportunities: Look for opportunities to introduce distractions, misdirection’s, or false leads that divert the protagonist and reader away from the true solution. Avoid using more than two of three simultaneously, as readers will then not notice them.
  • Character Motives: Consider the motives of characters, including potential suspects, witnesses, and allies. What reasons might they have to provide false information or create deceptive situations? Align red herrings with character motivations.
  • Progressive Revelation: Start with minor or subtle clue hints and progressively escalate to more significant revelations. This builds suspense and maintains reader interest.
  • Character Involvement: Involve characters actively in the discovery of clues and red herrings. Allow them to interpret and react to the information they encounter, deepening their engagement in the mystery.
  • Balanced Revelations: Ensure that genuine clues and red herrings are revealed in a balanced manner. Avoid having a long stretch of the story with only one type of revelation. Mix genuine progress with moments of misdirection.
  • Seamless Integration: Incorporate both types of lead naturally into the narrative. They should arise from character interactions, evidence, dialogue, or the environment. Avoid making them too obvious or contrived.
  • Clue Variety: Use different types of clues and red herrings to keep the mystery engaging. These can include physical evidence (e.g., a bloodstained shirt), verbal hints (e.g., a cryptic message), or character behavior (e.g., an unexplained absence).
  • Foreshadowing: Foreshadow major clues with subtle hints or references earlier in the story. Foreshadowing helps make the ultimate reveal feel earned and logical.

Step 9: Plan the Investigation

A detective in vintage clothes analyzing a crime scene with a magnifying glass

Now that you’ve specified the potential suspects, the clues, and the red herrings, you can plan the protagonist’s investigation. Much of it will fall into place with the insertion of the details in the previous steps, so a good approach is to develop a timeline or chronology of events related to the mystery to lead your protagonist down a logical investigative path.

Decide when your protagonist will stumble onto the clues and red herrings. At the beginning, they will probably encounter more false than real clues. Once they eliminate these, the clues will start playing a bigger role in their investigations and their thinking.

Establish how they will encounter the information that feeds into their investigations. Physical evidence, witness testimonies, research, undercover investigations, anonymous tips, characters’ suspicious behavior, coincidentally crossing paths with a suspect, the noticing of patterns, or any other method can work.

Step 10: Build Suspense and Tension

The stakes you identified in a previous step will help you to build tension, but you can also use other methods to convey a sense of urgency that propels the investigation forward. Time constraints, impending danger, or impending consequences can intensify tension and keep readers on edge.

Control the pace at which you reveal information. Gradually disclose clues, red herrings, and key revelations throughout the story. Avoid overloading the reader with too much information at once, as this will lead to wildly exciting periods interspersed with long, tedious parts.

Foreshadowing allows you to hint at future developments and create an atmosphere of anticipation. Drop subtle clues or suggestions about what’s to come, leaving readers eager to see how these hints will play out.

Use the setting and conflicts between the investigators and/or the suspects to build further tension.

Another way to prevent readers from getting bored is to include emotionally charged scenes that resonate. These scenes can involve personal revelations, confrontations, or high-stakes confrontations with suspects or adversaries.

Step 11: Write a Satisfying Resolution

This is the culmination of your mystery story, where the central mystery is solved, loose ends are tied up, and the reader experiences a sense of closure and fulfillment.

The resolution should unveil the truth behind the mystery in a gradual and logical manner. Avoid a sudden, last-minute revelation that feels contrived. Instead, let the protagonist piece together the final clues and deductions.

A good way is to orchestrate a confrontation between the protagonist and the culprit or key players involved in the mystery. This showdown can be emotionally charged and provide the outstanding answers.

Ensure that the resolution is plausible and consistent with the clues and information provided throughout the story. Readers should be able to look back and see how the solution was seeded throughout the narrative.

The resolution should explain why the crime or event occurred, who was responsible, and how it was carried out. Provide a clear understanding of the “whys” and “hows.”

Show the impact of the resolution on the characters, particularly the protagonist. Allow them to experience growth, closure, or transformation as a result of solving the mystery. Address any personal stakes introduced earlier in the story.

If your story has a theme, use the resolution to reflect and reinforce it. The resolution can offer insights or lessons related to justice, morality, or the human condition.

Step 12: Revise Your Story

Read through your story to examine it for plot holes, inconsistencies, contrived plot points, character depth, inappropriate pacing, and the incorrect placement and effectiveness of clues and red herrings.

You should ideally hand copies to friends, relatives, and beta readers who enjoy mystery fiction. Readers who read regularly in this genre will be able to help you identify tropes, clues, and investigative details to improve.

Based on these insights, revise your story until it is ready for professional review.

8 Common Pitfalls to Avoid in Mystery Writing

A dective in old-fashioned clothes falling dramatically to the ground

Even the most experienced mystery writers employ editors to delete their cliches, close their plot holes, and fix their logical inconsistencies. There are certain traps that beckon all mystery writers, so it’s important to be aware of them if you want to write a mystery story that is polished and professional.

Here are some common pitfalls to avoid in mystery writing:

1. Too Easy to Solve

One of the biggest pitfalls that mystery writers can make is making the mystery too easy to solve. If the reader can figure out the solution to the mystery too early on, they will be bored and disappointed.

To avoid this pitfall, make sure that you plant enough clues throughout your story, but don’t make it too easy for the reader to figure out the solution. Use red herrings to misdirect the reader and keep them guessing until the very end.

2. Too Difficult to Solve

While mysteries often involve intricate plots, avoid making them overly convoluted or completely impossible to solve. If the reader can’t figure out at least potential solutions to the mystery, they will be frustrated and confused.

To get around this pitfall, make sure that you give the reader enough information to solve the mystery, but without giving everything away. Leave some of the clues up to the reader to interpret.

3. Too Few Potential Suspects

Readers of mystery stories know that the main villain is usually someone who seems likeable and is a good friend of the protagonist. So, if you have only one or two such characters in your story, it will be far too easy for readers to identify the villain.

Accordingly, make sure that there are enough suspects who are basically likeable, at least until seventy percent through the story.

4. Predictable Ending

A mystery with a predictable ending can be disappointing. Strive for a resolution that surprises and satisfies readers, even if they’ve made some correct guesses along the way.

In other words, even if readers can predict the villain, make sure that the motivations for their crimes or the details of how they committed them are surprising.

5. A Deus Ex Machina Ending

A Deus Ex Machina ending is an ending that is resolved by a sudden, unlikely, or unexplained event that is not foreshadowed or explained in the story. It can make the ending feel unsatisfying, unrealistic, and like a cheat.

You can avoid this by making sure that your ending stems from something that has gone before in the story. You should write the story in such a way that the reader has all the information they need to understand the solution to the mystery.

6. Overuse of Coincidences

Coincidences can sometimes be useful, but not if your protagonist coincidentally stumbles onto most of the clues they need to solve the mystery. Your readers want to believe that the mystery is resolved through your protagonist’s efforts and intelligence.

Consequently, try to minimize coincidences or, if necessary, provide a plausible explanation for them.

7. Neglecting Character Development

Well-developed characters are essential in any genre, but they’re especially important in mysteries. Avoid creating one-dimensional characters solely driven by the plot. Readers should care about what happens to them.

Formulate backstories, motivations, and personalities for the more important characters.

8. Too Many Red Herrings

While red herrings can add intrigue, using too many can overwhelm readers and make the story feel contrived.

Make sure each red herring serves a purpose in the narrative. It has to lead to a potential suspect or a direction for the investigation.

Literary Genre Quiz (Hard)

writing a mystery novel

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, we will answer some of the most common questions about the definition and characteristics of mystery stories.

What Defines a Mystery Story?

A mystery story is a narrative that revolves around an enigma, puzzle, or unresolved question, typically involving a crime or unusual event. It engages readers by presenting a central mystery that propels the plot, characters, and readers on a quest for answers, often leading to a successful investigation and resolution of the mysterious event.

What Are the Elements of a Mystery Story?

A mystery story has a central puzzle that needs to be solved, a protagonist who is trying to solve it, clues that are scattered throughout the story, red herrings that mislead the reader, often a climax in which the protagonist and antagonist confront each other, and a resolution in which the mystery is solved.

What Are Popular Mystery Story Examples?

Popular mystery story examples include iconic works like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, featuring the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes and his loyal friend Dr. Watson solving complex cases; Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple series, renowned for their intricate plots and memorable characters; Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon,” in which a hard-boiled private detective solves a case involving a priceless statue, greed, and murder; and modern mysteries like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” celebrated for its psychological twists and unreliable narrators.

Final Thoughts

To write a good mystery story, remember that a compelling central mystery is at the heart of it all. Engage your readers with a tantalizing puzzle that invites them to participate in the unraveling. Develop characters that feel real, with motives that drive their actions and reactions. Master the art of suspense, using carefully placed clues, red herrings, and plot twists to keep your audience guessing.

But above all, never forget that crafting a good mystery is not just about the destination but the journey itself. Embrace the challenge, let your creativity flow, and may your stories be the kind that readers can’t put down!

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Yves Lummer

As the founder of BookBird, Yves Lummer has pioneered a thriving community for authors, leading more than 100,000 of them towards their dreams of self-publishing. His expertise in book marketing has become a catalyst for multiple best-sellers, establishing his reputation as an influential figure in the publishing world.

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Home » Blog » How to Write a Great Mystery Novel

How to Write a Great Mystery Novel

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A mystery novel is like a puzzle that needs solving. Many people try writing a suspense novel, but not many succeed. It’s because you must learn how to write a mystery novel first.

So, what goes into making a good book? 

If you’re struggling to write a novel yourself, good news, we have your back. This article will cover the detailed steps of writing a detective story from start to finish. We will also talk about what makes a novel so appealing for readers and other such aspects.

What is a Mystery Novel?

A mystery novel is a genre of literature that involves solving a crime or series of crimes. The reader must work alongside the protagonist to solve the puzzle and unveil the culprit behind it.

The earliest detective story was written way back in 1866 by Gaboriau. It was widely seen as one of France’s first modern authors of this type. Some of the most well-known detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes, rely on deductive reasoning from collected clues to solve a case.

Many stories feature a central character who works through problems using logical analysis or intuition. They may be written in the first or third person. Further, detective novels can occur in any setting, from a quaint village to a bustling metropolis.

These stories are gripping, dark and examine human psychology. Moreover, detective stories also explore the dark side of modern society. All these features make mystery stories one of the fascinating genres of writing.

What Makes a Good Mystery Novel? 

The audience will focus a great deal on the first pages of a book. So, it needs to be exciting and interesting. Moreover, a good mystery novel should have a likable protagonist. The hero must be smart, intelligent, and solve the puzzle for readers to enjoy it.

The characters must have interesting personalities. They must also have an authentic voice. In addition, there may be supporting characters who help the protagonist deduce the crime. On the other hand, they may also provide some comic relief for the readers.

The novel’s plot has to be gripping so that it keeps the audience on their toes page by page! You can tell the tale in the third person or use the first person where you are the detective. However, don’t be too descriptive while writing in the third person.

Finally, a great story needs well-written dialogue, enough to immerse you in the book.

An unsolved mystery also makes for great reading in a novel. The audience does not need to know who committed the crime from the beginning. But, at some point during the narrative, they become aware of it.

In the end, it must have a satisfying ending that will keep the readers coming back for more.

Five Essential Elements of a Mystery Novel

There are many types of mystery novels, but the two most popular ones are  thriller  and murder mystery. In these stories, someone is killed or murdered in some way, and it’s up to the protagonist to figure out who did it. However, the essential elements remain the same in all novels –

Let’s take a closer look at the elements of mystery writing –

The most important element of mystery writing is the plot. It is a sequence of events in the novel, usually written in the present tense.

It must have a proper beginning, a middle section, and an ending. Any mystery novel pot must be very clear and not too complex to read. Or else, the audience might lose interest in it midway.

The narrative arc must have enough interesting events to take the story forward while keeping the reader guessing! The plot will include the main problem that has to be solved.

This main narrative will introduce all the people associated with the mystery. It needs to be well written with a good flow. Many writers also scatter the hints throughout the story to make the audience try to solve the mystery themselves.

In every story, there are main characters and supporting casts. All the players involved have to be interesting enough for the audience to want them to succeed or fail! They can be the protagonist or an antagonist.

Every character should add something important to the narrative. The story will not work if there is no character development, and they are just one-dimensional. It is this  character development  that creates the narrative arc of a mystery or a detective novel.

However, there may be some people who are irrelevant to the main plot point. For instance, a butler or a servant working at the detective’s home might not add much to the narrative.

A mystery novel needs a strong protagonist. If you don’t have the main character fleshed out, use Squibler’s AI tools to create an original protagonist based on your blueprints.

It is important to set the mood for a story. For instance, in mysteries, it should provide an atmosphere of suspense or panic and make the audience want to read on! The narrative’s setting sets the tone for what is to come and what an audience can expect.

You can consider the setting as a way to hook anybody into the story quickly. This will also describe the location of where all the action is taking place. However, not all mysteries have a similar setting. Some writers offer a setting based on real-life, while others create an unusual setting for the mystery to unfold.

If the setting is very realistic, the people will connect more with it. On the other hand, settings such as a fantasy land or a dystopian future also spark interest. However, go easy on the setting and try to keep it realistic.

Same as with the main character, you can create bone-chilling settings with Squibler. Try it out!

This is the main plot point of the entire detective novel. The mystery defines the crime or problem, the criminal, and his/her motive. Usually, writers give subtle clues within the book so the audience can also think along with the detective.

Various plot twists and incidents also affect the main mystery. A mystery novel is usually solved by a detective, but the protagonist’s role also affects how the mystery unfolds.

Some writers give irrelevant clues to throw the audience off the radar and surprise them later with something new!

A conflict is a struggle between two opposing forces. Conflict can be used to create tension, drama, or suspense in a tale. There are many types of conflicts that authors use in their stories, including character vs. self-conflict, person vs. light/darkness, and protagonist vs. antagonist (villain).

Since a mystery novel can’t go without conflicts, you can use Squibler’s AI Smart Writer to create conflicts, add conflicts to existing dialogues, and make an existing scene more alive by adding descriptions of smell, sounds, and touch. Perfect for a mystery!

Finally, if you want to add visuals, Squibler allows you to highlight the desired text and generate original visuals based on the text, both images and short videos.

What is a Novel Synopsis?

A novel synopsis is an outline of the plot and major plot points in a novel. Usually, these are sent along with a query letter to literary agents in the publishing industry. It should be no more than two pages long or a single page short synopsis.

Writing a synopsis helps writers visualize what their story may look like as a book. Writers apply their writing process to mention an inciting incident, plot twist, rising action, or a central conflict in the synopsis.

Whether a writer drafts a one page synopsis or makes the synopsis longer, it acts as their sales copy. Literary agents pay attention to the word count, spelling mistakes, use of present tense, inciting incident, and the outline.

For organizing your writing, we suggest using Squibler’s Goals to prepare the writing track. Writing a full-fledged novel isn’t easy, so we suggest prepping before you type your first letter.

Writing a Novel Synopsis 

The best approach to write a novel synopsis is to be clear, and without a doubt, intriguing. The perfect synopsis has a beginning that intrigues your audience and your potential agents.

This novel synopsis includes information about the protagonist and his goals or ambitions.

You can also write about the antagonist while writing a synopsis. Answer questions like who is the main opponent or obstacle? How does he affect the protagonist’s life and goals?

A good synopsis must include an idea of the final chapter. It should also have a message that your audience can take away or an idea about what they’ve just read. If you’re unsure, you can apply your writing process to craft an example synopsis.

If you follow these steps to write a novel synopsis, your query letter and story are bound to be noticed by any literary agent.

Steps to Writing a Mystery Novel

First, good mystery stories are full of clues from start to finish but not enough so that everything gets solved too quickly. So, this gives the audience time to think through possible guesses themselves instead of being told exactly.

A thriller or a mystery  novel’s storyline  should have twists and turns just like any other genre narrative would have. Moreover, there could be two possible endings, for example.

Before you become a mystery writer, you have to read a lot of them. It will give you an idea of the structure, word count, and tonality used in such writing. You’ll notice how the author lays down the plot points, uses clues, and develops the characters. 

Moreover, you’ll also be able to develop your own plot more easily.

We’ll now take you through the various steps to write your own mystery novel!

Step 1: Write Down Plot Lines And Create An Introduction

The first step would be to write down possible plot lines. You could also do this after you’ve finished your draft if you’re not sure about the plot. Try to think of a few different or unexpected ideas that are interesting and would keep your audience hooked.

Always make sure to create a captivating introduction. This is where you introduce the setting and protagonist of your mystery novel. You can also introduce the antagonist or describe the crime in the beginning.

Step 2: Create Characters

While writing novels, it’s important for you to create characters with their own personality quirks as well as backstories. They must be believable so that the audience relates to them. In addition, the character names might be interesting.

As you might have guessed, the detective is the main character. So, make sure he or she is able to connect with the audience. Moreover, the sleuth might act as the eyes and ears for your audience, so focus more on him/her.

Make sure to include  flat characters  that could come in and out of the story. This will help your novel not feel linear or boring for the audience.

Always be careful with including too many side characters, though, because it can take away from what should be focused on–the protagonist’s journey into solving a mystery.

Step 3: Create The Antagonist Or A Suspects List

The antagonist is the villain. It can be a person, animal, or force that prevents the protagonist from achieving their goal. The antagonist is often the criminal whom the detective has to find. Moreover, this character can be similar to the protagonist or a polar opposite.

A suspect’s list is basically who has committed this crime and what they are thinking. This includes motives and opportunities for each suspect. A good list of suspects should include at least five people, but the author may decide to have more. Further, the antagonist can also be a part of this list.

Step 4: Describe The Crime In Detail

This is a very important step in any detective novel. When you’re talking about murder, theft, or any crime, make sure to delve deeper into it. The more in-depth you talk about the crime, the more realistic it will be. It will make the audience a lot more interested in figuring out the solution along with the sleuth.

So, you have to do your homework before creating your first draft. You must know everything about the crime before your detective sets out to solve it! Chart out how the crime was committed, who did it, and the motive.

Also, try not to make it too complicated for the reader to understand.

Step 5: Let The Reader Play Detective

Give your reader the opportunity to figure out who committed the crime. This will keep them more interested in reading and just might make it a personal quest for them! When writing about characters, give clues as to which character is responsible for committing the crime.

Whenever you write a mystery novel or story, remember that it is not only about the detective or the crime but also the target audience. So, give away certain clues that the sleuth might overlook, but your reader will catch. This keeps them more intrigued about what’s going to happen next.

Moreover, this approach also keeps the audience at the center of all the action.

Step 6: Explore Locales

You can try moving the plot to various locations to make things more interesting. Each of these locations might enhance the plot or generate new plot points. This adds a lot of variety and depth to the story.

You can also change the locations to unsettle the reader a little bit. This change might also give the detective a new perspective on the crime.

Step 7: Write a Memorable Ending

The climax of your story has to be perfect. By this time, your readers should have a fairly good idea of what the crime is, who committed it and why. This will allow you to come up with an ending that satisfies them or ends on a cliffhanger.

You can also end it in such a way where the sleuth does not solve the mystery, but there are enough clues for others to do so. Or you can leave some unanswered questions for your readers to ponder.

How to Get Ideas for a Mystery Story?

There are plenty of ways to get ideas for a mystery story. A writer can brainstorm, research other authors’ work, or read actual crime reports in newspapers and magazines.

Mystery novels tend to have common themes that set them apart from the rest. Common themes include deception, betrayal, murder, or theft. These themes are interrelated, and you can include more than one in your story.

You can get ideas by understanding human psychology and behavior. Read more about the world’s best true crime stories and about notorious criminals. Try to understand how they think, their approach towards the crime, and also the motive behind it.

Talk to people you know and ask them what element they like in a mystery novel. Take notes and work on them. Moreover, try placing yourself in the shoes of both the reader, detective, and the criminal.

If you still need more inspiration, start watching the best crime thriller movies ever created. Movies offer a rich source of ideas that you might not find anywhere else. You will also learn a lot about storytelling, developing a character arc, and how to use plot twists effectively.

The Bottom Line

Weaving a plot for a mystery novel is like creating a puzzle, where only you know the ultimate solution. If you want to write a story that will speak for itself, you have to look at it from their reader’s perspective.

The plot must not be too complex, or the reader might lose interest in it. On the other hand, if it’s too easy to comprehend, there won’t be much of a challenge. The balance between these two is what will keep the readers coming back for more.

To sum it up, before writing a synopsis or a novel, you have to ask yourself – will the story stay with you forever? If yes, then continue writing!

We hope the points discussed here will help you on your way to writing your masterpiece. Happy writing!

Josh Fechter

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How to Write a Mystery Story

Last Updated: July 7, 2023 References

This article was co-authored by Lucy V. Hay . Lucy V. Hay is a Professional Writer based in London, England. With over 20 years of industry experience, Lucy is an author, script editor, and award-winning blogger who helps other writers through writing workshops, courses, and her blog Bang2Write. Lucy is the producer of two British thrillers, and Bang2Write has appeared in the Top 100 round-ups for Writer’s Digest & The Write Life and is a UK Blog Awards Finalist and Feedspot’s #1 Screenwriting blog in the UK. She received a B.A. in Scriptwriting for Film & Television from Bournemouth University. There are 10 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been viewed 568,990 times.

A good mystery story will have fascinating characters, exciting suspense, and a puzzle that keeps you turning the pages. But it can be difficult to write an engaging mystery story, especially if you have never tried to before. With the right preparation, brainstorming, and outlining, you can create a page-turning mystery of your own.

Preparing to Write

Step 1 Understand the distinction between the mystery genre and the thriller genre.

  • When it comes to mystery, one of the key elements is tension and making the story compelling from the very beginning. [1] X Research source
  • In mystery stories, your reader does not know who committed the murder until the end of the novel. Mysteries are centered on the intellectual exercise of trying to figure out the motivations behind the crime, or the puzzle.
  • Mysteries tend to be written in the first person, while thrillers are often written in the third person and from multiple points of view. In mystery stories, there is usually a slower pace as the hero/detective/main character tries to solve the crime. There are also limited action sequences in mysteries than in thrillers.
  • Because mysteries are often slower paced, the characters are usually more in-depth and well rounded in a mystery story than in a thriller.

Step 2 Read examples of mystery stories.

  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. The 19th-century mystery novel was originally written in serial form, so the story moves forward in measured steps. Much of what became standard in crime fiction was done by Collins in this novel, so it is an engaging and instructive introduction to the genre.
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Chandler is one of the genre’s greatest writers, creating engaging stories about the trials and tribulations of private detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is a tough, cynical, but honest P.I. who becomes entangled in a plot with a General, his daughter, and a blackmailing photographer. Chandler’s work is known for its sharp dialogue, great pacing, and riveting hero, Marlowe. [3] X Research source
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One of the genre’s most famous detectives, along with his equally famous sleuthing partner Watson, solves a series of mysteries and crimes in this collection of stories. Holmes and Watson inject their unique character traits into the stories along the way. [4] X Research source
  • NANCY DREW by Carolyn Keene. The whole series is situated in the United States.Nancy Drew is a detective. Her close friends Helen Corning, Bess Marvin and George Fayne appear in some mysteries. Nancy is Carson Drew's daughter. Carson Drew is the most famous lawyer in River Heights, where they live.
  • "Hardy Boys by Franklin W. Dixon.This is similar to Nancy Drew.It is about two brothers: Frank and Joe Hardy, who are talented detectives.They are the sons of a very famous detective, and they sometimes help in his cases.
  • A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne. This recent mystery novel is set in 1970s suburban Washington. It centers on the “crime” in the neighborhood, the murder of a young boy. Berne intersperses a coming of age story with the mystery of the death of the young boy in bland, boring suburbia, but manages to make the story anything but bland or boring. [5] X Research source

Step 3 Identify the main character in an example story.

  • For example, in The Big Sleep , Chandler’s first-person narrator describes himself through his clothing on the first page: “I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with the dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be."
  • With these opening sentences, Chandler makes the narrator distinct through his way of describing himself, his outfit, and his job (private detective).

Step 4 Note the setting or time period of an example story.

  • For example, in the second paragraph of the first page of The Big Sleep , Marlowe places the reader in the time and setting: “The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high.”
  • The reader now knows Marlowe is in front of the home of the Sternwoods and it is a larger home, possibly wealthy.

Step 5 Consider the crime or mystery the main character needs to solve.

  • In The Big Sleep , Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to “take care” of a photographer who has been blackmailing the General with scandalous pictures of the General’s daughter.

Step 6 Identify the obstacles or problems the main character encounters.

  • In The Big Sleep , Chandler complicates Marlowe’s pursuit of the photographer by having the photographer killed in the early chapters, followed by the suspicious suicide of the General’s chauffeur. So Chandler sets up the story with two crimes that Marlowe has to solve.

Step 7 Note the resolution of the mystery.

  • The resolution of the mystery should feel surprising to your reader, without confusing them. One of the benefits of a mystery is that you can pace the story so the solution unfolds gradually, rather than in a rushed or hurried manner.

Developing Your Main Character and Outlining the Story

Step 1 Create your detective or sleuth.

  • Body size and shape, hair and eye color, and any other physical characteristics. For example, you may have a short female main character with dark hair, glasses, and green eyes. Or you may want a more typical detective character: tall with slicked-back hair and a five o’clock shadow.
  • Clothing and dress. Your character’s clothing will not only create a more detailed image for your reader, it can also indicate what time period your story is set in. For example, if your main character wears heavy armor and a helmet with a crest, your reader will realize your story is set in medieval times. If your character wears a hoodie, jeans, and a backpack, this will tip off your readers that the story is likely set in modern times.
  • What makes your main character unique. It’s important to create a main character who stands out to your reader and feels engaging enough to sustain many pages in a story or novel. Consider what your character likes and dislikes. Maybe your female sleuth is shy and awkward at parties, and has a secret love of reptiles. Or perhaps your detective is a complete klutz and doesn’t consider himself a strong or smart person. Focus on details that will help to create a unique main character and don’t be afraid to draw on details from your own life or your own preferences and tastes. [7] X Research source
  • What matters most is that your main character has a burning question or burning need to solve the mystery.

Step 2 Determine the setting.

  • If you decide to set your story in a time period or location you are unfamiliar with, conduct research on the time period or location through your local library, online sources, or interviews with experts in a certain time period or location. Be specific with your research and during your interviews to ensure you get all the details of a setting or time period right.

Step 3 Create the puzzle or mystery.

  • An item is stolen from your main character or someone close to the main character.
  • A person close to the main character disappears.
  • The main character receives threatening or disturbing notes.
  • The main character witnesses a crime.
  • The main character is asked to help solve a crime.
  • The main character stumbles upon a mystery.
  • You can also combine several of these scenarios to create a more layered mystery. For example, an item may be stolen from your main character, a person close to the main character disappears, and then the main character witnesses a crime she is later asked to help solve.

Step 4 Decide how you are going to complicate the puzzle or mystery.

  • Create a list of possible suspects your main character may encounter throughout the story. You can use several suspects to point the detective and/or the reader in the wrong direction to build suspense and surprise. [8] X Research source
  • Write a list of clues. Red herrings are clues that are false or misleading. Your story will be stronger if you include several red herring clues in the story. For example, your main character may find a clue that points to one suspect, but it is later revealed the clue is actually tied to a different suspect. Or your detective may find a clue without realizing it is the key to unlocking the entire mystery. [9] X Research source
  • Red herrings are all about saying "follow this thread" when the "thread" in question is completely wrong. A good writer can put something in the way that stops readers from realizing what's going on.

Step 5 Use cliffhangers to keep the story entertaining.

  • The main character is investigating a possible lead alone and encounters the murderer or killer.
  • The main character begins to doubt his/her abilities and lets his/her guard down, allowing the murderer to kill again.
  • No one believes the main character and he/she ends up trying to solve the crime alone,and he/she ends up getting kidnapped.
  • The main character is injured and trapped in a dangerous place.
  • The main character is going to lose an important clue if he/she can’t get out of a certain location or situation.

Step 6 Create a resolution or ending.

  • The main character saves someone close to them, or an innocent person wrapped up in the mystery.
  • The main character saves himself/herself and is changed by his/her courage or smarts.
  • The main character exposes a bad character or organization.
  • The main character exposes the murderer or person responsible for the crime.

Step 7 Write a story outline.

  • Introduction of main character and setting.
  • The inciting incident, or the crime.
  • The call to adventure: The main character gets involved in solving the crime.
  • Tests and trials: The main character finds clues, encounters potential suspects, and tries to stay alive as he/she pursues the truth. Close ones might be kidnapped as a threat
  • Ordeal: The main character thinks he/she has found a key clue or suspect and believes he/she has solved the crime. This is a false resolution, and is a good way to surprise your reader when it turns out the main character got it wrong.
  • Major setback: All seems lost for the main character. He/She found the wrong suspect or clue, someone else is killed or harmed, and all his/her allies have abandoned him/her. A major setback will amp up the tension in the story and keep the reader guessing.
  • The reveal: The main character gathers all interested parties together, lays out the clues, explains the false leads, and reveals who the murderer or guilty person is.

Writing the Story

Step 1 Use the five senses to describe the setting.

  • Think what your main character might see in a certain setting. For example, if your character lives in a home much like yours in a small town, you may describe his/her bedroom or his/her walk to school. If you are using a specific historical setting, like 70s California, you may describe your character standing on a street corner and looking at the unique architecture or the cars that drive by.
  • Consider what your main character might hear in a certain setting. Your sleuth may listen to the birds chirping and the sprinklers on the lawns on the way to school. Or your detective may hear the roaring of cars or the crashing of ocean waves.
  • Describe what your main character might smell in a certain setting. Your main character might wake up to the smell of coffee being made in the kitchen by his/her parents. Or your detective may be hit with the smell of the city: rotting garbage and body odor.
  • Describe what your character might feel. This could be a light breeze, a sharp pain, a sudden jolt, or a shiver down his/her spine. Focus on how your character’s body might react to a feeling.
  • Think about what your character might taste. Your main character may still taste the cereal she had for breakfast in his/her mouth, or the drink from the night before.

Step 2 Start the action right away.

  • Think about being concise with your language and description. Most readers continue reading a good mystery because they are invested in the main character and want to see his/her succeed. Be brief but specific when describing the main character and his/her perspective on the world.
  • For example, Chandler’s The Big Sleep starts by situating the reader in a setting and gives the reader a sense of the main character’s perspective on the world. “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”
  • With this beginning, the story starts in action, with a specific time, date, and description of the setting. It then presents the main character’s physical description and job title. The section ends with the main character’s motivation: four million dollars. In three lines, Chandler has covered many of the essential details of the character, the setting, and the story.

Step 3 Show, don’t tell.

  • Think about how you would react in a situation if you were angry or scared. Have your character react in ways that communicate angry or scared, without telling the reader about the character’s emotions. For example, rather than “Stephanie was angry,” you could write: “Stephanie slammed his/her water glass down on the table so hard his/her dinner plate rattled. She glared at him, and started ripping the thin, white napkin into shreds with his/her fingers.”
  • Showing, rather than telling also works well for descriptions of setting. For example, in The Big Sleep , rather than tell the reader the Sternwoods were wealthy, Chandler describes the luxurious details of the estate: “There were French doors at the back of the hall, beyond them a wide sweep of emerald grass to a white garage, in front of which a slim dark young chauffeur in shiny black leggings was dusting a maroon Packard convertible. Beyond the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs. Beyond them a large greenhouse with a domed roof. Then more trees and beyond everything the solid, uneven, comfortable line of the foothills.”

Step 4 Surprise your reader but don’t confuse her.

  • Plot. Ensure your story sticks to the outline and has a clear beginning, middle, and an ending. You should also confirm your main character shifts or changes at the end of the story.
  • Characters. Are your characters, including your main character, distinct and unique? Do all the characters sound and act the same or are they different from each other? Do your characters feel original and engaging?
  • Pacing. Pacing is how fast or how slow the action moves in the story. Good pacing will feel invisible to the reader. If the story feels like it is moving too fast, make the scenes longer to draw out the emotions of the characters. If it feels like the story gets bogged down or confusing, shorten the scenes to only include essential information. A good rule of thumb is to always end a scene earlier than you might think or want. This will keep the tension from scene to scene from dropping and keep the pace of the story moving.
  • The twist. The twist can either make or break a good mystery story. This is completely optional, but many of the best stories have a twist at the end. Make sure that a twist is not too "cheesy". The more unique a twist is, the easier it is to write. When writing an overused twist, such as "then they woke up", you'll need to be a very good writer to make it sound good. A good twist not only fools the audience, but fools the character(s) too. Consider hinting towards the twist during action scenes, so that when the reader looks back on the story, they'll wonder how they missed it. Try not to make the twist evident too early on.

Mystery Story Help

writing a mystery novel

Community Q&A

Community Answer

Things You'll Need

  • Paper and pen and/or a computer with a word processor (like Word)
  • Mystery books/stories
  • An idea/plot for the story

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Write a Short Detective Story

  • ↑ https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/7-tips-writing-great-mystery-suspense-novels
  • ↑ http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/tip-sheet/article/59582-the-10-best-mystery-books.html
  • ↑ http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/bigsleep/summary.html
  • ↑ http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1661/1661-h/1661-h.htm
  • ↑ https://www.nytimes.com/books/97/07/20/reviews/970720.20careyt.html
  • ↑ http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2013/10/how-to-write-murder-mystery.html
  • ↑ http://www.creative-writing-now.com/how-to-write-a-mystery.html
  • ↑ http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2014/03/how-to-write-murderously-good-mystery.html
  • ↑ http://www.creative-writing-now.com/how-to-write-fiction.html
  • ↑ http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2013/10/how-to-write-murder-mystery-part-two.html

About This Article

Lucy V. Hay

Before you write your mystery story you’ll want to create some characters and outline the plot. You might make your main character a detective or just a curious citizen who witnessed a crime. Once you have characters, choose a setting and a mystery such as a murder or a robbery of a precious artwork. If you want to make your story dramatic, add in cliffhangers and red herrings, or clues that lead to dead ends. When you’re ready to write your story, scroll down for tips from our Creative Writing reviewer on creating a well-paced and exciting narrative. Did this summary help you? Yes No

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Removing the Mystery From Mystery Writing: 13 Tricks Used by Acclaimed Novelists

writing a mystery novel

What makes reading a good mystery so satisfying? A writer’s hard work. A complex story à la Gone Girl doesn’t just pop out of a writer’s brain fully formed on a random Tuesday. Giving readers what they crave is about structure and pacing and, ultimately, originality. In 2019, it’s also about writing characters with more depth than your archetypal male dick motivated by some dead girl who maybe, if she’s lucky, gets to have a name.

To learn more about the elements of great mystery architecture, Vulture asked eight masters of the form to anatomize their thinking, from the most conceptual level down to the technical details. None of their tips or habits are compulsory, and some even contradict one another, but together they represent craft perfected to the level of art. (Spoiler: Literal crafts are sometimes involved.)

Be Your Own Audience

“When I wrote my first novel, I was just writing it for me,” says Alex Michaelides , whose debut, The Silent Patient came out in February. “Now, for my second novel, I have an agent and a really good editor. I’d be lying if I said they weren’t in my head. I think a lot about Would they like this? What would they think about this? , but it’s not helpful to focus on that stuff. You have to try and forget about it and just focus on the story.”

Dead Men Should Actually Tell Tales. Dead Women, Too.

“The stories we write should give the victims in the work real standing,” says Laura Lippman , the best-selling author whose latest is The Lady in the Lake . “The biggest trap for a crime novelist to fall into is that the murders themselves are the MacGuffin, that the people who die and the circumstances in which they die aren’t that important, that you’re writing a story where the only thing that matters is what happens to the investigator. I don’t want to write crime novels in which a bunch of people die, but since my main character becomes a better person, it’s all good. I want to write a story in which people die, and their deaths matter because they were living, breathing human beings, and they’re not there anymore.”

Let Your Characters Write Themselves

“It sounds insane, but I’ve heard enough writers say it that I guess we’re all collectively insane in the same way if we have fictional people making choices for us,” says Alafair Burke , author of the Ellie Hatcher series and other suspense best sellers . “My book The Wife is about a woman whose husband is accused of sexual misconduct, and she doesn’t know whether she believes him or not. When I started that book, all I knew was who she was. I knew why she didn’t want to be in the spotlight. I knew what her secrets were, and I knew that his scandal was going to drag her secrets out, but I had no idea what his scandal was going to be. I didn’t know what his job was. I didn’t know what he was going to get accused of. I didn’t know if he had actually done it or not.

But I knew her, and once I figured out who she would be drawn to — this kind of cocky, confident guy — I was like, ‘Oh, I know!’ Then the book almost wrote itself, because the things I didn’t know, she didn’t know either.”

Do Your Homework

“I might print out like 100 articles from LexisNexis,” says Attica Locke , who has written a series of novels set in Texas. “As I read them, I began to understand what matters to this community, what’s interesting about this community, what has been a problem in this community, and somehow the crime that this thing is going to be centered on in the book begins to emerge and tell itself to me. It comes back to me as I read, read, read about what would actually happen in a place like this. I am not a writer who feels like everything has to be so research perfect, but it needs to feel like, No, this is some shit that could probably happen here .”

Discuss Corpses Over Lunch (Quietly)

“Spending hours and hours doing research can be a bit of a trap,” says Burke. “You tell yourself you’re working on your book, and you’re really just going down a rabbit hole. You may as well just yell on Twitter with that time. I try to crystallize what I need, and I’ll often skip a scene, telling myself I need to talk to a pathologist or something before I write it. There’s a writer named Jonathan Hayes — he works with the medical examiner’s office, but he’s also a writer. He must be in a lot of people’s acknowledgments at this point. We’ll meet up for a meal and be having some beautifully constructed little tomato dish while talking about cutting someone’s head off. Definitely some sideways glances at the restaurant.”

Find Inspiration IRL …

“My latest book came out a few months before Trump was elected, says Lisa Lutz of her mystery The Swallows . “Thinking back to when I was writing it, I want to say that it would still ultimately be the same book, but it probably wouldn’t because I was so out-of-my-mind angry. I can’t remember ever being so angry. That book was about a gender war and egregious male behavior and women being complicit in that. It was my attempt to shed light on things. Of course, even in a normal time, I would still approach a plot or a story with, ‘What am I obsessed with, what have I not seen?’”

… And Then Avoid Google

“I will confess,” says Lippman, “that I have extremely complicated and ambivalent feelings about the podcast true-crime boom . I always tell people I’m inspired by real-life stories, but they’re not ripped from the headlines. I’m not trying to give people the inside scoop on what really happened. As a matter of fact, if I’m inspired by a real-life story, I immediately curtail any research into it because I don’t want to be influenced by it.

Try the Dartboard Method

“I start with the bull’s-eye,” says Anthony Horowitz , creator of the Alex Rider spy novels . “The bull’s-eye is two people, or three people if it’s a double murder. It is the killer and the victim. I ask myself: What makes that completely unique? What hasn’t been done? And then I build around that.

Let’s say the killer is a dentist. I’ll start thinking, Well, the dentist has patients, and the dentist has a hygienist and possibly a receptionist, and these are all people who have stories that connect to the dentist. And then the victim might be … I don’t know what the victim is, but he or she also has these … And these other layers are stories because that’s all a murder mystery is. It’s merely human beings brought together in violent circumstances. I’m looking for all the different human stories, and I build them in a sort of an outward-going spiral. So you’re building up to this dartboard that will finally have the triples scores, and the double scores, and it’ll be a large, circular thing. But it all rests on the bull’s-eye at the middle.”

You Don’t Have to Write an Outline …

“When I don’t use an outline, my books become longer,” says Locke. “They’re more fun to write because I like writing to feel like being a reader. I don’t want to know what’s going to happen. If I had an outline from jump, I don’t know that I would write the book because I know what happens.

I mean, let me be clear: It makes me fucking miserable.

But I also love it. I have that neurotic dance of “Oh, this is just so great” and also “This is terrible, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

… Or Maybe Write Many Outlines

“You don’t want to be doing many, many drafts for a novel, but you can do many, many drafts of the outline,” says Michaelides. “I did that for a very long time and then tried to sort of see how to bring it to life. But I do outline an awful lot, particularly with this kind of novel, where it’s about the architecture of it.”

Easy on the Twists

“It’s a mistake to build your whole book around twists,” says Megan Abbott , whose female-centered thrillers include The Fever and Give Me Your Hand . “Like, if it doesn’t work without the twist, if you still wouldn’t be engaged in the story that we’re telling … it’s just a gimmick. You always want to have moments of surprise for the reader, and you want to do a little sleight of hand. It’s part of the intense relationship with the reader that you have. But I never want to be writing toward just some sort of an aha moment.”

Arts and Crafts Can Help

“I’m a little bit known for an insane thing I do,” says Lippman. “When I’m about midway through my novel, I go to a craft store and buy something. One never knows what it will be, and I create these non-text outlines of my books so I can just sort of sit there and look at them and see if I can see imbalances and things that aren’t working based on these really weird color-coded designs I create. One time I even created a song for my novel, which is: I assigned musical notes to the points of view and then I would play the song and see if it sounded pleasant.”

When All Else Fails, Go to the Movies

“It’s what I call the Don Draper Principle,” says Abbott, “because he always did that on Mad Men . I tend to see something, usually horror, something that completely demands my attention and is very big and spectacle-oriented, because it can knock me out of what I’m thinking about in a good way. Or sometimes it’s just reading a book that has no relation to what I’m doing but will just get me creatively excited. It’s the same principle — it gets me out of a bad head space.”

*An earlier version of this piece misspelled Alafair Burke’s name.

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writing a mystery novel

Writing a mystery novel: 7 items your story needs

Writing a mystery novel is challenging. It demands a keen sense for plot, characterization and creating suspense. A story that actively engages readers in solving the mystery (or in trying to piece together the narrative threads) needs at least 7 elements:

  • Post author By Jordan
  • 23 Comments on Writing a mystery novel: 7 items your story needs

Writing a mystery novel - writing blog cover image

  • A strong hook
  • Active reader involvement in piecing together information
  • Red herrings
  • Suspenseful dialogue
  • Effective, descriptive mood and language
  • Well-structured chapters
  • A satisfying conclusion

1: Writing a mystery novel? Craft a strong hook

All novels need effective hooks: the reader should be interested to uncover more from the first page or (even better), the first line. The hook is typically a line or image that creates curiosity and questions that keep readers wanting to know more.

Suspense author Cheryl Kaye Tardif recommends being guided by ‘The Four Firsts’ of writing story hooks: The first sentence, first paragraph, first page and first chapter. At each level, pay attention to detail. Ask about your story’s first sentence:

  • Does it grab the reader’s interest by teasing some further discovery?
  • Does it pose a question the reader will strongly want answered?
  • Does it contain dramatic potential (a looming conflict, loss, discovery of something that will turn your main character’s world upside down)?

The mystery writer Elmore Leonard, according to author and journalist William Dietrich , advocated never describing weather in a first line. Dietrich goes on to share examples of great first lines that flout Leonard’s advice. For example, Dean Koontz wrote:

‘Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch.’ ( Dragon Tears )

Koontz’s opener uses the mundane details of the weather to create contrast with Harry Lyon’s murderous act. This makes it more shocking. So treat ‘rules’ cautiously. The important thing is that your opening line sets the mysterious tone for your story and grasps the reader’s interest.

Looking beyond the first sentence, the first paragraph should introduce a little more sense of mood and atmosphere and intriguing setting and/or character. For the first chapter, favour brevity. If a reader feels they have to wade to the end of your opener, this could deter them from continuing.

2: Make the reader your number one detective

A ‘puzzle mystery’ is the sub-genre where the reader gets to solve the unknown. In any good mystery, however, the reader should be left to piece together information. Trust in your reader’s intelligence: Many beginning writers assume that they need to hold the reader’s hand throughout and over-explain the story as it happens. To make the reader play more of an active part in solving the mystery you can:

  • Leave clues throughout ( so long as they aren’t too obvious ).
  • Include characters who are truthful along with those who lie, leaving it to the reader to decide whose information seems more honest.
  • Have multiple possible explanations. In a murder mystery, that means having multiple suspicious characters. In a mystery adventure, it might mean having both natural and supernatural possible reasons for a character’s disappearance.

3: Something’s fishy… Use red herrings

Writing a mystery novel - definition of the mystery term 'red herring'

In fiction writing, the term ‘red herring’ refers to ‘A clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading or distracting:’ ( Oxford Dictionaries Online ). The term is borrowed from the custom of training dogs to hunt using the scent of dried herring, which turns red from being smoked.

Red herrings can be scattered throughout your novel to keep the reader from guessing the culprit of a crime or explanation of a disappearance too soon. They escalate tension and suspense and make a novel more riveting.

In Agatha Christie’s best-selling novel And Then There were None , ten people end up on an island and die one by one. Christie makes one of the remaining characters disappear, leading the other members of the party (and the reader) to suspect the vanished character of being the murderer, but there are further twists.

A red herring can be:

  • A character who seems to be more suspicious or complicit than he actually is.
  • An object that seems to have more significance than it ultimately will.
  • An event that seems to be important to the narrative but turns out to be secondary.
  • A clue placed by a villain (unknown to the reader and the main character) to send investigators down the wrong path of inquiry.

Suspense in a mystery novel is key. What else can increase the reader’s sense of curiosity and anticipation?

4: Write suspenseful dialogue

Dialogue that sounds convincing to the ear is hard to get right. Suspenseful dialogue moves in ellipses and omissions; says one thing but means another. In a conversation between two characters, you can create suspense by:

  • Having one speaker lie, giving information that contradicts what the reader already knows to be true.
  • Have a character say something bizarre or unexpected (in David Lynch’s cult classic mystery TV series Twin Peaks , a character says to the investigating detective Agent Dale Cooper, ‘The owls are not what they seem.’
  • Have a character withhold information or be non-cooperative when questioned.

Because we are perplexed by unexpected behaviour, use it to throw the reader and your characters off. A character who laughs mid-conversation, apropos of nothing, is a curious one. Employ dialogue with strange turns, interruptions, menacing tones or other elements that give the reader a feeling of unpredictability.

Part of what makes a mystery novel highly engrossing is it’s mood and atmosphere:

5: Create a mysterious mood with setting and descriptive language

In a mystery novel, as in a thriller, mood is a substantial part of what throws the reader head first into your fictional world. The factors that contribute to mood in fiction are:

  • Setting: An old cathedral might have a hallowed, restful feeling whereas darkening woods can be menacing or eerie.
  • Descriptive language: Be thoughtful about the adjectives and verbs you choose. ‘She hastened along the narrow path’ creates a sense of urgency and spatial confinement or claustrophobia, both of which contribute to a tense and suspenseful atmosphere.
  • Characterisation: What your characters say and do, how they look and what they hide all contribute to creating a mysterious, uncertain mood.

The ingredients of a good mystery include structure as well as content. Not only what happens but how it is paced or where each scene takes up or leaves off:

6: Structure your mystery novel’s chapters attentively

Because the allure and fear of the unknown are the pillars of good mystery writing, it’s important to structure each chapter around unfolding discoveries expertly. While there should be rising action throughout the novel on a macro scale, within each chapter there should be some rising action too, as well as shifts in knowns and unknowns.

In chapter openings you can:

  • Open in the middle of an unknown setting
  • Open your chapter in the middle of a tense situation
  • Begin with the discovery that something previously thought true was false

These are just a few examples of the way you can make a chapter riveting from the outset. End chapters on new discoveries that either bring the mystery-solving character(s) closer to finding the answer or create new questions. This push and pull between question and answer lies at the heart of the great mystery novel.

7: A satisfying climax and resolution

How to write a mystery novel ending

A mystery novel is typically more teleological (‘end-focused’) than a novel in another genre (such as high fantasy). In mystery novels, everything should build up to a satisfying answer to primary questions such as ‘Who? Why? What?’

Nancy Curteman makes the crucial point that the ending of a mystery novel should come with an ‘a-ha!’ moment. The reader should be able to go back and say ‘I saw this coming’ or ‘I didn’t see this coming, but it makes complete sense given x, y, and z’. The identity of the killer, the cause for a disappearance or some other mystery explanation should not feel like a red herring itself.

When writing a mystery novel, ideally your ending will:

  • Answer the pressing questions you’ve kept readers asking
  • Reveal truths about characters falsely suspected
  • Relate clearly to the beginning
  • Leave the reader feeling inclined to read your next novel

Writing a mystery novel demands that you pay attention to the ingredients of great mystery writing: Convincing plot and mood, mysterious characters, active involvement of the reader and more. If you’re ready to get going on your mystery novel, join the Mystery/Thriller writers’ group on Now Novel.

Related Posts:

  • Better mystery plots: 7 clues to writing mysteries
  • Writing a cozy mystery: 10 feel-good suspense tips
  • 5 mystery elements for intrigue in any genre
  • Tags how to write mystery novels , mystery , red herrings , writing mystery fiction , writing story hooks

writing a mystery novel

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

23 replies on “Writing a mystery novel: 7 items your story needs”

Excellent article on writing a novel. And thank you for the link to one of my articles. Best wishes!

Thanks, Cheryl! My pleasure, thanks for penning a helpful resource for writers.

very helpful,indeed

Thank you, Maxwell. Thanks for reading!

Excellent! It really helped me and your article is well detailed. Thanks a lot <3 @NowNovel:disqus

It’s a pleasure, Varalika! Thank you for reading and I’m glad you found it helpful.

Pretty explainable article! Taught me a lot. Now I can use this to write my creative writing! Thank you so much, @NowNovel

Hi Alexander, It’s a pleasure! Good luck with your writing.

I’m writing an essay for a summer assignment in order to get in an Honors English class, and I’m trying to cite the author, but I cant seem to find the author on this page by chance does anybody know who the author is?

Hi Mckalee, my apologies I didn’t see your comment sooner. I am the author but when attributing a blog or a non-traditionally published electronic source, it is generally acceptable to use the title of the publication (in this case Now Novel) with the address and the date of information retrieval.

thank you, this helped a lot!

Not a big fan of “Here are the basic rules to follow to have a successful novel” Obviously a mystery novel must have Mystery, it should have Suspense but that holds true for any good fiction novel. I am not big on the rules and regulations of writing novels. While obviously there has to be some basic fundamentals aside from following the basics such as reasonably correct punctuation and grammar, and please remember grammar has evolved due to common usage by authors, not due to invented rules by some professor or critic who never wrote a best seller in their lives for the most part. One example is “foreshadowing” I mean what top author uses it? As a reader it leaves me cold, it’s like you have a part of the story in advance and who wants that? The most interesting novel of any best selling series of any author I can think of is, I think, the first one of the series; why? because it is full of mystery and excitement. After that even the best usually go downhill. After a lifetime of being a bookworm, seeing critically canned books such as Harry Potter, that violated many of the accepted “rules” of authoring, selling millions and as a recently published author who has listened to the true experts of writing bestselling novels (the authors), I honestly believe that it is just a matter of being reasonably accurate in spelling, punctuation and grammar and being interested in your story yourself and make it interesting enough and you can have a best seller. Another datum that seems important is If You Have a Fire Within, You Can Create a Fire Without. Mark J

Thank you for sharing your contrary viewpoint, you make a good argument. Regarding ‘foreshadowing’, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily giving part of the story in advance but rather sowing the seeds of implication (for example, introducing an object that later proves to be significant to the plot, a monument, a person, and so on). Effective foreshadowing can be quite subtle, ‘blink and you’ll miss it’, and in a certain kind of mystery (murder mystery) can be an excellent device for adding suspense.

This perhaps over-simplifying notion of foreshadowing aside, you raise good contra-points. I’d add that having a bestseller certainly isn’t only to do with the writing itself but also how well you market and promote a book, as some dreadful books do make bestseller status, as you’ve intimated. Regarding Rowling, what she did very well is build a detailed, engrossing world that was vivid in its scope and sense of wonder, and this spoke to readers of all ages, I would say. Her series, of course, isn’t ‘literary’ in style or audience.

Thank you for reading and engaging with our articles!

I realize I’m responding to a post made 9 months ago, so I hope you’re still there. I’m hoping to get some advice per remarks that you made to Mark, specifically regarding marketing and promoting a book.

I finished what I thought was a pretty good draft of one book, which is a drama/fantasy, almost two years ago. That was my first experience at seriously attempting to write a book, so I engaged a group of about 12 people to review it. Some I knew, some I didn’t know. I varied my evaluators by sex, age, interest in reading, etc. Although 11 out of the 12 said they liked the book, my best three critics (two of which were avid readers) liked the story/writing, but they wanted “more”.

I wasn’t looking for empty compliments (although I’m guessing that the original draft was “good enough” on a superficial level, per the comments I interpreted); I wanted a book that could be interesting and successful. So, I spent the next year researching the elements of how to write a good book and gave my book some critical thought of my own based on what I had learned through my research. Then, I went to work on adding “more”. My book increased from 46K words to 86K words. I added a prologue to handle some of the backstory of the older characters that contribute to the plotline, kind of like a brief mini-story to clear the muddle of some of the backstory within the main text. I more fully developed my main characters and even expanded the interaction with some select supporting characters to round-out the story. Of course, I also added better hints of twists to come (and then added those twists and a fuller storyline), made my evil characters more evil, and made my sympathetic characters more sympathetic.

My best critics have now reviewed my final draft. The conclusion was that I gave them the “more” they were looking for, and the book is ready to be published. I’m working on the book cover and I’ll be submitting the book for copyright shortly. I’ve dismissed submitting the book to publishing houses, mostly because I’ve heard that it is extremely difficult to even get them to read a book from a new author, and I understand that self-publishing is an alternative.

So, that brings me around to your remarks about how well the book is marketed and promoted. I’ve done some research into Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I don’t see a lot of information about marketing and promotion. For Amazon, I see approaches like initial 30-day half-price (or even free) offers. I’ve also read that promoting a book on Amazon or any online publisher is enhanced by the keywords you select for your book. I considered things like book-signings, perhaps at the local library, or even at the local Barnes & Noble. I researched some self publishing under Barnes & Noble simply for the fact that they support local author events; however, it seems that they will only support those author events on the condition that your book has already sold at a certain level…again, something difficult for a new author to break through without prior marketing and promotion. Do you have any suggestions regarding marketing and promotion? Or, do you have any materials (websites, etc) that you could refer to assist with marketing and promotion for new authors?

By the way, aside from the marketing and promotion question, I do have one other question with regard to the topic of this site (mystery writing). My next effort will be a mystery, but I’m wondering how it fits with the formula. I have two main characters, a husband and wife. The husband is police officer who desperately WANTS to be a detective. However, he is NOT the hero in the story. The crime occurs, but it appears to be related to the relationship between them. He gets the opportunity to be on the detective team to solve the mystery, but the more and more the story develops, the more he realized that the crime appears to be dependent on his own actions. Is it critical that the detective/mystery solver be the hero?

Any advice on the marketing/promotion or my question about the mystery hero is appreciated!

Thanks, Karen

Thank you for your detailed question. To answer in the two parts you posed it:

1) Regarding marketing and promotion for self-published authors, it is admittedly tricky to promote and market without an existing platform to leverage, as you say particularly when seeking admission to platforms with more prestige (such as having bookstore-hosted book signings). Barnes & Noble is of course a big seller; approaching an indie or other smaller bookshop may be easier.

The strategies you mentioned (initial discounting, for example) are widely used. I would recommend building a social media presence as a writer (if you haven’t already), sharing extracts, tweeting/gramming/Facebooking about writing, the books you love, the genre your work falls within, to build an audience, and engage with others’ posts (meaningfully, of course) on the same. This will help grow awareness.

Having a blog where you write about your genre, about the writing process, and/or review books in your genre is also useful as you can build an email list and market your Amazon author page to your list. A promo blog tour could also help drum up interest, as you could reach out to book bloggers in indie publishing to offer guest posts and/or other content (e.g. review copies) to further get the word out.

As a newcomer to marketing your work, it may seem daunting, so it could be helpful to take a course. We have an article specifically on marketing your work here that may be useful: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-build-a-book-audience/

2) Usually the mystery solver is the ‘hero’, even if an unlikely one. It would maybe read a little strangely for the protagonist of the story not to be the one to make the most crucial discovery. However this would be a better question for an editor perhaps once the story is written, as it’s difficult to comment on the efficacy of a plot development or character arc in summary form.

Please feel free to ask anything further, and good luck!

Thank you VERY much! Your feedback was very helpful and the link you provided was awesome! I hadn’t found your site when I was doing my initial research on “how to write”, but I’ve checked out some links from the original mystery writing article and your site has a terrific way or organizing the content to make it extremely easy to follow!

Hi Karen, it’s a pleasure! I’m glad I could help 🙂

Best of luck and please feel free to email us any questions any time at [email protected] , too.

I completely agree with what you have written. I hope this post could reach more people as this was truly an interesting post.

Ever since mystery novels existed, it has been one of the best selling genres of all time.

Please read my blog: 5 Reasons Why You Should Read Mystery Books

Have a great day!

Thanks, Patricia, you have a great day too.

This is very helpful to writing a mystery book but what should the book NOT include?

Hi J, thank you for your question. A good place to start is looking at lists of mystery tropes and deciding for yourself which seem the most hackneyed, contrived or stale. TV Tropes does a good job of listing fiction tropes in a humorous way and have a list of mystery tropes here (I would say the ‘You Wake Up in a Room’ trope is maybe one of the most played out for the genre, but you never know – you could reinvigorate a trope with new life, too).

Another way I’d recommend getting to grips with a specific genres requirements (or non-requirements, rather) is to scan reviews on Goodreads sorted by that genre and see what readers complain about most. Is it that it was easy to work out the mystery all along? Or were there certain character stereotypes? This should help. Thank you for reading our blog!

[…] In the novel-writing world, you have, on one hand, ambitious, creative trades- / craftspeople. They want to write novels, and they want to make money doing it. It’s creative, but it’s business. They typically choose their favorite genre and study the formulas, become intimately familiar with the work of other writers in the genre, analyze what sells and what doesn’t and why, evaluate their specific market, and write to their audience. They give their readers something engrossing and entertaining, if formulaic and predictable — because formulaic and predictable is a safe sell and is even encouraged. (Search “mystery genre rules,” and results will show, respectively, The “Rules” of Detective Fiction, 6 Rules for Writing Great Mystery Novels, 17 Rules of Mystery Writing, S.S. Van Dine’s 20 Rules for Writing Detective Stories, and Writing a Mystery Novel: 7 Items Your Story Needs.) […]

[…] can find these 20 exciting mystery books for middle schoolers in your local library or purchase through the affiliate links provided […]

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Novel Factory

All good novels contain some elements of tension, mystery, and surprise, but a good mystery novel follows a few unspoken rules, and you break them at your peril.

So what are the rules of the mystery genre?

If you understand these three principles, you will go far with them:

It’s a game of wits between the reader and the author

writing a mystery novel

While a reader will always be drawn in by a story, and the author will keep them wanting to know what’s going to happen next, mystery novels take that to the next level.

A good mystery story is not just passive entertainment – it’s a game. The reader is actively trying to work out the solution – which is almost always who the perpetrator is.

So as a mystery writer, it’s your job to create a situation where the reader can do that guessing and to lay out just enough clues that in hindsight the answer is obvious, but not so many that the reader actually guesses it before the reveal.

It is a delicate tightrope that takes great skill to master.

The reader wins if they lose

A key thing to understand about this dynamic is that it isn’t a game where one person wins and one person loses.

If you do your job right, then you both win.

That is because while the reader may feel smug and satisfied if they do guess the perp in advance of you telling them, they will actually feel more delighted if they don’t get it more than a few moments before the reveal, but can see that it was right under their noses all the time.

If the reader guesses who the perpetrator is too early, then yes, technically they’ve won, but all suspense and thrills drain away. And this is disappointing for everyone.

The perpetrator must be under the reader’s nose

writing a mystery novel

As mentioned above, a key factor of a good mystery is that the perpetrator (or other answer to the mystery) must be under the reader’s nose. Ideally, it will turn out to be a main character, but it can also be a major supporting character.

If you introduce, heaven forbid, a brand new character as the baddie at the last minute, then your reader is going to be left feeling cheated, as they never had a fair chance at guessing.

Similarly, if it’s a very minor character, then while you might be able to get away with it, it will be far less satisfying than if the character was much more prominent and still went under the radar.

Methods of achieving this often involve making the perpetrator a character so timid/weak/hopeless that it seems impossible they could ever carry out such dastardly deeds.

However, as thriller readers become more and more skilled and experienced, they will be on the lookout for this sort of trick, so mystery writers need to become ever more resourceful.

Be on the lookout for ways to make people seem harmless when secretly they are dangerous psychopaths. Techniques including:

  • Having them not be who they say they are – they have changed their identity
  • Having them appear physically weak – which may or may not be genuine
  • Having them appear mentally simple – when actually that is a clever ruse and they are actually a genius

6 Tips for creating suspense and intrigue

1. questions.

writing a mystery novel

The heart of all suspense is questions.

What’s going to happen next? Who did it? Will they escape with their lives? What is that person hiding?

Ideally, your reader will be constantly asking questions like those above, as well as ones much more specific to your story.

In a mystery or thriller, you need to keep a constant ball of questions rolling, raising new ones and answering others.

There should be some high-level questions, including the main story question, which will hang over the reader for most of the book. But there will also be smaller questions that may only be up in the air for a chapter or two.

The key is to make sure the reader always has some questions in their mind that they are hungry to know the answers to, while not being overwhelmed by too many questions. And while also continually being given some answers, in order to feel a sense of progress and satisfaction.

This is not easy, but it can be done if you’re willing to put in the effort. Here’s a technique to help with keeping track of it all.

Question analysis technique:

This technique was described by thriller writer Erin Kelly, and even (especially) if you think you’ve got your questions and answer threads woven in nicely, completing this exercise can be extremely enlightening.

Take a large piece of paper and draw a vertical line down the left-hand side from top to bottom.

Mark a dot on the line at roughly where in your story the first question is raised (so near the top of the line if it’s near the beginning, at the middle of the line if it’s near the middle, etc. This is only a rough guide, don’t worry about being exact).

Mark another dot on the line where that question is answered, then join the two lines together with a curving arc. Note next to the line what the question is.

Repeat the last two steps for all of your story questions.

When you finish, ideally you will have a lot of dots and lines evenly spaced out.

What you’re more likely to have are a bunch of dots near the beginning, a bunch of dots near the end, and a thickish curve connecting the two clusters.

Don’t believe me? Try it and see…

2. Everybody has a secret / Trust no one

writing a mystery novel

A good way to keep your readers guessing is to establish the fact that nobody can be trusted and make sure everybody acts suspiciously.

Some books are fairly bullish about this and just have characters say outright that no one can be trusted. But it’s also possible to do this through more subtle means of inference and atmosphere.

When it comes to making everybody act suspiciously, if you don’t want it to come across as inauthentic then make it authentic. They should be acting suspiciously because they genuinely have something to hide. The trick is that only one of them is hiding the thing you are looking for. The others all have secrets, yes, but they turn out to be unrelated to the crime or central mystery.

Of course, you can have someone look suspicious when they are in fact completely innocent, but do this too much and it starts to feel false.

3. Master the cliffhanger

writing a mystery novel

If you’re going to be a mystery writer, then you need to master the cliffhanger.

A cliffhanger is usually when something unexpected happens (a knock at the door) or a character is left in a position of peril (like, uh, hanging off the edge of a cliff).

Most people have heard of a cliffhanger, and know roughly what it means, but if you’re going to write a good one, you need to understand that every time you use a cliffhanger, you have to deliver a suitable resolution.

To borrow from Brandon Sanderson in his excellent series on writing fantasy , he puts it roughly like this:

Imagine you have a scene, where everyone is sitting around the lounge when the doorbell rings. The scene ends there, so the cliffhanger is: Who’s at the door?

You turn the page to find out.

A bad cliffhanger resolution is: it’s the pizza guy. They get the pizza and pay him and he leaves.

A good cliffhanger ending is: it was Bob’s long lost father, who he thought was dead, and he needs money. Lots of it.

Do you see the difference?

In the good cliffhanger resolution, the question is answered with something exciting which brings up more dramatic possibilities and potential for conflict.

In the bad cliffhanger resolution, the question is answered with a complete non-event. This is failing to deliver on what you promised and will leave the reader feeling disappointed.

One final thing – don’t end your novel on a cliffhanger. The contract with the reader is that you will deliver a beginning, a middle and an end. If you are writing a series or a trilogy, then it’s fine to leave some questions unanswered if they are part of the larger story arc, but you must answer the main story questions raised in a particular book. If you don’t, you haven’t delivered what you promised, and readers will not trust you enough to read future books.

Trust that readers will come back because they enjoyed your writing, don’t try to manipulate them into having to pay more just to be given the end of the story.

4. Mislead your audience

writing a mystery novel

In the mystery game of cat and mouse, the author must deliberately mislead the reader, without ever actually lying.

It is normal to have an ‘obvious’ suspect, someone who is mean, cruel, and nasty. But any mystery reader worth their salt will know this person is far too obvious. However, if you’re clever, you can persuade your readers that someone else is the perfect suspect, and the reader will think they were very clever for working this out – but it turns out they were a red herring too, to distract them from the actual real perpetrator.

Likewise, there might be an object, event, or piece of information which leads to a particular conclusion – but not the right one.

Misleading your audience isn’t only about red herrings. You can also use little hints and conventions to make readers jump to conclusions which are incorrect. For example, one scene might end with a character looking at the moon, and the next scene begins with a different character also looking at the moon. From this, the reader will infer that it’s the same night without you ever actually saying so, but in fact they could be two nights ten years apart.

5. Use the ticking time bomb

writing a mystery novel

Having to catch a killer is exciting.

Having to catch a killer within the next three hours before they kill their next victim… is more exciting.

Putting a ticking clock on the action is a good way to raise the tension and heighten the emotion of a mystery.

Like with your story questions, you can use a ticking time bomb on a large and on a small scale. So there may be a deadline by which the protagonist has to solve the mystery, or something terrible will happen, and you can also have much closer-in time pressures, which the main character has to deal with before the end of the chapter, or even page.

6. Foreshadow everything

It’s not that difficult to win the game of cat and mouse if you just withhold all of the important information. But that’s not really playing by the rules.

To master the game and really delight your readers, the more elements you can foreshadow, the better. The reader should be able to look back on what they’ve read and see that all the signs were there, even from the very first page.

But you must conceal these signs.

Here are a few methods for doing that:

  • Distraction (something else exciting is happening at the same time)
  • Sleight of hand (a false explanation for this piece of information is presented)
  • By embedding key information among a lot of unimportant information, the reader thinks that’s also unimportant.

So, in summary, if you’re writing a mystery or thriller, you are playing a game with the reader, and you need to play by the rules – and make sure both you and the reader win!

Make sure you hide your perpetrator in plain sight but don’t make them obvious. Use all your skills to create suspense and tension, to keep them turning pages from the edge of their seat.

Homework Tasks

Read three of your favourite mystery or thriller novels and try to identify the techniques the author uses to create suspense and mislead you as a reader.

Further reading:

https://www.thenovelry.com/blog/suspense-writing-tips

https://www.novel-software.com/how-to-write-a-thriller/

https://www.novel-software.com/novel-outline-template/#templates (scroll down for a mystery/crime thriller plot template)

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6 Rules for Writing Great Mystery Novels

Novel Suspects Featured Image Writing Mystery

If you love sci-fi thrillers or space murder mysteries, you’ll love reading Mur Lafferty’s  Six Wakes , a genre mash-up that will have you on the edge of your seat. If you’re a writer yourself, Lafferty has six tips that will help you write a great mystery novel, too—and she keeps it interesting by making all of her rules contradictory.

Rule #1: Know your murderer before you start writing.

If you know who your ultimate criminal is, you can write the whole book while posting clues and red herrings throughout because you know exactly where you’re going.

Rule #2: Don’t know your murderer before you start writing.

Take an ensemble cast, give them all a motive for committing the murder(s). Make sure they all have opportunities to interact with the victim(s). When you get to your climax and you can see that everyone still would have had the chance to be the murderer, then you choose someone.

Rule #3: Your hero should have some flaws.

While the alcoholic detective who is terrible with women is somewhat of a cliche, the truth is you do need to have a character who has their own internal demons to fight as they solve the murders externally. It makes them much more relatable and adds layers of conflict to your story.

Rule #4: Your hero should be infallible.

Before you tell me that this won’t work, let me go and fetch the sales numbers for Agatha Christie,  the world’s bestselling author of all time.  Murder on the Orient Express  sold 3 million copies— in 1974 alone . Anyway, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot can be said to have flaws like, um, Poirot is full of himself—but it’s not hubris because he’s  right  when he says he’s the world’s greatest detective.

Rule #5: Mysteries have a formula; follow it.

Lay the suspects, make your detective be the one to solve the case, kill the victim in the first third of the story. If you break these rules, the reader won’t trust you.

Rule #6: Break all the rules.

One book title for you:  The Murder of Roger Akroyd . The narrator—the first person POV watching Poirot investigate Ackroyd’s murder—is revealed to be the murderer.

Mur Lafferty is a writer, podcast producer, gamer, runner, and geek. She is the host of the podcast I Should Be Writing and the co-host of Ditch Diggers . She is the winner of the 2013 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She is addicted to computer games, Zombies, Run!, and Star Wars LEGO. She lives in Durham, NC with her husband and daughter.

Six Wakes

Mur Lafferty

In this Hugo nominated science fiction thriller by Mur Lafferty, a crew of clones awakens aboard a space ship to find they’re being hunted-and any one of them could be the killer. Maria Arena awakens in a cloning vat streaked with drying blood. She has no memory of how she died. This is new; before, when she had awakened as a new clone, her first memory was of how she died. Maria’s vat is one of seven, each one holding the clone of a crew member of the starship  Dormire , each clone waiting for its previous incarnation to die so it can awaken. And Maria isn’t the only one to die recently. . . Unlock the bold new science fiction thriller that Corey Doctorow calls Mur’s “breakout book”.

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 31, 2017. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

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writing a mystery novel

How to Write the Perfect Mystery

Writing advice from the greats of crime fiction.

Writing a good crime novel is difficult, soulful work. These books we love take on some of humanity’s darkest moments, looking for answers, meaning, or just the catharsis of a full recording. Yes, there are pillars of the form—the disappearance, the sleuth, the colorful side characters and suspects, the insistent search for truth. But there’s no magic formula, no instruction guide that can take you chapter by chapter through writing a successful mystery. There is, however, the wisdom of the greats. From Christie to Chandler to the modern-day masters, many of our favorite authors have turned their attention to the craft of the mystery novel. Scouring the books, interviews, letters, and articles of these icons, we’ve assembled a handy guide to writing a great crime/mystery novel. Some of the advice is easier said than followed; other times the ideas are downright contradictory. Take the wisdom in doses, chew it all over and use what works for you. Above all, keep on writing mysteries and we’ll promise to keep on reading them.

writing a mystery novel

GETTING STARTED

Don’t fret about outlines. Don’t over-plan.

“The plans for a detective novel in the making are less like blueprints than like travel notes set down as you once revisited a city. The city had changed since you saw it last. It keeps changing around you. Some of the people you knew there have changed their names. Some of them wear disguises.”

–Ross Macdonald, On Crime Writing (1973)

“At the time I begin writing a novel, the last thing I want to do is follow a plot outline. To know too much at the start takes the pleasure out of discovering what the book is about.”

–Elmore Leonard, “ Making It Up As I Go Along, ” AARP Magazine, (2009)

Remember, you’re never too old to start, although you may be too young.

“A lot of novelists start late—Conrad, Pirandello, even Mark Twain. When you’re young, chess is all right, and music and poetry. But novel-writing is something else. It has to be learned, but it can’t be taught. This bunkum and stinkum of college creative-writing courses! The academics don’t know that the only thing you can do for someone who wants to write is to buy him a typewriter.”

–James M. Cain, “ The Art of Fiction No. 69 ,” The Paris Review (1978)

Arrange your surroundings. Prepare for contingencies. 

“In my hotel room in Paris I only needed cigarettes, a bottle of scotch, and occasionally a good dish of meat and vegetables cooking on the burner behind me. Writing’s always whetted my appetite.”

–Chester Himes, Interview with Michel Fabre (1983)

FINDING A STORY

Look for a story that would keep a child entertained on a rainy day.

“The writer is like a person trying to entertain a listless child on a rainy afternoon. You set up a card table, and you lay out pieces of cardboard, construction paper, scissors, paste, crayons. You draw a rectangle and you construct a very colorful little fowl and stick it in the foreground, and you say, ‘This is a chicken.’ You cut out a red square and put it in the background and say, ‘This is a barn.’ You construct a bright yellow truck and put it in the background on the other side of the frame and say, ‘This is a speeding truck. Is the chicken going to get out of the way in time? Now you finish the picture.'”

–John D. MacDonald, The Writer (1974)

Collision is good, and retribution is even better.

“The cat sat on the mat is not a story; the cat sat on the dog’s mat is the beginning of an exciting story, and out of that collision, perhaps, there comes a sense of retribution. Now you may call that God, or you may call it the presence of fatalistic forces in society, or you may call it man’s inhumanity to man. But, in the immortal words of P.G. Wodehouse, what it boils down to is that if your character does something wrong, sooner or later if he walks down a dark street, fate will slip out with a stuffed eel-skin and get him.”

–John Le Carré, “ The Writer Who Came in from the Cold ,” BBC/Michael Dean (1974)  

writing a mystery novel

THE CHARACTERS  

Make your characters worth saving, whether you save them or not.

“The more passionately alive the victim, the more glorious indignation I have on his behalf, and am full of delighted triumph when I have delivered a near-victim out of the valley of the shadow of death.”

–Agatha Christie, An Autobiography (1977, posthumous)

Give every character a dose of humanity.

“A man once asked me … how I managed in my books to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves. Was I, by any chance, a member of a large, mixed family with a lot of male friends?…I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also.”

–Dorothy L. Sayers,  Are Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society

writing a mystery novel

THE SETTING

A good setting may be the spark your story needs

“Something always sparks off a novel, of course. With me, it’s always the setting. I think I have a strong response to what I think of as the ‘spirit of a place.’ I remember I was looking for an idea in East Anglia and standing on a very lonely stretch of beach. I shut my eyes and listened to the sound of the waves breaking over the pebble shore. Then I opened them and turned from looking at the dangerous and cold North Sea to look up and there, overshadowing this lonely stretch of beach was the great, empty, huge white outline of Sizewell nuclear power station. In that moment I knew I had a novel.”

–PD James, “ PD James’ 10 Tips for Writing Novels ,” BBC (2013)  

writing a mystery novel

Hold onto the mood with as little as possible.

“To say little and convey much, to break the mood of the scene with some completely irrelevant wisecrack without entirely losing the mood—these small things for me stand in lieu of accomplishment. My theory of fiction writing … is that the objective method has hardly been scratched, that if you know how to use it you can tell more in a paragraph than the probing writers can tell in a chapter.”

–Raymond Chandler, June 1949 letter to his UK publisher, Hamish Hamilton

Forget set pieces and focus on dialogue and concrete description.

“I may satisfy myself with Richard II or a crime novel and tell all the fancy boys to go to hell, all the subtle-subtle ones that they did us a service by exposing the truth that subtlety is only a technique, and a weak technique at that…all the editorial novelists that they should go back to school and stay there until they can make a story come alive with nothing but dialogue and concrete description: oh, we’ll allow them one chapter of set-piece writing per book, even two, but no more; and finally all the clever-clever darlings with the fluty voices that cleverness, like perhaps strawberries, is a perishable commodity…The test of a writer is whether you want to read him again years after he should by the rules be dated.”

–Raymond Chandler, September 1947 letter to his agent, Helga Greene

Forget about good taste and focus on what the world is really like.

“Many times I’ve been told by people I respect, ‘There’s too much emphasis on race in this book,’ or ‘The government and the police aren’t really like that.’ I am asked not to stand down but to stand back—behind the line of good taste. ‘Books are entertainments,’ I am told. ‘No one wants to hear your ideas about how the world works or what’s wrong with America.’ Of course they don’t. The job of the writer is to take a close and uncomfortable look at the world they inhabit, the world we all inhabit, and the job of the novel is to make the corpse stink.”

–Walter Mosley, “ The Writing Life ,” Washington Post (2005)

writing a mystery novel

REVISION AND EDITING

Cut everything you possibly can, then cut four pages more.

“For all your cutting, there is usually more to come. Cutting becomes more and more painful, more and more difficult. At last you don’t see a single sentence anywhere that can be cut, and then you must say, “Four more whole pages have got to come out of this thing,” and begin again on page one with perhaps a different colored pencil or crayon in hand to make the recounting easier, and be as ruthless as if you were throwing excess baggage, even fuel, out of an overloaded airplane.”

–Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966)

Identify your favorite sentences and then cut them.

“Just one piece of general advice from a writer has been very useful to me. It was from Colette. I was writing short stories for Le Matin , and Colette was literary editor at that time. I remember I gave her two short stories and she returned them and I tried again and tried again. Finally she said, ‘Look, it is too literary, always too literary.’ So I followed her advice. It’s what I do when I write, the main job when I rewrite…Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence—cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.”

–Georges Simenon, “ The Art of Fiction No. 9 ,” The Paris Review (1955)

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

–Elmore Leonard, “ Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle ,” New York Times (2001)

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How to Write a Mystery or Crime Novel: 8 Tips for Writing Crime Fiction

Krystal Craiker headshot

Krystal N. Craiker

How to write a crime novel title

Crime fiction is a leading genre, and readers love the intrigue and suspense of a good mystery.

But writing crime fiction can be daunting. You must leave clues, create captivating characters, build tension, and have a believable villain and crime.

Today, we're giving you our top eight tips on how to write a crime novel.

What Is Crime Writing?

What is mystery writing, 8 tips for writing mystery or crime fiction.

Crime writing is a genre of fiction in which the main plot conflict revolves around a crime.

Crime fiction encompasses many subgenres, including police procedurals, psychological thrillers, and cozy mysteries.

The difference between subgenres depends on the level of violence described, setting, and types of characters, but they all have crime as the driving force.

Types of crime novels

There are three types of mysteries within the crime genre:

  • Whodunits are traditional mysteries in which the perpetrator is hidden until the end. Think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.
  • Howdunits focus on the "how" of the crime. These are police procedurals and detective stories where the protagonist tracks down the perpetrator. Famous writers in this subgenre are Joseph Wambaugh and Michael Connelly.
  • Whydunits focus on the motivation of the perpetrator. This genre shifts the focus from law enforcement to the criminal, who functions as the protagonist. Examples are Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and many of Elmore Leonard’s criminal novel depictions.

The mystery genre is, for all intents and purposes, synonymous with crime fiction. Mystery is a major component of any crime story.

It is possible to have a mystery novel that does not involve a crime, such as uncovering a secret identity, but these are very rare.

Other genres may include a mystery as a secondary plot, but that doesn't make them part of the crime genre. The mystery must be the main plotline in order to be classified as a mystery or crime novel.

8 tips for writing crime novels

There are many elements to consider when writing crime fiction, so we've broken down the most important steps into eight easy tips.

1. Choose Your Crime

Crime novels feature a variety of crimes, which keeps the genre fresh and exciting.

You could go with a classic murder mystery or serial-killer story. There are heists, organized crime, kidnappings, blackmail, extortion, trafficking, and more.

First, choose your crime. As this is the primary source of conflict in your book, it's important to have the crime first and foremost in your planning.

Once you decide what type of crime your novel is about, plan more of the details. Where did the crime take place? Who was the victim?

You should consider whether it's a locked-room mystery, where the crime seemed impossible to commit, or whether there are multiple leads for your protagonist to follow.

Types of crime novels

2. Profile Your Villain

Police and other agencies often have criminal profilers. They create a profile for likely demographics, upbringings, and motivations. For your novel, you must become the profiler.

It's important to plan your villain(s) in a crime novel well. The mystery is only as interesting as the character committing the crime. But you must do so in a way that makes sense.

If your villain is pure evil, it can be hard to "humanize" them and make them feel real. If you go down the route of the twisted psychopath, they must have intriguing features to draw readers in.

Maybe there's an extra disturbing element to the crime scene, or maybe they play mind games with the detective.

But most criminals aren't evil, they are human. In fiction, this makes them just as interesting because readers like to see relatable elements, even in a villain.

Start with your villain's motives, then work backward. Ask yourself, why did they commit this particular crime? Give them a solid backstory and plenty of character flaws and character strengths.

Mystery writing tip 1

3. Know Your Characters Inside and Out

Crime stories must have interesting characters besides the villain, too. In a mystery, the protagonist is the main character in the investigation.

They might be in law enforcement, a private investigator, or even an amateur detective.

The protagonist must have a strong motivation for wanting to solve the case. They will also need some internal conflict that holds them back or causes them to slip up during the story. Overcoming this internal conflict is important for a good character arc .

There should also be a cast of compelling characters who support the protagonist. Understanding how each of them connects to the mystery will help guide you as you plan conflicts and subplots.

Some subgenres have expected character archetypes. For example, cozy mysteries feature amateur sleuths and quirky side characters.

Most hard-boiled mysteries with a law enforcement protagonist feature a demanding superior officer and a nerdy scientist.

4. Research for a Realistic Crime

The details of criminal activity fascinate readers who love crime novels. They expect a crime novel to feel realistic. Researching the type of crime in the story is especially important for mystery writers.

The internet is a great starting point, but there are many other ways to find answers to those hard-to-search questions. Here are some other places you can find research material:

  • Detective memoirs
  • Specialty social media groups or accounts, like "Trauma Fiction" on Facebook
  • News stories of similar crimes
  • Interviews with experts
  • True-crime documentaries

You can also find a research librarian at your local library to help you find great sources.

The more details you know about the crime in your novel, the more realistic your writing will be, even if they don't all make it into the final draft.

5. Decide on Your Sub-Plots

Mystery writing tip 2

Mysteries are exciting, but they are just one external conflict in a story. A crime novel should have subplots that help drive the story along.

Romance is a common subplot in crime fiction. Family issues, career turning points, or a nemesis colleague can also form smaller conflicts and subplots.

Get creative and find subplots that match your genre but also feel fresh and exciting.

You'll also need a strong internal conflict , as we mentioned previously. Your protagonist needs to undergo character growth in the story so readers feel connected.

Your external conflicts do not necessarily need to be tied to the crime, but the mystery should drive your protagonist's character arc .

The case should teach them something or force them to overcome something.

6. Plan Your Clues

No mystery is complete without really great clues. But throwing in random clues as you write can feel inauthentic and trite.

It's a good idea to spend some time planning your clues before you start writing—even if you aren't much of a plotter .

Once you have researched the crime and know everything about how it happens in your book, you will have plenty of fodder for clues.

Start at the beginning. What clues will be immediately revealed to the detective or sleuth?

These are clues that are present at the scene of the crime, like suspects, blood splatter, broken locks, and dropped belongings.

Then plan the clues your protagonist will discover as the story goes on. They might come from forensic analysis or lab information.

Clues will also appear as your protagonist interviews witnesses and suspects, or as they dig into the victim's back story.

You should also plan a final clue that makes everything "click" for the protagonist. This is the last piece of the puzzle to discover the who/why/how of the crime.

7. Build Tension with Plot Twists

One of the best parts of crime fiction is the plot twist. Plot twists keep readers guessing. It can feel disappointing if the story unfolds in a way that is too easy to figure out.

Plot twists also build tension. Sometimes this tension will come in the form of your protagonist being certain of a lead, only to have it result in a dead end.

Other times, the usual suspects are ruled out, only to be brought back in as suspects at the end.

Red herrings are a common but exciting way to add tension to a mystery.

A red herring is a clue that is placed in a story to mislead or distract the readers. Adding multiple red herrings will make readers even more surprised when the truth comes out.

Avoid the deus ex machina , however.

This is an easy solution to the crime that appears out of nowhere. It does the opposite of building tension and feels clichéd.

The definition of a deus ex machine

8. Outline Your Story

It's a good idea to have a basic outline before you start writing because there are so many important details in a crime novel.

One outline method you can use is to modify the Hero's Journey . Here are what the stages of your story would look like:

  • Establish the detective and crime.
  • Set up the story.
  • Show reluctance of the protagonist.
  • First attempt to solve the case.
  • Establish facts and create urgency.
  • Broaden the scope of the crime and investigation.
  • Deepen the detective’s backstory.
  • Establish the big change where the detective realizes they're on the wrong track.
  • Reveal the criminal’s motive.
  • Find the mistake or missing piece of the investigation.
  • Solve the crime.

Outlining your crime novel

You can also use other plotting methods like a Save the Cat! beat sheet, a Story Circle, or the snowflake method.

Be sure to include the clues that you planned in your outline. This will help them feel logical to the story and serve the overall mystery.

Writing crime fiction doesn't have to be overwhelming. With solid research and deliberate planning, you can write the next great mystery novel.

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Krystal N. Craiker is the Writing Pirate, an indie romance author and blog manager at ProWritingAid. She sails the seven internet seas, breaking tropes and bending genres. She has a background in anthropology and education, which brings fresh perspectives to her romance novels. When she’s not daydreaming about her next book or article, you can find her cooking gourmet gluten-free cuisine, laughing at memes, and playing board games. Krystal lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband, child, and basset hound.

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Hal Bodner

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How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America

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How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America Hardcover – April 27, 2021

  • Print length 336 pages
  • Language English
  • Publisher Scribner
  • Publication date April 27, 2021
  • Dimensions 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • ISBN-10 1982149434
  • ISBN-13 978-1982149437
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About the author, product details.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Scribner (April 27, 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 336 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1982149434
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1982149437
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.04 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • #931 in Fiction Writing Reference (Books)
  • #983 in Cozy Craft & Hobby Mysteries

About the authors

Hal Bodner is a Bram Stoker Award nominated author, best known for writing the best selling gay vampire novel, Bite Club and the lupine sequel, The Trouble With Hairy. He tells people that he was born in East Philadelphia because no one knows where Cherry Hill, New Jersey is. The obstetrician who delivered him was C. Everett Koop, the future US Surgeon General who put warnings on cigarette packs. Thus, from birth, Hal was destined to become a heavy smoker.

He moved to West Hollywood in the 1980s and has rarely left the city limits since. He cannot even find his way around Beverly Hills—which is the next town over.

Hal has been an entertainment lawyer, a scheduler for a 976 sex telephone line, a theater reviewer and the personal assistant to a television star. For awhile, he owned Heavy Petting, a pet boutique where all the movie stars shopped for their Pomeranians. Until recently, he owned an exotic bird shop.

He has never been a waiter.

He lives with assorted dogs, and birds, the most notable of which is an eighty year old irritable, flesh-eating military macaw named after his icon – Tallulah. He often quips he is a slave to fur and feathers and regrets only that he isn’t referring to mink and marabou. He does not have cats because he tends to sneeze on them.

Having reached middle-age ("middle" age being dependent on how many 100 years-plus people happen to be around), he remembers Nixon.

He was widowed in his early forties and can sometimes be found sunbathing at his late partner's grave while trying to avoid cemetery caretakers screaming at him to put his shirt back on.

Hal has also written a few erotic paranormal romances -- which he refers to as “supernatural smut” – most notably In Flesh and Stone and For Love of the Dead. While his salacious imagination is unbounded, he much prefers his comedic roots and he is currently pecking away at a series of bitterly humorous gay super hero novels.

He married again -- this time legally -- to a wonderful man who is young enough not to know that Liza Minnelli is Judy Garland’s daughter. As a result, Hal has recently discovered that the use of hair dye is rarely an adequate substitute for Viagra.

Hal's website is www.wehovampire.com and he encourages fans to send him email at [email protected]. It may take him a month or so, but he generally responds to almost everyone who writes to him with the sole exception of prisoners who request free copies of his books accompanied by naked pictures.

Liliana Hart

Liliana Hart

Liliana Hart is a New York Times, USA Today, and Publisher's Weekly Bestselling Author of more than 60 titles. After starting her first novel her freshman year of college, she immediately became addicted to writing and knew she'd found what she was meant to do with her life. She has no idea why she majored in music.

Since publishing in June of 2011, Liliana has appeared at #1 on lists all over the world and all three of her series have appeared on the New York Times list. Liliana is a sought after speaker, and she's given keynote speeches and workshops to standing-room-only crowds from Hawaii to New York to London.

Liliana can almost always be found at her computer writing or hanging out with her husband (her real life hero). They call a suburb of Dallas home and have five children and a French bulldog named Bacon.

Lee Child is one of the world’s leading thriller writers. He was born in Coventry, raised in Birmingham, and now lives in New York. It is said one of his novels featuring his hero Jack Reacher is sold somewhere in the world every nine seconds. His books consistently achieve the number-one slot on bestseller lists around the world and have sold over one hundred million copies. Two blockbusting Jack Reacher movies have been made so far. He is the recipient of many awards, most recently Author of the Year at the 2019 British Book Awards. He was appointed CBE in the 2019 Queen's Birthday Honours.

Photography © Sigrid Estrada

Art Taylor

Art Taylor is the author of two short story collections: The Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions and The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense. His novel in stories On the Road with Del & Louise won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He also won the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Short Story for "English 398: Fiction Workshop," originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and he has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, four Macavity Awards, and four Derringer Awards for his short fiction. His work has also appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, and he has edited Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection; California Schemin': Bouchercon Anthology 2020; and Lawyers, Guns, and Money: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Warren Zevon. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University.

Stephen Ross

Stephen Ross

Stephen Ross is an award-winning writer who’s been crafting stories for twenty years. His short stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, several Mystery Writers of America anthologies, and many other magazines and anthologies. His work has been nominated for an Edgar Award, a Derringer Award, and a Thriller Award, and he was a winner of the Rose Trophy for Best Crime/Mystery Short Story. He has been an Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Award finalist and was a contributor to the Agatha Award-winning non-fiction book How To Write a Mystery, edited by Lee Child with Laurie R. King. He has lived in Auckland, London, and Frankfurt, and currently resides on the beautiful Whangaparaoa Peninsula of New Zealand, where his dog Mycroft takes him for walks. Visit him on: www.StephenRoss.net

Bradley Harper

Bradley Harper

Jack the Ripper meets Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, in my debut novel A KNIFE IN THE FOG, a Finalist for the 2019 Edgar Award for Best First Novel and winner of the Silver Falchion Award at Killer Nashville for Best Mystery, and recently named as a Recommended Read by the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. My second novel, QUEENS GAMBIT, pits my female protagonist, Margaret Harkness, against an anarchist assassin who has both Margaret and Queen Victoria in his sights. GAMBIT was recently awarded the 2020 Silver Falchion Award both as Best Suspense and as Book of the Year. Join me at WWW.BHarperAuthor.com for my upcoming events, giveaways, and to sign up for my newsletter.

During my 37 years of active duty as a pathologist, I performed over 200 autopsies, and my clinical years are interwoven with four stints as the commanding officer of various medical units. I was an Infantry officer before medical school, worked in the Pentagon, and learned to speak five languages. Yet, I also happily play Santa each Christmas (with my loving wife as Mrs. Claus). It is this juxtaposition of exploring the body, mind, and humanity that allows me to examine the mysteries of the past. Come and join me, for the Game's afoot!

C. M. Surrisi

C. M. Surrisi

C. M. Surrisi writes for children and adults in several genres. She is author of middle grade mysteries and middle grade commercial fiction, young adult non-fiction, picture books, and adult mysteries. She also teaches writing and is a contributor to "How to Write a Mystery," a new craft book from Mystery Writers of America.

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Want To Write A Murder Mystery? Here’s How

Congratulations! You’ve picked one of the reading world’s all-time favorite genres.

And with all the subgenres , you have loads of opportunities and choices when writing a murder mystery.

Although there’s room for a LOT of variety in this genre, the overall structure is pretty consistent.

In this guide on how to write a murder mystery, we’ll show you what makes mystery a great choice for your first debut as a fiction author — especially if you enjoy reading and watching them.

You probably have your favorites, too. And the more you learn about how to write mystery, the better sense you’ll have of which subgenre you want to focus on.

Let’s cover the basics before we get down to business.

  • Writing a Murder Mystery

Murder Mystery Story Lines

Murder mystery outline, murder mystery plots, murder mystery characters, murder mystery plot, murder mystery clues, essential tips for writing a murder mystery novel.

Writing a murder mystery can be just as fun as reading one. Sometimes, it’s even more fun.

Sure, it’s more work. It’s on you to make sure the reader doesn’t regret buying your novel instead of someone else’s.

And there’s plenty of work involved in not only writing your mystery but also editing and revising it — not to mention everything you’ll do to get it ready for publication .

But when you’re done, and your first reader tells you, “You kept me guessing until the very end! I LOVED this story! This is the first of a series, right? … Right?? ” you’ll know it was worth it.

And the more you learn how to get that kind of response from a reader, the more fun you’ll have cranking out one murder mystery after another.

How to Write a Murder Mystery

What makes mysteries such an ideal genre for new fiction writers is its predictable (but highly customizable) overall storyline sequence:

  • Discovery of a murder victim.
  • An investigation by a sleuth — professional or amateur.
  • Red herring (the reader is invited to suspect someone other than the murderer).
  • Sleuth walks into a compromising situation and discovers the truth.
  • Sleuth makes a narrow escape, and the murderer is caught.

The particulars of your murder mystery storyline will depend on your book’s subgenre. And there are quite a few. Here’s just a sampling from a long list of subgenres at WritersDigest.com .

Once you know your story’s structure and key moments, you can draft a rough outline .

From there, you can either flesh it out with more detail — for your characters, clues, red herrings, etc. — or use it to launch right into writing your first chapter.

The following questions can help you create a motivating story outline:

After answering these questions, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what happens in your story. An outline helps keep everything sorted by providing a timeline for all the key moments and clues in your story.

It’s up to you whether you want your chapters to have titles related to their content.

Some authors enjoy crafting chapter titles that tease the reader. Others simply number their chapters and rely on tantalizing hooks at each chapter’s end.

If you have to choose one or the other, though, definitely hook your reader at each chapter’s end. You want them to feel conflicted about putting your book down — even when they have to. Give them a reason to come back.

Make it easier to include these hooks by writing an outline like the following for each chapter:

  • Key moment #1 (at the beginning of the chapter)
  • Key moment #2 (somewhere in the middle) — optional
  • Key moment #3 (at the end of the chapter)

In other words, lead your reader through the chapter with moments that make it worth their while to keep reading. Make them care about what’s happening with the mystery and with your main character’s life and relationships.

Spell it out in moments. And put those in your outline.

The basic mystery plot follows the overall storyline mentioned above but each story fills in the blanks differently — based in part on your subgenre and in larger part on your specific story and its characters.

As a murder mystery author, you want to keep your readers guessing about the murderer’s identity without straying from the basic murder mystery story structure.

Keep their interest with something familiar (the story structure they’ve come to expect) along with something new and captivating. Entice them with the promise of surprising revelations. Give them a reason to care about your story’s characters.

Get them asking the following questions (or some variation thereof):

These will also depend on your chosen subgenre. For example, if you’re writing a cozy mystery, your main character will probably be a female amateur sleuth who runs a shop or eatery of some kind.

She’ll often have a best friend who helps her with her sleuthing. And more often than not, there’ll also be a love interest who either helps her solve mysteries or tries to curb her sleuthing ways.

If you’re writing a classic whodunnit or detective mystery, your main character will probably be a seasoned detective adept at noticing things other people miss or disregard. This detective will probably have a sidekick, who may or may not have a life of their own.

To learn more about the kinds of characters and character types typical to each subgenre, you’ll want to read many by different authors. Once you have the basics down, you can add your own flavor to each character and each relationship.

Remember the five-act story structure from Freytag’s Pyramid? Here’s a refresher:

This works well with fantasy novels. With a murder mystery, though, it’s easier to think of the story in three acts:

Mysteries tend to be shorter, anyway — with a lot happening in each chapter. Mystery readers generally want something fast-paced. And the three-act story structure helps with this.

In Plot Point #1 , your main character engages with the inciting incident — which is the catalyst launching them into the story’s main conflict.

At the Midpoint in Act 2 , something happens that leads your character inexorably toward plot point #2. The midpoint often involves a disaster of some kind. It’s not the climax, but it does get things rolling more quickly.

At Plot Point #2 , your main character is at a low point — thanks mostly to the disaster at the midpoint.

Maybe they thought they’d discovered the killer. But when they followed a lead, hoping for success and satisfaction, it led instead to humiliation and disappointment.

All is not lost, though. Give them time to reflect on how things went wrong. Then give them a reason to pivot and head in a new direction.

Act 3 starts with the inevitable confrontation between your main character and the murderer/antagonist. This is the Pre-Climax, and from here things move very quickly toward the Climax.

The Climax , of course, is where your main character/sleuth narrowly escapes becoming the murderer’s next victim. At the climax’s end, the murderer is caught — or stopped (with some degree of finality).

The Resolution is where you tie up the loose ends and show how the case and your main character’s actions have affected them and everyone else in the story.

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It’s important that your reader has access to all the clues your sleuth has.

If they suddenly reveal the name of the killer and only then mention the clues they found that were never mentioned before, your reader will feel cheated of the chance to deduce the murderer’s identity themselves.

Mystery readers like to be involved in the sleuthing. Keep them in the loop.

If you write a detailed outline before starting your first draft, you can plug in your murder mystery clues — what they are, who will find them (first) and where, and how your characters interpret them.

Having these details already in your outline can give you the confidence to get started writing your first chapter.

It doesn’t mean those details won’t change. A lot can happen when you’re writing, and often the ideas you get when you’re in a flow state are better than the ones you had when you were brainstorming.

That said, some writers (those who lean more heavily toward the pantser end of the author spectrum) do better with a rough outline so they can add clues and other details as they write their draft.

You know your process better than I do. Do what works for you.

But if you get stuck, sometimes brainstorming with an outline or voice-journaling for your main character will help you get unstuck.

And sometimes a shower or a long walk can do what sitting at your desk cannot. Just like clues, sometimes you find inspiration when you’re not looking for it.

If you sat down with a group of murder mystery authors and asked them for their best tips on writing for this genre, you’d likely end up with a list like this one:

Ready to write your murder mystery?

Now that you know how to write a murder mystery, what ideas are percolating in that creative mind of yours? What characters are just begging you to bring them to life on the page?

A year from now, you could be working on the next installment in your bestselling murder mystery series, thrilled by the response of readers all around the world.

Where will it all begin? And how can I help you earn a good living writing murder mysteries? Because it can be done.

Check out other Authority Pub articles (like this one on writing dialogue) to get closer to your goal of becoming a bestselling author.

May this be the first of many bestselling novels with your name on the cover.

Interested in writing a murder mystery fiction? Read this post and know how to write a murder mystery.

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  • EXPLORE Random Article

How to Write Mystery Novels

Last Updated: January 26, 2022

wikiHow is a “wiki,” similar to Wikipedia, which means that many of our articles are co-written by multiple authors. To create this article, 16 people, some anonymous, worked to edit and improve it over time. This article has been viewed 47,187 times.

Mystery stories have been spooking children and adults alike for many years! Haunted houses, crimes, ghosts...it's all mystery in the end! If you've always been into mystery, you might be considering writing a mystery novel yourself. This can take time and a lot of effort though! So think about your schedule before you buckle down to write!

Step 1 Decide what kind of mystery you'll be writing.

  • Name, Age, Height, Weight, Role in Story, Eye color, Hair color, Skin tone, Habits, Identifying feature, Past, Present, Future, and Theme Song.

Step 3 Begin to rough out a plot, if you want, base it around your characters.

  • If you get stuck on finding a plot, read some of your favorite mystery novels to get ideas. Also, keep your eyes and ears open for new ideas and topics to write about.
  • Use a system of ten scenes to map out your plot. Write each scene separately and connect them with pages in between. Scene one should be an opening scene. Two through four should be complications, and five should be point of no return complication. Six through ten should be solutions and wrap ups.

Step 4 Plant...

Sample Mysteries

writing a mystery novel

Community Q&A

Community Answer

  • Set a time each day aside for just writing, not surfing the web or checking email, just writing. Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0
  • Take your time and don't rush through it! Some of the best novels take a year to write at least ! Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0

Things You'll Need

  • Imagination
  • Pen and paper/Computer

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  • Writing Prompts

70 Mystery Writing Prompts That’ll Keep Your Readers Hooked

From whodunits to unsolved crimes, here are over 70 mystery writing prompts that will keep your readers hooked from beginning to end. 

The mystery genre is all about gathering clues and evidence to solve a crime or mystery of some sort. Common mysteries to solve may include murder, kidnappings, theft and any other unsolved crimes. The thing that makes a mystery story so appealing is that no one knows who the true culprit is until the very end of the story. And the big reveal at the end is always shocking to the reader. The secret to a good mystery lies in the plot twist . You have to be two steps ahead of your readers – Get inside the head of your readers and think, “Who would your readers think the main culprit is?” Then switch it around, and pick someone who is highly unlikely to be the real baddie.

You can pick a random prompt from our mystery writing prompts generator below to practice your plot twist skills on:

In a mystery novel, characters are a huge part of the mystery. Common characters may include:

  • Street smart detective – They ask all the right questions, but are the answers to be trusted?
  • Bent cop – Known for planting fake evidence at crime scenes.
  • Mysterious guy – No one knows anything about them, and therefore they could be an easy suspect in the case.
  • The scapegoat – The one everyone is blaming.
  • The obvious suspect – All clues point to this person.
  • The unobvious suspect – No real evidence against this person, but somehow they link to the crime in question.

When writing your mystery story think about the characters you would include carefully before diving in. We even recommend creating character profiles for each character, and maybe even a mind map to show their connection to the crime in question.

Take a look at this collection of the best mystery books for teens for some more ideas!

70 Mystery Writing Prompts

List of over 70 mystery writing prompts, from unsolved murder cases to items that vanished into thin air:

  • The richest man on Earth has a hidden vault filled with millions of dollars, expensive jewellery and gems. One night he goes to add to his collection of gems and notices a sentimental piece of jewellery missing.
  • One-by-one random things keep on going missing in your house. First your watch, then a teapot. Who is taking them and why?
  • One of your classmates mysteriously stops coming to school. It’s been nearly 2 weeks since you last saw them. What could have happened to them?
  • A police officer finds a dead body at a barber’s shop in town. The cause of death was drowning. No one knows how the body got there and who did it.
  • A person takes a game of snakes and ladders too literally. In random locations around the city, snakes and ladders have been placed. Where do those ladders go? Why are snakes placed in these random places? Can you solve this strange mystery?
  • You wake up in a warehouse with no memory of how you got there. The warehouse office is filled with newspaper clippings of missing people from the past 20 years. Who is the kidnapper and why are you in this warehouse?
  • Last night a series of supermarkets and warehouses across the city were robbed. The thief or thieves only steal toilet paper. Can you solve this case?
  • Meet Benji, the cat detective. Benji is a feisty feline who is on a mission to capture the great tuna can thief. 
  • At exactly 7.08 pm last night a scream was heard from 59 Pebble Lane. The neighbours knocked but no one was home. Later that night, the police arrived at approximately 2.13 am to find a cold dead body on the floor in a pool of spilt tea.
  • You are a reporter for the Imagine Forest Times newspaper, you are writing an article on the missing bird eggs in the local forest.
  • Imagine you are a security guard. It’s your first night shift at the local art Museum. The next morning a priceless painting goes missing, and you are blamed. You need to prove your innocence before you are sent to prison, but how?
  • Write a time travel mystery story where the main character keeps going back in time to find out who really murdered their parents.
  • You and your friends go to the fairground. You decide to ride the carousel. Round and round you go, and then the ride stops. When it stops you notice one of your friends is suddenly missing. Where did they go? (See our list of writing prompts about friendship for more ideas.)
  • The main character in your story is caught red-handed with the missing jewel in their hand. But did they really steal this jewel?
  • Write a diary from the perspective of a paranoid person who thinks their neighbour is stealing from them.
  • Write down an action scene where the main character trails the secondary character to an abandoned warehouse. What do you think will happen next?
  • Someone has been stealing mobile phones at your school. You think you know who it is, so you set up a try to catch the thief.
  • A bent police officer has been planting false evidence at crime scenes for years. Who are they protecting and why?
  • Write a script between two characters who are meeting in secret to discuss some new evidence in a murder trial.
  • Imagine you are a detective interviewing a suspect in the crime of jewellery theft. Write down some questions that you might ask the suspect. If you have time, you can also write the possible answers from the suspect’s point of view.
  • You discover a note in your bag. It says, “I know what YOU have done!” – Who can have left this note, and what are they talking about?
  • Write a story about a young police officer who is solving the murder case of his best friend from high school. The twist is that this police officer turns out to be the murderer.
  • For over 10 years, your twin sister was missing. But there she is – Suddenly walking in the middle of the street. Where has she been? What happened to her?
  • Imagine you are an investigator examining the scene of a murder crime. What types of clues would you look out for? Can you make a list of at least 10 possible clues you might find?
  • A police car is chasing a potential suspect in a murder trial. Halfway through the chase, the police car disappears. The suspect slows down their car, and wonders, “What happened? Why did they stop coming after me?”
  • You come home from school one day and notice that your mother’s things are gone. Your first thought is that she left you and your father. But the truth is that she was kidnapped by someone.
  • A mysterious person has stolen all your teddy bears and is holding them for ransom somewhere. Each day you get a cryptic riddle. If you can solve each riddle you will receive one teddy bear back each time. 
  • It’s the year 3,000. Your main character is a lawyer for a robot. They must prove this robot’s innocence in a human murder trial. (See this list of sci-fi writing prompts for more inspiration.)
  • Someone keeps stealing textbooks from your school. One day you go to school and see a huge statement art piece outside the school made from the stolen textbooks. Can you find out who did this?
  • Cinderella has turned into a detective. She needs to solve the case of the stolen glass slippers. After all those glass slippers are super rare.
  • The main character in your story must prove their innocence in a murder trial. How would they do this? What evidence would they need?
  • The main character in your story discovers that their brother is the real killer. They then try to destroy all evidence linked to their brother to protect them.
  • “Poppy! Poppy! Where are you, buddy?” Mindy searched for her pet Labrador everywhere. But she was nowhere to be seen. It turns out all the dogs in town have been missing since last night. What could have possibly happened to them?
  • Someone has been leaving embarrassing photographs of various people all over town. Can you track down this person? Why are they posting these photos? 
  • Write a mystery story titled, ‘Piece-by-Piece’ about a jigsaw puzzle thief who is stealing random puzzles pieces.
  • You notice some muddy footprints leading into a thick forest at your local park. You follow this trail of footprints to a secret hatch in the woods. The door of the hatch has been left open. When you go inside you discover something shocking.
  • Your dog digs up an old lunchbox in your backyard. Inside the lunchbox, you find a key, an address and some old newspaper clipping of missing people. You think you can solve this case of the missing people by just visiting that address. But things get a little more complicated…
  • This is a mystery story about a boy named Billy who’s home alone and is playing with a toy truck when he finds a strange box. His mother, a lady with a past, is suspicious of this mysterious box, so she calls the police. Billy’s mother is a detective, and they find that the box is really a trap, and Billy is kidnapped.
  • Write a crime mystery story about how a little girl’s dream of becoming a scientist led to her death. Why would anyone murder a young girl who wants to be a scientist? How did this happen?
  • A small-town sheriff gets caught up in the biggest robbery in history. When over a million dollars just vanish into thin air, people are quick to blame the shifty-eyed sheriff from out of town. But is he really the culprit in this crime?
  • When Sara was a young girl she was kidnapped by a strange man and woman who took care of her. But now Sara wants to know what happened to her real parents. Are they still alive? Are they still looking for her?
  • The clock is ticking. Somewhere in the city, a group of hostages are locked up. With every hour that goes by, one hostage will be killed. The main character, a street-smart detective must solve the clues to find the location of these hostages in time.
  • A police officer finds himself in a very unusual situation. It is just before 6 pm on a Friday night when police were called to a disturbance in the street. The call came from a man who was allegedly threatening a woman with a knife. The man was arrested at 6.05 pm and taken to the police station. However, it was later revealed that the woman left at home has been murdered by someone else, but who?
  • A murder mystery party takes a dark turn when one of the guests is murdered for real.
  • Write a mystery story titled, ‘Who Stole My Homework?’ The main character’s A* worthy English essay is stolen by someone, but who?
  • Use this sentence as inspiration: Inspector Robins pulls out his notebook and writes down two words: Green fingers.
  • “10 car windows broken in 10 days! What does it all mean? What does it mean?” Exclaimed Detective Riley.
  • During a stop and search, a police officer finds a dead body in the boot of a car. But is the car driver really to blame?
  • A lost bracelet ends up in your best friend’s locker at school, along with other precious items. Your best friend is wrongly accused of stealing these items.
  • One girl must find her stolen prom dress before the prom. In the days leading up to the prom, more and more of her accessories for prom night are being stolen. Who is this thief?
  • Write a mystery thriller titled, “Come and Get It”. It’s about an arrogant criminal who is stealing sentimental items from each police officer in the state, He leaves these items in random locations in the city, along with a note that says: Come and get it!
  • Every night the car alarms for every car on your street turn on at exactly 2.03 am. why is this happening, and who is responsible?
  • A mysterious hacker has hacked into the city’s power grid. They have the power to on and off electricity whenever they want. Can you catch them before they do any more damage?
  • A secret admirer is leaving expensive gifts for your main character. At first, these gifts seem great, but then they soon take a dark twist (see our Valentine’s Day Prompts for more inspiration).
  • Your main character is at their senior prom. Dancing the night away. Suddenly the lights go off. Pitch darkness for a minute. When the lights come on, your best friend is gone. And there’s a message in red paint on the wall: You’re next!
  • Your teacher gives back your English assignment, and you got an F! Looking closer, you realise that this is not your assignment at all! The same starts happening in your other classes. Someone has been swapping your assignments – But who?
  • For the past few days, you have been receiving anonymous emails from someone. The emails are telling you not to be friends with him. You don’t take any of these emails seriously until the police come knocking on your door.
  • A family picnic at the park becomes unbearable when you open up the basket to discover every family members untold secrets.
  • You are at a Chinese restaurant with your family. It’s time to open up the fortune cookies. When your mother opens up her fortune cookie, it says: “One of your children has been very naughty!”. Then your father opens his cookie up, it says: “Who’s been sneaking around behind mommy’s and daddy’s back?” All eyes at the table are on you. But what did you do?
  • Your main character is a bent cop. Trying to manipulate the course of justice, and helping real criminals get away with murder. One day, someone plants evidence that gets this bent cop arrested for a murder they did not commit.
  • Write down a scene between two characters. In this scene, the ‘real’ criminal is trying to convince a detective that someone else is guilty of the crime of stealing from a church.
  • There are three potential suspects in the murder case of Phillip Green. You are the lead detective on this case. What questions would you ask these suspects to find the real murderer? Make a list of at least 10 questions you may ask.
  • A health inspector arrives at a vegan restaurant to discover rotten vegetables, and raw, old meat. The owners know nothing about this and believe someone planted this as sabotage. Who can have sabotaged the vegan restaurant?
  • Write a short mystery story for kids titled, ‘Why is the sky blue?’ One child’s curiosity about the sky leads them to discover a secret playground in the park.
  • Your main character is a news reporter who is convinced that the killer of Rosie Moore is still out there. They know that the police have convicted the wrong person for this heinous crime. Can your main character find the real killer before the wrong person is sentenced to life in prison?
  • Someone has been replacing all shampoos around town with a hair removal solution. When half the town’s hair starts falling out, it is up to you, a top detective to solve this crime.
  • Write a mystery story set in the future where a secret cyber group called the ‘Merry Man’ are hacking the bank accounts of rich people and giving this money to the poor. Your main character is a police detective trying to hunt the members of this cyber group down.
  • A mysterious person is playing a nasty game of hide and seek with you. They have kidnapped your friends and family members and hid them in various locations within the city. You have exactly 1 hour to find each person before something bad happens to them.
  • Someone has left a note in your locker at school. The note reads: Help me, please! You ignore this note, but more notes start appearing in your notebooks, bag and even at home. Until eventually you get a package through the mail. You open this package and scream…
  • Write an animal mystery tale about a dog who wants to find the original owner of a doll he found in the park.
  • Can you solve this bonus mystery prompt: Someone has been stealing socks from the locals at night. Who could this be and why would they be doing this? (See video prompt below for more ideas.)

Did you find these mystery writing prompts useful when writing your own story? Let us know in the comments below!

mystery Writing Prompts

Marty the wizard is the master of Imagine Forest. When he's not reading a ton of books or writing some of his own tales, he loves to be surrounded by the magical creatures that live in Imagine Forest. While living in his tree house he has devoted his time to helping children around the world with their writing skills and creativity.

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10 Christian Mystery Books Everyone Should Read

  • G. Connor Salter SEO Editor
  • Updated May 09, 2024

10 Christian Mystery Books Everyone Should Read

Mystery novels have a uniquely Christian history. Some of the genre’s great innovators have been pastors or theologians. As historians like Douglas G. Greene have noted, the genre thrived in periods like the aftermath of World War I, where people craved religious answers.

Mysteries have changed a bit since then, but their connection to religion arguably hasn’t disappeared. Whether it’s the suspenseful mysteries of Mike Nappa (writing as himself or as Sharon Carter Rogers ) or the cozy mysteries of Laura Bradford , the genre continues to explore our yearning for justice. The following mystery books cover a range of genres and periods, each written by writers who identified as Christians—and usually found some creative ways to fit their faith into their stories.

Further Reading: 100 Books Every Christian Should Read

Photo Credit:©Getty Images/Liudmila Chernetska

Cold Drip by Heather Day Gilbert

1. Cold Drip by Heather Day Gilbert

Heather Day Gilbert’s Barks & Beans Cozy Mystery series follows Macy and Bo Hatfield, siblings who run a coffee shop in a small Virginia town . . . and find they have a knack for solving mysteries.

Cold Drip opens on a dramatic note: Macy has taken her boyfriend on a cavern tour that ended with a well-liked local woman dying by falling. Is it an accent…. or did the high society lady irritate people in the wrong circles? Macy will need help from her barista friend Milo to get inside the woman’s social circle and find out the truth. The question is whether they can do that before whoever killed the victim finds a convenient way to silence them as well.

Further Reading: 10 Inspiring Christian Mystery Authors You Can Read Today

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

2. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers accomplished many things, from writing a controversial play series about the life of Christ to translating the Divine Comedy. However, many know her best for her detective stories, most featuring the adventures of amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey. Gaudy Night is considered one of her greatest detective novels, and a fascinating example of how to redevelop a series when it reaches a crossroads.

The story begins with mystery author Harriet Vane visiting Oxford for a dinner at her alma mater, Shrewsbury College. She is nervous about coming back after recently undergoing a murder trial and pondering Wimsey’s recent marriage proposal. Things go well at the dinner until a poison pen letter appears, mentioning her trial and calling her a “dirty murderess.” The college’s dean asks for Harriet’s help investigating other sinister messages before word gets out and damages Shrewsbury’s reputation. Harriet works quickly to find the solution while exploring her feelings about Shrewsbury, the academic life, and just what she feels about Wimsey.

Further Reading: 10 Things You Need to Know about Dorothy L. Sayers

The Missing Link by Katherine Farrer

3. The Missing Link by Katherine Farrer

Katherine Farrer led an unusual literary life, influencing several key figures. Her husband, Austin Farrer, was a foundational Anglican theologian who wrote about spirituality and philosophy in classics like The Glass of Vision . Their neighbor, J.R.R. Tolkien, went on to write The Lord of the Rings . Farrer informed both of their work in under-discussed ways—such as advising Tolkien on whether to make Middle-earth a round or a flat world . However, she was also a writer in her own right, who published three mystery novels following Scotland Yard Inspector Richard Ringwood.

Farrer’s first novel, Missing Link , has the humor and Oxford setting of something like Gaudy Night but a very different crime. Ringwood hopes to spend his time revisiting Oxford with his fiancée, Claire Liddicote, and maybe see some sites from his student days. When a four-month-old girl is kidnapped from a pram, the Oxford police ask him for help. The girl’s father turns out to be one of Ringwood’s classmates, and solving the crime will involve tracking down a disappearing nanny.

Further Reading: 10 Things You Need to Know about J.R.R. Tolkien

A Cold and Silent Dying by Eleanor Taylor Bland

4.  A Cold and Silent Dying by Eleanor Taylor Bland

Not enough readers know about Eleanor Taylor Bland today. One of the first African-American women to write a mystery series, Bland’s stories about Chicagoland detective Marti McAllister were permeated by her religious values.

A Cold and Silent Dying makes the stakes particularly personal. At the start, Marti is struggling to adjust to a new supervisor who seems threatened by her success. So when a homeless woman is found dead and the supervisor doesn’t think the case is worth investigating, Marti has to find a way to investigate it under the radar. Another threat arrives in town when an old enemy appears in town, targeting Marti to get at her friend, Sharon.

5. War in Heaven by Charles Williams

A friend of Sayers (and C.S. Lewis), Charles Williams had an interesting approach to novels. Most of his stories involve paranormal objects and how they affect people around them. War in Heaven was his first published novel. It’s also an exciting example of telling a murder mystery that becomes something far stranger. What begins as a problem to find the killer swiftly becomes more about why it was done, and whether the thing the killer sought was really worth killing for.

The story begins with a dark scene: a dead body found in a publishing office. A vicar checking in about his book-in-progress watches the police work and idly checks out another manuscript. The manuscript is a history work on the holy grail, claiming the grail has been located… and is in his parish. When he returns to his church, he soon finds a grail . . . but is it truly the cup Christ used at the Last Supper ? What does this relic being uncovered now have to do with the murdered man?

Further Reading: Why Was Charles Williams the Odd Inkling?

Death in Holy Orders by P.D James

6. Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James

P.D. James discussed her faith in several interviews and writings , with it becoming more overt in some books than others. Death in Holy Orders is one of the most overt examples, with its setting in a religious school.

James’ series detective, Adam Dalgliesh, hasn’t been to St. Anselm’s college for years, although he remembers the area well from his summer beach holidays. When he comes back as an adult working with Scotland Yard, he must determine what happened to a dead student found buried in a shallow sand grave. His interactions with the students preparing for ministry and their leaders challenge him to consider his own feelings about faith—after all, his father was a parson. As the characters discuss what religion looks like—how contemporary is too contemporary? When do we lose our grasp on tradition?—the story becomes not just a murder mystery, but a reflection on how what the church does when times change .

Further Reading: 10 Exciting Christian Suspense Authors You Should Read

Still Dead by Ronald Knox

7. Still Dead by Ronald Knox

A priest, Bible translator, and apologist, Ronald Knox also wrote The Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction and various mysteries featuring Miles Bredon, an investigator for the Indescribable Insurance Company.

Still Dead opens after a death has already occurred: a child died in a car accident, and the driver was acquitted. Bredon receives a report that the driver has been found dead on a roadside in Dorn, Scotland, but there’s a problem. The body disappeared for two days and then appeared again at the same spot… and the coroner is sure the body has been dead for only 24 hours. Bredon needs to not only figure out where this body came from, but whether it’s the same body that people saw the first time.

Further Reading: 10 Things to Know about Ronald Knox

Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees Daniel Taylor

8. Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees by Daniel Taylor

Biblical themes run throughout Daniel Taylor’s Jon Mote series , with one book even inspired by a King James Bible quote . However, Taylor always finds ways to fit the themes cleverly and organically into his stories. For example, Do We Not Bleed? follows Mote as he considers his spiritual struggles while trying to unravel whether someone he knows really committed the crimes they are accused of. That mixture of faith and cleverness is especially fun in the series’ third book, Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees, which imagines murder among Bible translators.

For all appearances, Mote is doing well. He is working to rebuild his marriage and career and is now working in publishing. When his company takes on a Bible project, Mote has to work with a team of scholars to update and sell a cheap translation. The group has been hired based on reputations and getting the most diverse team possible—some admit they don’t believe in God at all. Arguments erupt from the beginning, and Mote worries the project will fall apart. When one of the scholars is found dead, he worries that something even more sinister is going on. Is someone willing to kill over their convictions? Did the scholar have secrets that someone wanted to silence?

Further Reading: 10 Important Christian Fiction Authors You Should Know

The Cask Freeman Wills Crofts

9.  The Cask by Freeman Wills Croft

Like Sayers, Crofts was an important member of the Detection Club. He was also a church organist, a devoted member of minister Frank Buchmann’s Oxford Group, and the author of The Four Gospels in One Story . His first book, The Cask , established him as the master of what we now call police procedural stories.

The story opens with a typical day at the Insular and Continental Steam Navigation Company. Their office at St. Katherin’s Docks in London is checking on the Bullfinch, a ship that has arrived from France with a damaged wine shipment. Inspecting the broken casks reveals one is missing wine… but has a body in it. Immediately, they contact the police, but by the time Inspector Burnley arrives, a new problem has happened. The cask is gone. Burnley compiles the facts to backtrack the cask’s movements from France and which people who had access to it have airtight alibis.

Further Reading: Did Freeman Wills Crofts Change Christian Mystery Novels?

The Missing Heiress by Robert Goldsborough

10. The Missing Heiress by Robert Goldsborough

Robert Goldsborough first began attracting readers in the 1980s with his continuation of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series. As in Stout’s original books, Wolfe is a mysterious figure who never leaves his New York brownstone, but the information his snarky assistant Archie Goodwin provides tells him all he needs to solve the crime. While Goldsborough’s solo series, the Snap Malek series , is worth exploring, there’s something about how well Goldsborough captures Stout’s writing tone that makes his stories about Wolfe and Goodwin always worth the trip.

In The Missing Heiress, Archie finds he’s in a tough spot: solving a crime without Wolfe’s help. His friend Lily Rowan wants help locating her friend Maureen Carr. Since socialites have many friends and the money to travel far, and Maureen went missing two weeks ago, Archie has his work cut out for him. When the attempt to locate Maureen’s half-brother takes a strange direction, he sees if Wolfe will get involved. Wolfe normally has little time if there’s no money in the case, but an accident involving a charging bull years ago means he sees Lily as something like a friend.

Further Reading: 10 Exciting Christian Mystery Novels

The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton

Honorary Mention: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

Many people know G.K. Chesterton today for his apologetics like Orthodoxy . However, he was also a defender of detective stories , the first president of the Detection Club, and author of many classic detective stories where Catholic priest Father Brown solves crimes. The Man Who Was Thursday is the closest he got to producing a mystery novel, and while it’s closer to a thriller, it follows one of the key mystery tropes: offer some fair play. Give the audience enough clues to see the answer coming. At least when they read the book again.

The story begins with Gabriel Syme attending a garden party where guests talk about anarchist bomb threats affecting London. Anarchist philosopher Lucian Gregory meets with him after the party and offers an adventure: a chance to meet some subversives planning to overthrow order. Syme enters a council where each member is codenamed after a day of the week. As he works to recruit the other members, each step of his journey brings him closer to a mystery: who is Sunday, the head of the anarchist ring?

Further Reading: 10 Things You Need to Know about G.K. Chesterton

Connor Salter

writing a mystery novel

10 of the Best Spy Novels to Keep You Turning the Pages

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Katie Moench

Katie Moench is a librarian, runner, and lover of baked goods. A school librarian in the Upper Midwest, Katie lives with her husband and dog and spends her free time drinking coffee, trying new recipes, and adding to her TBR.

View All posts by Katie Moench

Though tales of secrecy, spying, and deception are not just a modern genre, they became especially popular in the United States during the Cold War, allowing everyday citizens to be swept into the tense relationships between nations. During this time, several major authors like John le Carré and Tom Clancy emerged as major names in the spy novel genre who would go on to have long-running careers writing books about the dangers of carrying out spycraft. Spy novels were also penned by authors like Gramham Greene and Stella Rimington, who brought their knowledge of their previous careers with British intelligence services to their work.

In the best spy novels below, you’ll find classics of the spycraft genre as well as new releases from authors whose knowledge of the spy game may surprise you. No matter what you choose, you’ll be drawn into the web of secrets and deceptions contained in these spy novel stories.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold book cover

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré 

Le Carré’s espionage novels have come to be known as hallmarks of the genre, setting the pace for spy stories set during the Cold War. Drawing on his experiences in MI5 and MI6, le Carré launched his career with this novel that begins in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. Berlin Station chief Alec Leamas has just watched an East German soldier shoot the last of his agents, and Leamas is facing either retirement or a desk job. To avoid such a fate, he accepts an undercover assignment as a bitter ex-agent in order to serve as bait to trap Mundt, the deputy director of the East German Intelligence Service. As the game progresses, Leamas finds himself being played, even as he attempts to ensnare his prey.

cover of Red Widow

Red Widow by Alma Katsu

Did you know that Alma Katsu, known for her horror novels including The Fervor and The Deep , had a multi-decade career with the NSA and CIA? Because I certainly did not, before I devoured both Red Widow and its sequel last summer. Set at CIA headquarters, Red Widow introduces Lyndsey Duncan, a semi-disgraced agent who has been assigned to track down a mole in the Russian Division. Also at headquarters is Theresa Warner, the widow of a former director who was killed under mysterious circumstances. The story becomes more complicated and more fast-paced as Lyndsey and Theresa are drawn together in a web of lies and double-crossers. 

cover of American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

Based on true events involving Thomas Sankara, known as “Africa’s Che Guevara”, this novel is set during the heart of the Cold War when Marie Mitchell is an anomaly as a Black, female intelligence in the FBI. Mitchell has been given the chance to advance her career by joining a clandestine and shadowy division trying to undermine Sankara and his Communist ideology. Over the course of the novel, Mitchell seduces Sankara, makes herself part of his world, and ultimately brings about his downfall in this fast-paced ride of a story that combines high-stakes espionage with complicated secrets from its characters’ pasts. 

Cover of A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin in Six Books to Help You Beware the Ides of March | BookRiot.com

A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin

A multigenerational novel that interrogates the meanings of loyalty and patriotism, Ha Jin’s work opens with Lilian Shang, a Maryland history professor, discovering the diary of her father, Gary, after his death. Gary was the most high-profile Chinese spy ever to be caught in the United States, and Lilian knew that he had spent his life torn between the country of his birth and the one where he came to live. What Lilian did not know of was a potential hidden family in China that Gary had left behind. This discovery leads her to travel to China in order to unearth her father’s past and develop a full portrait of Gary and his espionage activities.

Cover of Rules of Engagement by Stacey Abrams

Rules of Engagement by Stacey Abrams

If you like your suspense with a side of romance, pick up this thriller from Abrams and Montgomery. Dr. Raleigh Foster is an undercover intelligence officer tasked with infiltrating the terrorist group Scimitar, which has stolen lethal, environmental technology. Assigned to partner with her is the distractingly handsome Adam Grayson, whose best friend was killed by Scimitar, and who agrees to pose with Dr. Foster as a couple, despite the fact that he believes she might be responsible for his friend’s death. As Dr. Foster and Grayson get deeper into Scimitar’s dark world, both the risks of getting caught and their attraction to one another begin to rise to dangerous levels.

cover of Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett 

In Britain, a Nazi agent known as “The Needle” is one of the most ruthless intelligence agents working for Germany. While there, he uncovers the Allied plans for D-Day, but also exposes his cover in the process. With MI5 on his tail, the Needle cuts a violent path toward the coast, where a U-boat is waiting for him. But, he didn’t count on a storm stranding him on a remote island, or on the courage of the woman who lives there to keep him from carrying out his escape plan.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene book cover

The Human Factor by Graham Greene 

Greene’s service in MI6 during World War II helped inspire this work about Maurice Castle, an operative in the British secret service during the Cold War. Castle is deeply devoted to his wife, who escaped apartheid South Africa with the help of a communist, and because of this, he begins to pass secrets to the Soviets in hopes of helping his in-laws who still live there. As he nears retirement, old leaks in MI6’s Africa division come to light and those around Castle come under increasing suspicion. Castle will have to wrestle with what level of blame he is willing to let others take for his actions — and what level of sacrifice he is willing to bear — in this novel that explores how spies were often pawns in much larger games.

Damascus station book cover

Damascus Station by David McCloskey

Published in 2022, Damascus Station quickly became a modern standout of espionage thrillers. CIA case officer Sam Joseph is sent to Paris to recruit Syrian Palace official Mariam Haddad in order to infiltrate Damascus and find a missing spy. But Joseph and Haddad fall into a relationship, adding an additional level of danger to their mission. Once in Syria, the pair encounters a trail of deadly assassinations and finds themselves under the watch of notorious spy catcher Ali Hassan and his brother Rustum, head of the feared Republican Guard, creating a dangerous cat-and-mouse game from which there is seemingly no escape.

masquerade by gayle lynds book cover

Masquerade (Liz Sansborough #1) by Gayle Lynds

With Masquerade , Gayle Lynds was one of the first female authors to become a major player in the spy novel game. The first in the Liz Sansborough series, the novel opens with CIA Agent Sansborough having no memory of who she is or how she came to work for the CIA. Even more troublingly, one of the world’s best assassins is after her, and the only ally she seems to have is a stranger who claims they are lovers. As Sansborough evades the assassin, she begins to remember parts of her past and digs through the lies she’s been told.

At risk by stella rimington book cover

At Risk (Liz Carlyle #1) by Stella Rimington

British counter-terrorism agent Liz Carlyle is up against a challenging task: finding and stopping a terrorist plotting an attack on British soil before it’s too late. Further complicating matters is that the terrorist is an“invisible,” aka traveling on a British passport, and therefore that much harder to track down. Before she began writing the spy novel series, Stella Rimington served as the Director General of MI5.

If you’re looking for even more spy novels, we have plenty of suggestions, from stories based on true events to fantasies involving spies and spy romances . You can also head to our spy novels archive for even more suggestions!

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writing a mystery novel

How authors Janie Chang and Kate Quinn teamed up to write bestselling historical novel The Phoenix Crown

writing a mystery novel

Janie Chang and Kate Quinn. Handout

If there is one thing that makes the creative partnership between Janie Chang and Kate Quinn work, it is this: They are both, emphatically, not morning people.

That shared dislike served them well on their recent tour promoting The Phoenix Crown , the historical novel they co-wrote that has become a Canadian bestseller since its publication earlier this year. “Every morning, it was a different airport, and it would be like, no conversation, get in the cab, no one says anything,” says Chang. “We get to the airport, and then one of us is like, ‘It’s my turn to watch the luggage, you get the coffee.’ ”

The two women, both successful historical novelists in their own right, knew each other for several years before they decided to write together. They met on a book tour in British Columbia and built a friendship from that shared experience. (It doesn’t hurt that they share a publisher, too.)

Books we're reading and loving this week: Globe staffers and readers share their book picks

The Globe and Mail spoke to them after their weeks spent on the road promoting the book – a tale of the search for a priceless Chinese jewel, lost in the devastation of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, and two women whose lives the cataclysm irreparably altered.

writing a mystery novel

Chang was in Vancouver, freshly returned from promoting her latest solo project, The Porcelain Moon, a bouquet of welcome-home flowers from her husband still blooming in the background. Quinn, meanwhile, was in an Evansville, Ind., hotel room, waiting to do an event promoting her latest release, The Briar Club.

Here, they talked about the importance of collaborating in person, how they provide feedback and the stories lost on the editing-room floor.

How important is it for you to spend time together in the same room, breathing the same air, for your creative partnership?

Janie Chang : When we were at the plotting stage, first trying to flesh out the idea for the book, that was important. It was good to have the spontaneity of talking ideas around.

Kate Quinn : When you’re plotting something, it’s the most open-ended thing in the world. We got together a couple of times with nothing else on the agenda but that we’re going to sit in the same room, we’re going to hash this out, and at some point, we’re going to have the book locked. You have no idea what road that’s going to take.

Chang: All we knew was that it would take endless cups of coffee.

Quinn : When it came time to write, I think we met in person four or five times, but at least two of those meetings were just the plotting. Once we had that locked into place, we were able to work more independently, and then things like Zoom, phone calls and e-mails were essential. During editing, we did meet up at the most critical stage, because at that point, we were working off the same document and we didn’t want to be e-mailing it back and forth.

Do edits feel less personal when you’re sharing that authorial burden with someone else?

Chang : One of our biggest priorities, apart from writing a good book, was that we should still be friends. We also knew that the editing and revision process, the back-and-forth commentary, has been where other authors have fallen apart. That’s why we put so much work into plotting at the front end, because we wanted to make sure that it was a story we both wanted to write. That reduced the amount of conflict because we’d already agreed on something. Kate would never redline anything I’d written. She’d just put a comment in the corner, like, “Do you think we could pick up the pace a little here? I think it’s dragging.” Or, I might say, if our characters are in the same scene together, I’d say, “I think my character, given her background, would respond much more strongly. Can you dial up the vitriol?”

Quinn : It does help to commiserate a little when you have to kill your darlings. It was helpful to have that person who was also sighing when we got the feedback that we had to cut down the first 75 pages to more like 15. Like, “Can I just say I’m really sorry we’re going to lose that whole bit with Donaldina Cameron? Because dammit, I really liked her as a character.” When you get two historical-fiction authors writing together, the foremost thing is that we’re history nerds, and we mourn the things that we found in our research that we could not include in our book simply because there wasn’t room.

You’ve both had success individually. Does this shared bestseller mean anything different to you?

Quinn : Publishing can be a cautious business. If you try to do something that’s outside of your lane, if you have a brand that’s working, saying, “Hey, I want to take a couple of years out and do something with a co-author in a period I’ve never done before.” You’re asking people to take a chance. Both your publisher, and also your readers for following you on a different path.

If you had to share one sage word of advice or caution to two friends contemplating something like this, what would you say?

Chang : Compatibility really matters. The fact that we’re both not morning people means there are no unreal expectations about how one person is going to be. We’re also both workaholics.

Quinn : It can be both problematic when people don’t put enough thought into how they want to work together. How comfortable are you with someone redlining your work, or working on your words? Do you want to create a blended voice, or do what we did, and write separate characters so we had our book but there were her chapters and my chapters. We’ve all worked on group projects and felt like there’s that one person who’s coasting and will get the grade without doing any work. And the bottom line is: We were not only already good friends. We were also already both such genuine fans of each other’s work, and there was a tremendous amount of respect going in about how we wanted to do this together.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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  1. How to Write a Mystery Novel

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    How to Write a Gripping Mystery Novel: 9 Mystery Writing Tips. In many ways, the craft of writing a good mystery is similar to creating a good puzzle—careful planning and presentation can help ensure that the end result is a gripping page-turner that keeps your audience guessing all the way through. In many ways, the craft of writing a good ...

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    Provide a clear understanding of the "whys" and "hows.". Show the impact of the resolution on the characters, particularly the protagonist. Allow them to experience growth, closure, or transformation as a result of solving the mystery. Address any personal stakes introduced earlier in the story.

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    Try to understand how they think, their approach towards the crime, and also the motive behind it. Talk to people you know and ask them what element they like in a mystery novel. Take notes and work on them. Moreover, try placing yourself in the shoes of both the reader, detective, and the criminal.

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    7. Write a story outline. Now that you have considered all the aspects of your story, create a clear outline of the plot. It's important to map out how exactly the mystery will unfold before you sit down to write the story, as this will ensure there will are no loose ends in the mystery.

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    I knew what her secrets were, and I knew that his scandal was going to drag her secrets out, but I had no idea what his scandal was going to be. I didn't know what his job was. I didn't know ...

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    Her novel Never Tell a Lie was turned into a movie for the Lifetime Movie Network. She wrote an On Crime book review column for The Boston Globe for more than ten years and won the Ellen Nehr Award for Excellence in Mystery Reviewing. The first edition of Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel was an Edgar Award finalist. Hallie is a popular ...

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    Trust that readers will come back because they enjoyed your writing, don't try to manipulate them into having to pay more just to be given the end of the story. 4. Mislead your audience. In the mystery game of cat and mouse, the author must deliberately mislead the reader, without ever actually lying.

  17. 6 Rules for Writing Great Mystery Novels

    Rule #2: Don't know your murderer before you start writing. Take an ensemble cast, give them all a motive for committing the murder (s). Make sure they all have opportunities to interact with the victim (s). When you get to your climax and you can see that everyone still would have had the chance to be the murderer, then you choose someone.

  18. The 10 Essential Elements of a Mystery Story

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    Steps. 1. Decide what kind of mystery you'll be writing. This means think about whether this is a ghost story or a crime novel, a creepy haunted house or a murder scene. This is going to be the biggest decision to make for the duration of your novel. 2. Start roughing out your cast of characters. These characters are the meat and potatoes of ...

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  25. How to Write a Crime Novel: 9 Tips for Writing Crime Fiction

    Writing a crime novel can be just as exciting a process, as your imagination sets the stage for mystery and momentum. Driven by drama, intrigue, thrilling action, and problem-solving, crime novels are often page-turners that readers have a hard time putting down. Writing a crime novel can be just as exciting a process, as your imagination sets ...

  26. 10 Christian Mystery Books Everyone Should Read

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