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How to Uncover the Mystery of a Buried Object
Have you ever stumbled upon an object buried in the ground and wondered what it was? It can be exciting to uncover the mystery of a buried object, but it can also be tricky. Here are some tips for uncovering the mystery of a buried object.
Research the Area
The first step in uncovering the mystery of a buried object is to research the area where you found it. Look for any clues that might help you identify what it is, such as historical records or local folklore. You can also look for similar objects in nearby areas or talk to people who have knowledge about the area. This can help you narrow down what type of object it might be and give you more information about its origin.
Clean and Examine the Object
Once you have done some research, it’s time to clean and examine the object. Be sure to use caution when handling any buried objects as they may be fragile or contain hazardous materials. Use a soft brush and water to remove any dirt or debris from the surface of the object. Then, use a magnifying glass or microscope to examine any markings or features that could help identify it.
Consult an Expert
If you still can’t identify what your buried object is after researching and examining it, then it may be time to consult an expert. There are many experts who specialize in identifying historical artifacts, so reach out to one if you need help. They may be able to provide more information about your object and help you uncover its mystery once and for all.
Uncovering the mystery of a buried object can be an exciting adventure. With some research, careful examination, and expert consultation, you can get closer to discovering what your mysterious find is all about. Good luck.
This text was generated using a large language model, and select text has been reviewed and moderated for purposes such as readability.
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How to Write a Mystery: 10 Tips From Robin Stevens
If you want to write a mystery, there are certain hallmarks found in every great mystery novel that will keep the reader guessing until the very end. False clues, convincing characters, red herrings, dead ends, unexpected twists and a stunning conclusion: this is what we’ve come to expect from bestselling mystery stories.
But it’s easy to get it wrong. Too many clues, too much misdirection and an unsatisfying denouement – we’ve all read novels that start out well but, somewhere along the way, the tension dissipates and we’re left feeling flat. A thrilling tale drifts away as the story focuses on the wrong elements or the wrong suspect.
Never fear! In today’s blog, award-winning children’s fiction author Robin Stevens provides fantastic writing advice on how to write a mystery. Children’s fiction has always featured diligent sleuths – from amateur detective Nancy Drew to Robin’s own brilliant Murder Most Unladylike series starring Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong – and middle-grade kids make for very discerning readers. They want fascinating characters with strong character development , red herrings and high stakes just as much as adult readers do! The advice on how to write a mystery is the same, whichever genre you’re writing in.
Great mystery novels aren’t all in the mystery genre
Before we hand over to Robin, let’s talk quickly about genre and sub-genre .
You don’t have to be writing crime or detective fiction to be writing a mystery. Your novel might feature a serial killer, a dead body, and a detective intent on solving the case; it might be a classic police procedural following an expert sleuth or an amateur detective.
But there are plenty of historical mysteries, mystery books in a fantasy setting , and small-town cozy mysteries that pack a mystery story in their plotting. And, of course, not every mystery requires a murder.
You might be writing a story with romantic suspense and the mystery lies in the characters’ past. If your novel asks the question ‘what happened when...’ then you’re likely writing a mystery in some form.
No matter your genre, you’ll want to keep the reader hooked and turning the pages. Luckily, we have just the thing with these brilliant tips from Robin Stevens.
Robin Stevens’ 10 Mystery Writing Tips
- The setting is important
- Plan your crime carefully
- Know your victim
- Know your murderer
- Remember the suspects
- Put in some clues
- Use trickery
- Keep up the pace
- Don’t hate your detective
- Create a just denouement
1. The setting is important
I’m writing this immediately after finishing writing The Body in the Blitz , in the period of time when the next book is starting to float around in my brain. But even while everything else is still fluid and vague, I have one thing very clear in my head already: the setting .
For me, nothing can happen until I know where it’s happening, and so the setting is really my first character. I need to be able to move through it in my mind like I’m walking through a film set – I have to understand the feeling of being there before I know what could happen in it.
This is possibly something that’s specific to me and my way of writing, but I do think it’s true that in a good mystery, you need to really be able to imagine the location of the crime. You have to know that the library is next to the ballroom, and that there’s a tunnel that goes between the conservatory and the ice house. A mystery story is a very precise machine, and so you need to have a clear idea of the board before you begin to play.
2. Plan your crime carefully
Similarly, you must have a clear understanding of your crime before you start writing your first draft .
Every author works differently – some plan out the entire book, and some hardly plan at all, and that’s all equally valid, but you can always tell a mystery author who doesn’t have a handle on what actually happened during the crime. The book starts falling apart as you’re reading it – it’s a miserable experience as a reader, and it feels just as awful to write.
Of course, you can always come up with exceptions to this rule. Famously, Raymond Chandler didn’t ever know who committed one of the murders in The Big Sleep , something which is often touted as proof that you can just sail through the crime novel writing process on vibes alone.
I would argue, though, that you can immediately feel when you read The Big Sleep that Raymond Chandler didn’t know who committed that crime, and didn’t care either. In that book, it (mostly!) works, because that’s the point of the story: it’s about criminality as a soup we all swim in, something all-encompassing and unfixable. But if you don’t intend to leave your readers with a lingering sense of the futility of existence, you absolutely must know who killed your victims, and why, and how, and when, and where.
Make a plan, I beg you, because your readers will notice if you don’t.
3. Know your victim
I talk a lot in my writing workshops about the good victim. Good in this case doesn’t mean nice (I’m quoting myself here) – it means someone who other people would have a lot of reasons to want to get rid of. Now, you can accomplish this in different ways.
You can create a hideous grinding bounder who everyone wants to shoot on sight.
You can create someone who’s trying their hardest and just ends up doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
You can create someone who was mean and thoughtless and sometimes cruel, the way we all are, and had their luck run out before they could make good again.
But you have to, in some way, invest your victim with a personality. You have to understand why this person, at this moment, ended up dead. They have to live in your head, so their death can be important enough in your book to make your detective decide to take the case. A murder mystery always starts with a murder, after all – so make yours count.
4. Know your murderer
This is sort of the mirror image of the last point – because the murderer is set up, in a crime novel, as the dark twin of the victim. They’re locked together in a strange sort of anti-romance plot – they’ve come together in a moment that’s the most important thing to happen in both their lives, and so you have to invest your murderer with the same amount of vivid humanity as your victim. You have to know who they are, and the answer can’t just be ‘the worst person your detective has ever met’. There has to be a spark of something else in there, otherwise, your readers will immediately work out whodunit – and the shock and betrayal are so much greater if your detective, and your readers, like the person who committed the crime. Because, after all, that’s just like life – the people you most admire are often the ones who also hurt you the most.
5. Remember the suspects
You know, at this point, what I’m going to say here. If your victim and criminal are people, then your other suspects have to be, too. They can’t be interchangeable – they all have to have their own fears and desires and secrets. The reader has to genuinely believe they could have done it, so you have to give them the agency and motive to be possible criminals.
One of the things that helps me is to think of each suspect as the hero of their own story. When I’m planning out my mysteries, I do quick sketch-like short stories about the lead-up to the crime for each person, making each of them briefly my protagonist. Once they’ve mattered to me, even for a short while, I can make them matter in the plot – even if they only get a few pages of dialogue in the final book, I know where they are, what they’re doing and how they’re feeling when they’re off-page. Never discount the other suspects!
6. Put in some clues
This sounds like a joke, but it’s something I always forget. In my first drafts, my detectives move wispily around their world, interacting with every suspect and having vague, alarming suspicions about them. No one is really ruled out, no one is obviously culpable, and the general experience is that of juggling several handfuls of butter in the rain.
And then my editor always suggests that perhaps, in the second draft, I might like to introduce some clues. It feels like being struck by lightning. Clues! Of course! Perhaps they uncover a diary entry, perhaps they smell something strange on the lip of a glass, perhaps they open a newspaper or a book or find a pebble in someone’s pocket that isn’t a pebble at all. Clues make a mystery real. Witness statements can mean anything, but a fingerprint or a footprint or a bloody stain can only have so many possibilities attached to them.
7. Use trickery
One of the greatest secrets of the genre is that a good detective novel is a magic trick. Agatha Christie did not, in fact, write 80 mysteries. She wrote about 20 plots, and then put different window dressings on them over and over again so no one would notice what she was up to.
The fact is that there aren’t that many ways that a person can kill another person without getting completely ridiculous. There are only about four different motives (money, revenge, passion and power), and two types of killer (someone who doesn’t know the victim and someone who does). What can you do with that?
If you’re clever, everything. Readers, and I am sorry to say this, are not very smart. Their eyes skim pages, they don’t read every word, they aren’t paying much attention and they will miss things. This doesn’t mean you should try to come up with an unbearably confusing plot, but it does mean that you need to think about writing a crime novel like you’re playing a magic trick on your readers. Wave the red handkerchief in your left hand while you’re changing the cards in your right. Be audacious! Have fun! Get really wicked! It’s all smoke and mirrors, and the audience is in it to get conned.
8. Keep up the pace
Funnily enough, one of the toughest things about writing crime fiction isn’t coming up with gruesome murders – it’s being absolutely ruthless with pace and content . If you write detective novels, you can’t afford to waffle, even for a moment. You cannot have a single scene in which nothing happens, and if you do, you need to delete it immediately.
Of course, as above, trickery is allowed (and even encouraged). You can definitely write a scene where the detective thinks nothing of import has been said or seen – but when the reader looks back on it later, it must be clear that there was a very important clue hiding in plain sight.
But you can’t have an interview with a suspect where they give the detective nothing. The detective cannot go to a scene and discover nothing, unless you are writing an extremely avant-garde plot (and even then, I’d advise against it). Things have to happen in a detective novel, because you are not writing the truth. You are writing a fantasy novel with no dragons or witchcraft, and in this world everything necessary to solve the case (and nothing more) must appear before the end of the book.
9. Don’t hate your detective
A good detective doesn’t have to be nice, but they do have to be someone you want to spend a lot of time with. Writing a book is, obviously, a lot of time – Murder Most Unladylike took me four years, even though these days, with practice, I can write a new book in about a year. Reading a book is also a significant outlay of time, especially in 2023 – and again, who’s going to want to spend 400 pages with someone they want to hurl through a wall?
But I’m also thinking bigger picture than just one book. Agatha Christie wrote 33 books about Hercule Poirot (and ended up hating him). Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes because he was so sick of him (and then had to bring him back anyway).
I’ve written 13 books featuring my detectives Daisy and Hazel so far, and I both love them and understand how Agatha Christie must have felt. A detective is not just another hero. They are the hero.
Detectives make sense of the universe, and so they’re trusted and beloved like almost no one else. When Poirot died, he got obituaries in real-world newspapers. So create a detective like you’re designing a friend for life.
10. Create a just denouement
This is, I think, the hardest one to get at, so I’ve left it until last. As I’ve said before, writing a mystery novel is writing fantasy without the elves, and a huge part of that is the fact that the role of justice in crime fiction bears very little resemblance to justice in real life. Not only must all fictional crimes be solved (apart from Raymond Chandler’s, of course), but they must be solved in a way that strikes the reader as morally as well as literally right .
What does it mean, to be punished for a crime? How can something as unfixable as murder be fixed? How do you make the world safe again, after so much horror?
I can’t answer these questions, even though they’ve been bothering me for years. Each book I write works on the problem all over again – because a good murder mystery novel isn’t really about murder at all. It’s about justice, about how we are bad, and how we can try to be better.
Robin Stevens joins members of The Novelry for a Live Q&A on how to write a mystery this week. Writers on our creative writing courses enjoy more than 40 live writing classes each month with award-winning authors and leading literary agents, as well as one-to-one writer coaching from bestselling authors and daily lessons from a Booker Prize-listed author . Join us! There’s never been a better time to start.
Robin Stevens is the award-winning and bestselling author of the Murder Most Unladylike series of mystery books, starting with the first mystery novel Murder Most Unladylike (Murder is Bad Manners in the USA ), Arsenic for Tea (Poison is Not Polite in the USA ), First Class Murder, Jolly Foul Play, Mistletoe and Murder , the Cream Buns and Crime series companion, A Spoonful of Murder , Death in the Spotlight, Top Marks for Murder , Death Sets Sail and a book of Murder Most Unladylike short stories, Once Upon a Crime . A companion series Ministry of Unladylike Activity and the sequel, The Body in the Blitz , will publish in the UK and Ireland on the 12th of October 2023. Robin was born in California and grew up in an Oxford college, across the road from the house where Alice in Wonderland lived, and she studied crime fiction at university.
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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 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.
- A Guide to Cozy Mysteries [blog post]
- And Then There Were None: The 10 Best Agatha Christie Books [blog post]
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.
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]
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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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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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How to Write a Mystery
On this page, you'll find a detailed guide to how to write a mystery, along with tips to make your mystery stand out! You can use the menu below to jump to the topics that interest you.
How to Write a Mystery - What's a Mystery?
Mysteries are an example of what is called "genre fiction." A genre is a category of commercial fiction which follows certain traditions. You can think of these traditions as "rules of the game". You don't always have to follow these rules exactly. You can decide to bend, or even break them. But it's important to know what the rules are, so that you understand what readers -- and agents, and editors -- will be expecting from your story.
Most mystery stories involve a sleuth trying to figure out who committed a crime, normally murder. This might be a professional sleuth (for example, a police detective) or an amateur who decides to investigate the murder (for example, because the victim was close to them, or because they themselves are a suspect, or just as a hobby!).
The answer to the question "Whodunit?" is normally revealed at the end of the story. In the meantime, the reader's curiosity grows as they consider clues the sleuth is uncovering.
Many mysteries are set up as a kind of game where the reader tries to figure out the solution before the sleuth does.
This gamelike aspect of mysteries can make them especially fun to read -- and to write!
There are many kinds of mystery stories, including:
- Cozy mysteries, which tend to avoid explicit sex and violence.
- Hardboiled, which often feature a cynical sleuth and show the dark side of human nature.
- Police procedurals, which give an inside look at the methods used by police to solve a crime.
- Paranormal mysteries.
- Historical mysteries.
- And others.
There's no right or wrong approach to how to write a mystery, but here's a process you can try.
1. Come up with an idea.
Here are some ways to get ideas for your mystery story:
- Start with real-life crime. Read the news, research crimes that actually happened, and then imagine a story around them.
- Start with real people. Think of someone you know and imagine what might cause them to commit murder. Maybe you've even fantasized about killing someone yourself. You can use this as the idea for a novel. The mystery writer Sue Grafton says that her first novel began with fantasies about murdering her ex-husband. She imagined how she might go about doing it and a classic mystery series was born.
- Start with a fictional character. Use [this profiling questionnaire to create a character], and then imagine a situation in which they would be driven to murder.
- You can also find mystery writing prompts here .
2. Plan a crime.
When you plan a mystery, you're really planning two stories...
- The story of the investigation, which is the story the reader sees.
- And the story of the crime, which is background to the main story.
You might find it easier to start by figuring out the story of the crime...
- Who did it, and why?
- How did the criminal try to cover their tracks?
- Did they make any mistakes?
- What evidence did they leave behind?
- Were there any witnesses?
- Who saw or heard something that might help your sleuth uncover the truth?
Enter your email below to get our free Crime Scene Worksheet.
3. Develop your sleuth.
Once you have a crime, you need a character to investigate it, your sleuth. The sleuth might be a professional (e.g., a police detective), or they might be an amateur.
If you have an amateur sleuth, you're going to have to give them a reason to investigate the murder. Maybe the victim was someone they knew, or maybe they stumbled on a dead body and then took an interest in the case. Or maybe they're someone who investigates murders as a hobby.
Whatever their reasons, you're going to want to create an interesting character that readers will care about.
You can use this profiling questionnaire to develop your sleuth. PROFILE QUESTIONNAIRE: YOUR SLEUTH
- What is your sleuth's name? - How old are they? - What do they look like? - Where do they live? - What’s their relationship status? Do they have children? - What is their profession? - What are their hobbies? - What are some of their personality traits? - How will they get involved with the investigation of the crime? - In what ways might the investigation affect them personally? - What strengths do they have that might help them solve the case? - What weaknesses do they have that might make it harder for them to solve the case?
Enter your email to get a similar questionnaire for your murder victim.
4. Decide on a setting.
Apart from a crime and a sleuth, your story needs a setting. Where will it take place? Will it be set in the present, or during a historical time period? In many mysteries, the setting adds a lot of color and interest to the story. Part of the pleasure of reading these stories is that the reader gets to travel in their imagination to places such as Venice (in Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti series) or 1920s India (in Sujata Massey's Perveen Mistry series). You might decide to set your mystery in a place that you already know well. That will require a lot less research. Even if the place where you live doesn't seem exotic to you, you probably know lots of insider details that would be interesting to outsiders. Or, you might choose a story setting that you would enjoy learning about. Writing the story can be a chance for YOU to take an imaginary vacation in an exotic location. Another way to add color to your mystery, and to get story ideas, is to draw on a hobby or area of expertise you might have. Examples:
- Jonathan Kellerman, a psychologist, writes a mystery series starring a child psychologist.
- Scott Turow, a lawyer, writes legal mysteries.
- Eileen Brady, a veterinarian, writes about a sleuth who's a veterinarian.
- Donna Leon, an opera lover, wrote about a murder in an opera house.
- Deb Baker writes a mystery series about doll collecting.
- Josi S. Kilpack writes mysteries about baking.
- Terri Thayer writes mysteries about quilting.
You can find a whole list of hobby-themed mystery series here .
5. Lay a trail of clues.
Mystery stories are generally constructed like puzzles.
The sleuth pieces together clues to figure out the solution. Meanwhile, the reader, watching over the sleuth's shoulder, is trying to do the same thing.
Go back to the crime you mapped out earlier in this process. What mistakes did the murderer make? What evidence did they leave behind?
Is there something about the victim, the timing, or the way the killing was carried out that points to the murderer?
Make a list of possible clues. Then, try to identify the crucial clue that will ultimately allow the sleuth (and a clever reader) to figure out whodunit.
6. Come up with your suspects.
Most mysteries include a number of suspects who look like they might have committed the crime. Part of the fun for the reader is trying to guess which one of them's the actual murderer.
Come up with a list of possible suspects for your story. A good starting point is to think about the murder victim -- who might have had a motive to kill them? Who had the opportunity?
You can add interest by making one of the suspects someone connected to your sleuth -- or someone your sleuth could fall in love with during the story.
7. Invent some red herrings.
A "red herring" is a false clue which points in the wrong direction. To make the mystery more difficult for your sleuth, and the reader, to solve, you'll want to mix some false clues in with the real ones.
Look at your list of suspects. What clues could you plant that point to each of them?
Add some red herrings to the list of clues you made in Step 6 above.
8. Plan the investigation.
Figure out how the sleuth will get drawn into the investigation. If they're a police detective, it might be assigned to them. If they're a private investigator, they might be hired for a case.
What information will they have at the outset? And what will they do next?
Make a list of preliminary steps the sleuth will take. These might involve:
- visiting the crime scene
- reading police files, autopsy reports, etc.
- trying to learn about the victim, especially probing into who might have had a motive to kill them. This may involve interviewing people close to the victim, visiting the victim's home, searching through the victim's possessions, etc.
- interviewing suspects and witnesses.
Go back to the list of clues and red herrings you made in Steps 6 and 7 above. Think about how the sleuth might discover or hear about each of them.
9: Figure out your ending.
When planning a mystery story plot, it can help to figure out the ending first. What will happen that causes the puzzle pieces to fall in place?
Will your sleuth discover a decisive clue that reveals who the murderer is? Will something happen that makes your sleuth rethink an earlier clue and suddenly understand whodunit? Will the murderer come after your sleuth in a final confrontation?
Once you know the ending, you can start mapping a story path to get there.
10: Map your plot.
Because of the complexity of a mystery story, it can help to make some kind of outline.
This can be as simple as a list of scenes in the order that they will happen. For example:
- Tom hires Maria to investigate James's death
- Maria visits the Lees' home (discovers photo of James with Paul)
- Maria interviews Paul (learns about James's gambling debts)
You can use the outline as a guide, but you're never locked into it. Once you start writing, be open to new ideas that don't fit your outline. You can change the outline at any point.
Reading lots of mysteries will give you ideas for how to organize your story.
There's no formula you have to follow, but many mystery stories follow this general structure:
- First, the sleuth gets drawn into a murder investigation.
- In the next part of the story, the sleuth interviews witnesses and suspects, uncovering clues.
- Partway through the story, something happens to raise the stakes and increase the excitement. For example, another body might be found. Or the sleuth might get threatening notes, warning her off the case.
- Then the story speeds up as puzzle pieces start to fall into place.
- The action might build to a climactic face-to-face confrontation between the sleuth and the murderer where the sleuth's life is in danger.
- At the end, the murderer is brought to justice (or not), and any loose threads are tied up.
11: Start writing!
Choose a scene from your outline, imagine it from your main character's (normally, your sleuth's) perspective, and then write what you imagine. Then continue imagining and writing from there.
- You don't have to write the story in order. You can start by writing the ending, and then go back and write earlier scenes.
- During your rough draft, try not to worry about how you write. You'll fix the style and language later, during the revision. The rough draft is for imagining the story and capturing your ideas on the page.
12: Fact-check and revise.
If your readers notice any factual mistakes, that will distract them from your story. So, at some point, you'll want to double-check that you've gotten everything right in terms of police procedures, forensic details, ballistics, etc.
This kind of fact-checking is often easier to do after you've written a draft and know exactly what information you need. Then you might even try to contact relevant experts, such as police officers, and ask them your questions.
Apart from checking facts, you'll want to check your story for plot holes and inconsistencies.
Then, read it through, ideally in one or two sittings, to check for flow or pacing: are there any places where the storytelling feels dull or slow? Are there any places where you want to slow it down to add suspense?
Eventually, you'll ideally want to find a test reader. It's important that this is someone who regularly reads mysteries and is a fan of the genre. Ask this test reader to call you when they're HALFWAY through the manuscript. During that conversation ask them what they think will be the ending of the book (but don't let them know if they're right). This will give you information about whether the solution of your mystery is too obvious. It might also give you ideas for false trails you can plant. Ask the test reader to call you again when they've finished the manuscript. Then you can find out what they thought of the ending -- if it made sense to them, or if they were left with questions.
Revise to fix any story problems, and then do a final edit to smooth out the language.
More Tips on How to Write a Mystery
Here are some additional tips on how to write a mystery.
- Start your story right in the action. For example, many mysteries begin with the discovery of a dead body. Or, if your sleuth is a private investigator, it might begin with the meeting where they are hired to solve the mystery.
- Develop the character of your sleuth so that they feel three-dimensional and real. The profiling questions above can help with this. If readers care about your sleuth, they will feel much more involved in your story.
- Create a three-dimensional world. A mystery may be a kind of puzzle, but it's more than a brain-teaser. Give your characters lives that extend beyond the investigation. Use descriptive details to make your setting feel real.
- Give your sleuth some skin in the game . Solving the mystery needs to matter to them so that it will matter to the reader. Maybe they have a personal relationship to the victim. If your sleuth's a professional, their career might depend on solving this particular case. Maybe your sleuth's husband is a suspect and they have to clear his name (but are increasingly concerned that he might be guilty!). Your sleuth might have a reason to believe they themselves could be the next victim. (Feel free to borrow any of these ideas for your story).
- Make it exciting. You can keep the reader turning pages by using suspense-writing techniques, such as foreshadowing (when you hint at what's coming) and cliffhangers (when you end a scene or chapter at a suspenseful moment, and the reader has to wait to find out what happens next).
Our 8-week course on how to write a mystery will take you step by step through the process of planning your story.
How to Write a Mystery - Further Resources
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Learn techniques for adding suspense to your mystery .
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Keep 'Em Guessing: 8 Tips on How to Write a Mystery
When you are learning how to write a mystery novel , you need to first understand that it is considered a subgenre of crime fiction or detective fiction. A primary character in a mystery novel is on a journey to solve a crime.
A mystery, often known as a whodunit or detective narrative, builds suspense by not exposing the antagonist's identity until the end of the novel. Readers are invited to help in the investigation by mystery authors who leave clues throughout the plot.
The Different Types of Mystery
This genre is usually a blood-less crime such as poisoning and it is a victim that nobody really likes. It is like a good riddance type of scenario. If the puzzle of the mystery is appealing and you don’t really care for emotions or excitement, then this would be a great choice.
A caper mystery is known to be comical. The plot is entertaining, whether it involves a clumsy investigator or a witness that has lost the plot (if you know what I mean). And even knowing there might be a dead body laying on the ground, it helps the reader to have a laugh, and in turn, relax.
It's just as it sounds: hardboiled. It's a hardcore mystery with a lot of violence and gory information. The detective is a professional who frequently battles their own issues in their head.
Softboiled mysteries are similar to Hardboiled mysteries, but with a lighter tone and less emphasis on the specifics.
A domestic mystery is one in which an animal plays a role in helping the owner solve the crime. Book clubs, bakeries, and other such establishments are examples.
These stories emphasize police investigations. It is usually a team effort with department politics and clashing personalities. Police procedural makes for good book series.
Since it is its own genre, it's relatively straightforward. A mystery with ghostly components and unidentified messages adds a layer of suspense to the mystery and allows for some interesting twists.
This genre is all about the mood. The main character is usually a professional mystery solver which has character flaws. The mood is grey, bleak, and unforgiving.
The tension is high in suspense, yet it moves at a slower speed. It keeps the readers wondering and turning the pages all the time. This isn’t just a whodunit, this genre is a mystery where the hero is being pursued and we have to wonder if the hero will survive.
This is suspense but with romance. Assuming that the hero wins at the end is a double payoff of seeing justice prevail and love that conquers all.
To qualify as romantic suspense, it needs to be exactly half suspense and half romance. The characters also have to end up together and they can’t be together at the beginning of the book.
This genre is where the readers root for the criminals. It is usually some elaborate heist and we are rooting them on to pull it off.
This is a very common sub-genre where a layperson tries to solve the murder of someone that they have a close personal connection with. It emphasizes the personal connection. This is where the crime is left unsolved and it is up to them to do it themselves.
The Structure on How to Write a Mystery Novel
Several mystery books deviate from the usual formula. But, in general, most books follow a similar pattern:
The audience is exposed to the crime that the plot revolves around.
The detective is attempting to solve the mystery. They interrogate each suspect, look for clues, and pursue new leads in the hopes of catching the criminal.
The detective discovers a new clue, an unexpected lead, or a flaw in a suspect's alibi, which surprises them—and the reader—and shifts the investigation's focus.
The detective solves the mystery by uncovering the final piece of the jigsaw.
The criminal has been apprehended, and all unanswered questions have been answered.
The 8 Mystery Writing Tips That We Have All Been Waiting For
Whether you're writing your first mystery novel or simply wanting to improve your mystery-writing abilities, there are a few things to bear in mind as you write.
These mystery writing tips that I have listed below will not only leave your readers in suspense but will also have them coming back for more!
It is important to have your reader hooked right from the start. You want them to bury themselves in the content and turn the pages furiously to find out what happens next.
The hook can be anything, but a decent way to start is by presenting the crime right away. Of course, this isn't how everyone does it, so do what you believe would work best for your novel.
Create an Eerie Atmosphere
Without the correct tone, even the most surprising story twist would fall flat. Set a mystery tone that quickly immerses your readers in your novel's world.
A dark environment, such as an abandoned building in the middle of nowhere or a deserted cabin in the woods, detailed language of the case's unsettling aspects, and intriguing dialogue. This will immerse your readers in the action and entice them to keep reading.
Slowly Reveal Information
Consider how your reader will react to the way you pace your story as you write. Control the amount of information you provide, as well as how and when you reveal it. Every mystery novel has a core plot, but it's generally constructed around smaller moments that keep the reader's attention throughout.
Create Characters Who Are Strong and Compelling
If you're writing a mystery novel, you'll need characters who have a purpose. Why are they a part of the investigation? What does this have to do with them, and why is it important to them?
Your characters should have a personal connection to the case or at least a sense of purpose in it. In the end, the case will only strengthen them, and during that time, they will be pushed to their limits.
Leave a Trail of Evidence
Make the reader feel as if they are a participant in the story. Throughout the story, leave clues that will allow them to play a part in uncovering the mystery.
It shouldn't be too obvious, but the reader should find them intriguing and fulfilling as they go through the various possibilities.
Add a Few Red Herrings to the Mix
Red herrings are "leads" that mislead your characters (and readers). Red herrings can be rather predictable in some aspects but may be a lot of fun to write, provided they're properly woven into the story and the evidence lines up.
It provides meaningful filler as well as character development. Plus, it will keep your readers on the edge of their seats.
Read Other Mysteries
If you pay attention, great mystery books are filled with writing advice. Read best-selling crime fiction by new authors as well as classic mystery books.
Return to the starting page once you've reached the conclusion of the book and the mystery has been solved. Reread the story, noting how and when the author provided clues and employed deception to both solve the mystery and heighten the tension.
Do Research Well
If you're going to poison the victim, make sure you use a real poison name and understand how it works. If there is any police work involved, be sure you are familiar with the proper procedures.
Make friends with the cops in your neighborhood or work at the library for a while. Readers will notice if any of the technical aspects are incorrect, and as a result, lose confidence in your writing skills.
You can start outlining your story once you have your characters, ideas, and a list of suspects, and clues. The plot usually revolves around the efforts of a (real or amateur) investigator to solve the crime.
You should discover a personal or professional cause to make it crucial for the detective to solve the crime. This is important if you want your reader to be invested in what happens in your work.
Disperse your clues as you go, organize your plot so that it begins with a bang and then rises in suspense and excitement until it reaches a climax just before the book's conclusion. This high point should occur when the crucial clue appears or when the detective realizes its significance.
Mystery thriller writing is so much fun and is perfect for letting your imagination run wild. When you start writing, remember to just write and edit later. That way when you read over it again, you may come up with more ideas of things to put in. If you follow the tips I have given, you will be on your way to writing a successful gripping mystery novel.
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Genre Tips: How to Write Mystery
Mystery can be divided into several categories , including but not limited to:
- Thriller (focusing on dangerous stakes for the characters caught up in needing to solve the mystery, such as The Fugitive )
The Fugitive (1993), Warner Bros.
- Procedural (focusing on the techniques used in solving the mystery, such as in CSI )
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015), CBS.
- Whodunit (focusing on the solving the puzzle, such as Sherlock Holmes )
Sherlock Holmes (2009), Warner Bros.
- Crime (focusing on professionals from both sides of the crime, which may be a murder or may be another type of lawbreaking, such as in The Departed )
The Departed (2006), Warner Bros.
There are many other subgenres, and many of these can overlap or be included in other subgenres that are primarily focused on evoking a certain milieu or atmosphere, such as:
- Cozy (focusing on a “cozy” setting, low-key stakes, little gore or violence, and usually a citizen “detective”, such as Miss Marple )
Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (2004-13), ITV.
- Noir (focusing on a “dark” and gritty urban setting, such as The Maltese Falcon )
The Maltese Falcon (1941), Warner Bros.
- Comedy (focusing on a comedy of errors, again usually with little graphic violence and a bumbling hero who solves the case by happenstance as much as anything, such as The Man Who Knew Too Little )
The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997), Warner Bros.
Like romance, mystery often crops up as a subplot within stories that would primarily be classed as other genres. Or the story may be set entirely within the milieu of a different genre, even though it still follows the mystery structure. For example, mysteries may often take place in a fantasy setting, as with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series or Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin.
Storm Front by Jim Butcher and Magic Lost, Magic Found by Lisa Shearin (affiliate links)
Also popular are historical mysteries, such as Miss Scarlet and the Duke.
Miss Scarlet and the Duke (2020-), Alibi.
And we also see romantic thrillers and romantic suspense .
5 Tips for How to Write Mystery
Readers choose mysteries when wanting a puzzle to tease their brains. The best mysteries are those that pull off that most impressive trick of all: outsmarting their readers while playing fair. Mystery readers are a smart crowd, not only intelligent in their own right, but extremely familiar with all the tropes and tricks a mystery writer might think to pull. So in the interest of outsmarting readers, let’s talk about how to write mystery.
Foreshadowing: Mystery Is All About Setup and Payoff
When you think about it, mystery is really nothing more than foreshadowing. Or rather, a good mystery is all about foreshadowing. A little suspense and a big reveal in the end does not make a mystery. Although readers want to be fooled, they also want a fair shot at solving the case. A true mystery is one that lays out all the clues for its readers, hiding little to nothing of what the detective character learns.
But how can you show readers all the clues and expect them not to figure out what’s going on? No doubt you’ve done your own fair share of figuring out whodunit the moment the culprit shows up on screen. Particularly in short-form fiction, such as serial TV shows, it can be difficult for writers to cram in the necessary foreshadowing without being too obvious. In some instances, writers must convey murder, means, and motive all in 45 minutes (while probably sharing time with a personal subplot for at least one of the regular characters).
The true skill of a mystery master is showcased nowhere more obviously than in foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is made up of two parts: setup and payoff —the planting of the clue and the eventual deciphering of the clue. Somewhere in between, however, is where the real magic happens, thanks to another crucial piece: misdirection .
However, audiences these days are so smart they often recognize misdirection the minute a story puts more than casual emphasis on a piece. Instead of being distracted from the truth, they immediately think, Ah, well, that obviously isn’t the culprit! (Or, if the culprit’s identity isn’t the mystery, That can’t really be how it happened or why it happened! )
Finding exactly the right balance between foreshadowing and misdirection is literally an artform. One of the best secrets is simply that of getting your audience emotionally involved in the misdirection. Make it real. Build it from the inside-out—whether it’s just a small detail or a fleshed-out subplot. The secret to any successful plot twist (and really that’s all mystery is) is making sure readers are so satisfied with the twist that even if they guessed it ahead of time, they’d still enjoy getting there just as much. More than that, when you have an audience’s emotions involved, they are that much less likely to think about every little detail you present.
For Example: In State of Play , the real culprit is always the chief suspect, but the way the story weaves in the emotions of the protagonist, investigative journalist Cal McAffrey, and gets the audience to identify with his motives for seeing the story a certain way, prevents the unfolding of the mystery from feeling on-the-nose or rote, whether or not audiences guess the truth before Cal does.
State of Play (2009), Universal Pictures.
Story Structure in Mystery: Using Plot Beats to Create Revelation and Suspense
Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)
The mystery genre follows classic structure , but uses plot beats to grip readers with the occasional revelation and to deepen the mystery. You can find many genre-specific resources that break down expected mystery beats much more specifically, but here is a quick rundown:
Hook : Mysteries sometimes open immediately with the dead body or whatever other crime is to be explored, but may also open with a character-centric scene in which the protagonist is introduced in a way that frames the larger stakes and theme with the character’s personal issues.
Inciting Event : If the crime hasn’t already taken place, this is where it happens. If it did take place earlier, this is usually where the detective character will become aware of the case in some way—either by being assigned to it in a professional capacity or by being drawn into it for personal reasons (e.g., she is targeted or the victim was a friend).
First Plot Point : Symbolically, this is the Door of No Return. In a mystery, this means the stakes become personal and/or irrevocable for the protagonist. In some stories, this could be where the protagonist decides to keep investigating even after being warned off. In other stories, the killer might strike again, sometimes even striking very close to home for the protagonist. Either way, a major clue will be introduced.
First Pinch Point : Pinch points emphasize the antagonistic force’s threat and what is at stake for the main characters. In mysteries in which the killer is aware of the protagonist, this beat might include an attempt from the killer to warn the protagonist off the case. In other stories, the threat might be more existential, either because something is discovered that causes the protagonist to question himself or his own motives or methods, or because some horrible new clue escalates the stakes.
Midpoint : The Midpoint, or Second Plot Point, is always a Moment of Truth . In a mystery, this revelation can be quite literal. The protagonist discovers the biggest clue yet, something that completely changes the case. The protagonist’s understanding of this Truth is not yet complete, however; the Truth is still obscured by things the protagonist does not understand, both within the plot and the theme.
Second Pinch Point : The stakes ramp up still more. If the story includes personal stakes for the protagonist (e.g., her own safety, the safety of her loved ones, professional integrity, etc.), then those will be emphasized here. In stories with a more distant perspective, in which the protagonist is operating mostly on a professional level, the stakes will be primarily about the mystery: something happens that obstructs the investigation or seems to put the culprit out of reach.
Third Plot Point : Traditionally, this turning point into the Third Act is the moment when “All Is Lost.” Even relatively low-key mysteries may see the Third Plot Point turning them into comparatively dark territory (e.g., the protagonist or someone important is kidnapped). Often, another crime will be committed here, one just as dramatic or more so than the original crime. The detective will have personal doubts about being able to successfully solve the mystery. However, the events here will provide the clues necessary for the protagonist to find the culprit in subsequent scenes.
Climax : The protagonist will identify and probably come face to face with the culprit. In some stories, this can be quite exciting and violent. In others, it can unwind in the classic scene in which the detective gathers all the suspects into the same room and explains his investigation. In other stories, the actual apprehension of the culprit can be relatively low-key.
Resolution : If the story opened with a frame of the protagonist’s personal life, the Resolution will bring that full circle. If not, there may be a scene in which the victims of the crime are afforded a cathartic moment.
For Example: To see structural breakdowns of various mysteries, check out the Mystery Books and Mystery Movies sections in the Story Structure Database .
Learn how to write mystery by studying popular books and movies in the genre.
Theme in Mystery: Justice, Passion, and Death
Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)
Like all specific genres, mystery offers up its own inherent themes. Because mysteries are ultimately about figuring out a puzzle and seeing beyond the obvious, perspective is often a major theme (as John Truby notes in the introduction to his new book The Anatomy of Genres ). Justice is another ubiquitous theme.
If the story features a murder or threat to life, then themes of death are often inevitable. Particularly in mysteries that deal realistically with murder and with the professions that both commit murders and “clean up” after them, the opportunity is there to go deep with existential questions about the truths of life and death and the ambivalent nature of man.
Passion, greed, and any number of other possible motivations for committing a crime can also be explored. Understanding the character arc of not just the protagonist, but also the culprit and the victim can give you solid ideas of integral themes you can explore in your own mystery.
For Example: Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River goes deep in exploring themes of friendship, loyalty, and guilt, in a story about three childhood friends—the father of a murdered daughter, the investigating cop, and the suspect who was himself the victim of a horrific crime when he was young.
Mystic River (2003), Warner Bros.
Characters in Mystery: The Characters Should Be Able to Stand Without the Mystery, Because the Mystery Can’t Stand Without the Characters
Although the puzzle is the point in a mystery story, it shouldn’t be the story. What audiences truly want from the experience of a mystery story is the opportunity to experience how realistic and entertaining characters engage with the puzzle, its catalyst, and its consequences.
For my money, the most important rule of thumb for how to write mystery is simple: the characters should be able to stand without the mystery.
In other words, your characters should be so interesting audiences would want to engage with them even if the mystery turns out to be easily solvable. This doesn’t mean the mystery should be relegated to a subplot in your characters’ personal lives. But it does mean the characters and their development should be strong enough to grip readers. Whether your story is funny and entertaining or dark and fascinating, readers should be hooked by your characters much more than the twists and turns of your foreshadowing’s setups and payoffs.
For Example: The recent Netflix romp Glass Onion dazzles audiences with interesting characters and entertaining scenarios that keep their attention regardless of how quickly they identify the true culprit.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022), Netflix.
Characters in Mystery: Character Arcs Can Be Either Change Arcs or Flat Arcs
Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)
A common question I receive about character arcs is, “What kind of character arc does [names specific detective character] have?” Usually in these instances, the confusion arises because the character in question isn’t arcing. This is because Flat Arcs are extremely common in the mystery genre.
However, this does not mean the story has no arc. A Flat Arc indicates a character who has already integrated and therefore acts upon the story’s primary Truth—and who impacts the world and characters around her via that Truth. Strictly speaking, this will be a thematic Truth (e.g., “justice is important but not always clear cut”). However, in mysteries that don’t go deep with their thematic exploration, this Truth might be conveyed simply in that the Flat-Arc protagonist has the strongest moral compass of anyone within the story.
Writing a mystery with a Flat-Arc protagonist is popular because it allows the story to focus most of its attention on the complications of the plot. However, it’s also entirely possible a mystery may feature a Change Arc, in which the protagonist’s personal view of the world alters dramatically by the end of the story. This might be a Positive Change Arc , in which the protagonist moves out of a more limited or “Lie-based” perspective into a more expansive Truth. Or it might be a Negative Change Arc , in which the protagonist moves into an even more constrained and limiting perspective of the world.
For Example: In Sir Terry Pratchett’s mystery-fantasy Feet of Clay , forthright police investigator Captain Carrot’s steadfast Flat-Arc belief in the rights of all sentient beings not only allows him to solve the mystery but to positively impact the prejudices of others about the golems who everyone believes are mindless killers.
Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett (affiliate link)
In a way, all novels are mysteries , since the primary question all fiction wants readers to ask is, “What’s gonna happen?” The mystery genre takes it all up a notch by leading audiences on an intricate dance of clues, misdirection, and ultimately a deep exploration of the human psyche.
Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Literary Fiction !
Previous Posts in This Series:
- How to Write Fantasy
- How to Write Romance
- How to Write Historical Fiction
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written in the mystery genre? What are your thoughts on how to write mystery? Tell me in the comments!
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K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel , Structuring Your Novel , and Creating Character Arcs . A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.
This was a pleasant surprise in my Sunday podcast library. I definitely appreciate this column. I have never write a mystery, but this gives me the itch. I’m loving (ok, maybe not but having a very close friendship with) the idea of putting one of these together in a fantasy setting.
Yes, mashups like that can be super fun and add a whole new dimension to both genres.
I have generally stayed away from the mystery genre because I have thought myself incapable of writing a good mystery. However, my subconscious proved me wrong when I dreamed a full-on murder mystery a few years ago. I’m planning to someday write a story about it, so I’ll definitely be coming back to this. Thank you!
Don’t you love it when the subconscious gifts you like that? 😉
This is right on time. Just yesterday I was making up a beat sheet for mysteries, and I wanted to tie it in to your beat sheets for the general 4 act structure. Should have just waited for this post.
Mysteries are my first love, thanks to Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown. They were the first kind of stories I ever tried to write. And as you pointed out, they can be the undercarriage for stories in other genres. Harry Potter novels are structured as mysteries, as are several of Miles Vorkosigan’s adventures. My favorite type of romances are “romantic suspense,” usually of the old school Mary Higgins Clark / Mary Stewart / Phyllis A. Whitney variety. If I ever do write romance novels, that would be the variant I’d go with.
I love the versatility of mysteries. And the popularity of it makes sense when you consider it’s a genre that men and women enjoy in equal measure. As opposed to action which tilts to men, and romance which tilts to women.
What you say about the characters being able to stand apart from the mystery also makes sense. Elizabeth George gets a lot of mileage out of showing the POV of all of Inspector Lynley’s suspects, because as readers get acquainted with them, we start to understand why they might have committed the murder, and often hope that a favorite suspect or two is innocent because of what we’ve learned about them. Mystery is an excellent choice for writers wanting to explore the human heart and what makes it tick.
Elizabeth George’s Write Away was one of the first books I read about an outliner. I resonated so much with her process. She was the first person who gave me “permission” to use the writing process that I found best for me.
My wife is absolutely infatuated with Miss Scarlet and the Duke, to the point we signed up for a PBS free 7-day trial so she can binge watch it! And, yes, I think the characters are intriguing. Considering I never figure anything out, I have to fall back on well-written characters.
I’ve only recently caught a few episodes of it. I was very confused at first about why there was a duke in Scotland Yard. :p
Another super common trope I see in mystery is justifying the murder as a way to add complexity. Usually this goes along the lines of how the murderer was a terrible person and generally deserved to die (A Study in Scarlet, Murder on the Orient Express) and the murderer was enacting justice in their own way. The idea is solid but the execution is generally weak.
There’s a recent trend (last decade or so) emphasizing bad guy motivations in general. On the one hand, it’s great because it brings moral complexity to both the character and the story. But, as you say, it’s very often poorly done and the emphasis on the antagonist ends up fragmenting the narrative and thematic throughline.
Oh, something I forgot now that I’m reviewing my beat sheet — in mysteries in particular, the subplot is often integral the story’s theme. If you read mysteries a lot, you’ll notice how the subplot explores aspects of the sleuth’s personal life, and ties into the theme. Frequently, the climax of the subplot provides a eureka moment of insight for the sleuth in solving the crime. Don’t neglect the subplot in a mystery!
At its core, mystery is perhaps the most plot-based of any the main genres, and if that’s all the story focuses on, it can sometimes come across as a dry plod from event to event. Relational and personal subplots are often what bring in the emotional weight and get audiences to invest on a deeper level than just the external plot. This is also important because, in mystery, if the audiences are able to figure out the solution before the characters do, they still need a reason to invest in the story all the way to its end.
Love this!! My latest SF novel has a mystery feel to it: who/which species is the traitor? Have to leave enough breadcrumbs to be fair, and build clues/suspense without letting the smart cookies say ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, it’s the , get a move on, dumb-ass!’ I know how hard it is because my first SF novel was a straight-forward mystery and really tough. So glad that I have these encouraging words as I tackle the who-dunnit genre again!
It’s delicate balance to be sure! Beta readers are such a valuable asset for analyzing whether or not you’ve erred on the side of too many clues or too little.
Thank you for this article! I absolutely love this genre, but struggle to find a balance between foreshadowing, misdirection, and pacing. My last attempt was a whodunnit that is turning into a thriller to cut down on the number of pieces that were just overwhelming the story without moving it forward.
Also, love so many of the series and authors your referenced!
Yes, for all that mystery seems simple enough on the surface, it’s a very complex story type. Writing one well is an admirable feat!
Great timing! I’m in the revision stage right now and puzzling over where this mystery fits in the sub-genre list. To me, it’s ‘A Mystery Novel’ because it’s more general and its theme is about deeper issues (hatred of father), more like a classic tragedy than divisions like police procedural, etc. Your thoughts?
Sounds like maybe a mystery in a more literary setting?
Wonderful post, K.M.! I love to read good mysteries. I also write mysteries. I know i’m biased, but I think it’s the most difficult genre to write because the author has to put together a clever puzzle that fits into a story about interesting characters. And, as you mention, it can’t be something that’s easily solved by the reader, but it has to be fair play so the reader can go back and put the clues together to see how it all works. It’s a lot like three-dimensional chess.
in the first book of my series of The Watch Mysteries, the main character has a transformational arc. But in the following books, her arc is relatively flat and the secondary characters change over the course of the story.
I’m printing your post to keep in my files!
Totally agree about the level of difficulty. In most genres, it doesn’t matter so much if audiences figure out what’s going to happen. In some genres, like romance, they *want* to know, in at least a general way. But mystery has to walk that oh-so-delicate balance between setting up reader expectations without giving away the ultimate solution.
I loved this post because I am an AVID mystery reader/watcher – from the kitschy, Misomer Murders, to the sublime, Hercule Poirot. Oh, and Vera, dark! Right now I’ve dug into an oldish French series called The Paris Murders staring a prim forensic investigator called Chole. Why do I have such a THING for these mysteries? All the ones I most love are def character-driven – and the characters are complex, philosophical, usually with a mysterious past. I love getting two mysteries in one. Anyway, this post planted a seed that one day I may just try my pen at one of these. I am SUCH a memoir/creative non-fiction writer, unraveling the mystery of my own tangled life. BUT…would this be fun!? Thank, KM, for opening up this possibility.
Fun! I hope you are inspired with just the right tale to unravel.
I just finished listening to the audiobook of Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone and it’s not only a great mystery novel, it’s also sort of a mystery writing procedural. The main character is a writer of how to write mystery books and he starts out with the rules of mystery writing and explains as he goes about how his telling of the story is keeping to the rules. A really fun and engrossing read, but also maybe helpful to you mystery writers out there!
Now that book sounds like fun. Back when I rode subways a good book cover could start conversations. I’m amused to imagine what conversations THIS book would start 🙂
That is a *great* title!
This was an excellent post. It gave me a new appreciation for the mystery genre, a genre I don’t usually read. Thanks, K. M.
I watch it more than I read it myself. But you can’t beat Sherlock in book form. 🙂
Enjoyable and thought provoking as always. I write cozy and traditional mysteries, and wondered about the characterization of cozies as having lower stakes. There isn’t the “save the world” element of a thriller or “save the town from a serial killer” idea. However, the stakes are crucial for the amateur sleuth and her world, and they could have an impact on a community, group of friends, family, etc. No high stakes, no readers. 🙂
Yes, stakes are always relative. Sometimes what seem from the outside like the smallest of stakes (such as a child’s lost toy or something) can be used to create stories that are, in fact, more gripping than those with world-ending stakes.
Mysteries are my favorite to read, but I’ve never written one. This is a nudge in that direction, and why not? I agree about the characters standing alone outside the mystery, and also the world. I love cozy mysteries, so the small village or isolated mansion setting is always for me.
I didn’t address setting specifically in this post, but it’s often a huge part of the mystery genre–a character of its own, really.
This article is just what I need to finish my cyberpunk murder mystery. I haven’t worked on that for quite a while, but I want to get back to it as soon as I finish a draft of another project. My thanks to you.
Sounds like fun! Glad the post was helpful.
I adore how Knives Out and Glass Onion both met and subverted so many expectations of mystery. I thoroughly enjoyed them both!
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How To Write Like Agatha Christie: 8 Tips for Mystery Writing
Whether you subscribe to the Christie School of Mystery or the Hitchcock School of Suspense, you can learn from both to create a novel that knocks the socks off your readers.
This might sound crass, but manipulating your target audience to keep them turning pages is key.
Have you ever stayed up way past the time you should be asleep to read "just one more chapter"? If you have, you’ve succumbed to the lure of a master of mystery or suspense.
Because, seriously, you NEED to know what happens next. (At least, that’s what you tell your boss the next morning when you’re five minutes late. If you’re lucky, your boss understands completely.)
Alfred Hitchcock once said:
"A glimpse into the world proves that horror is nothing other than reality."
Mystery, horror, suspense… they’re all closely related to what we fear most in the wee hours of the morning.
What keeps you awake at night? Is it a serial killer like Ted Bundy who coerces victims into his web? Or perhaps a nefarious individual who sees a split-second opportunity to snatch someone off a street corner?
Or maybe it’s someone who plans his crime spree much like a gourmet chef plans his menu. In each situation above, you can easily cast yourself as the victim, right?
The best mystery narrative marries your worst nightmare with real-life occurrences to create something you feel is authentic combined with what seems outlandish. Since you can’t make up a lot of what happens in real life, stealing from headlines lends a truth.
Add to that an outlandish act, and you’ve created a dramatic situation to make your reader focus on both the horror and mystery as well as the suspense of "what happens next?"
Start with an earthquake—or at least a seismic activity
Move your story quickly along, keep track of pacing, avoid stereotypes, map your darkest moments, carefully plot clues and red herrings, create your story’s resolution, study the masters, final thoughts.
Most best-selling authors tell you to start with a bang ; this might be a murder or a chase through downtown San Francisco.
Maybe your characters are hiking the Appalachian Trail and something goes horribly wrong. Regardless of where you set your earthquake, it needs to be something that shakes your characters’ world.
More importantly, where you set your earthquake is more than a simple background. It might become a separate character in your mystery. It’s one thing to set a mystery in small-town Ohio; it’s another to set it in one of the most haunted villages on the U.S. map.
This doesn’t mean you choose a setting that’s cliché. Seriously, who wants to read another mystery that happens in a secluded alley in the black of night?
Consider how one of the most suspenseful scenes for Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest happens in broad daylight as part of a crop-dusting scenario. Isn’t it more suspenseful for your readers to realize that a mystery can happen at any moment, even on a sunny day in America’s heartland?
As a writer, you already know you need to create a strong main character. He or she needs to be unique with both strengths and weaknesses that show readers they’re human.
Your main character may be someone readers feel strongly about because when the Sh!t H!ts the F@n, readers will root for him or her regardless of the struggles they face.
A mystery pits someone in a position to solve the crime against the criminal’s efforts to get away with it or at least cover his or her tracks. The mystery, by definition, means the main character must solve a series of clues or kind of puzzle to discover "whodunnit."
Sudden switches keep readers guessing what might happen next. They also keep readers alert and scouring your story for what comes next. Sudden switches can include new settings.
A quick succession of scenes makes readers race to catch up to the main character, wondering where and how he or she will meet the final denouement. Part of moving quickly includes adding characters, locations, and settings to keep your readers on their toes.
However gripping your mystery is in theory, if you don't pace your story effectively readers won't care about it in practice. It’s easy to dive too deep into the details when you've put so much time into planning and creating them.
Do your ideas justice by making sure you're varying your exposition, action, and dialogue with ProWritingAid's Pacing Report .
ProWritingAid can highlight your slower-paced paragraphs so you can make sure you’re getting all of the detail across without losing your reader.
Agatha Christie relied on memorable villains. So should you. Avoid the cliché or stereotype villains and create someone that your reader will fear for years to come.
Make your villain attractive, make readers fall in love with—or at least adore—your villain and then show his or her dark side. Just when the reader starts to feel something for the villain, you reveal the depths of his or her depravity as they get closer to their victims.
Part of creating a memorable villain is to use descriptive writing. When you show, not tell, your readers what the villain is thinking and doing, they can sometimes reluctantly accept the villain’s outlook, or develop their own suspicions about what the villain is planning.
Consider how some best-selling mystery novels go deep in the minds of their villains (e.g. The Silence of the Lambs ) to draw readers deeper into the abyss before letting them catch a glimpse of the hero climbing out of the dark hole into the light of justice.
As a writer, you need to know how deep and dark the villain goes.
You don’t necessarily need to share that darkness with your readers, but you need that vision in your mind as you write your novel. You must know exactly how the crime (or crimes) were committed and the intrinsic motive behind each.
As much as it might haunt your dreams, understanding your murderer’s motive, reasoning, and the clues that lead to his or her demise is imperative.
Every mystery is full of clues and red herrings . As harsh as this sounds, you want to jerk your reader around from clue to red herring back to clue and further down the trail that leads to solving the mystery.
Your best strategy is to make a list of clues and red herrings that you can sprinkle in your narrative to move readers along the trail. You must know in advance what your crucial clue is.
You want to plant it far enough down the trail yet early enough that readers won’t become exhausted searching for the one that breaks the bank—or solves the mystery.
The more red herrings (or false clues) you can embed in your narrative, the more your reader must work to solve the mystery. The key is to plant just enough red herrings that you don’t overuse them and cause your readers to give up.
IMPORTANT NOTE : Always play fair with you reader; don’t give him or her more more clues/red herrings than the average person can assimilate. You always want your reader to end with: "I should have known that!"
Lee Child is pretty strict with himself when writing twists and turns:
This complete guide to red herrings and clues will help you use them effectively to keep your reader turning pages.
You must wrap up all loose ends. If you have a love interest between two characters, either move it forward a step or dissolve it and let it fade away. If your main character grows or shifts his or her perspective, wrap it up at the end.
Your main character likely ends up doing one of the following:
- saving someone or loses someone
- saving themselves from a harsh outcome
- exposing someone else who is a "bad egg," i.e. a nefarious character or organization.
Think how Shaggy and Scooby Do always seem to bumble their way to catching the bad guy at the end. You, too, must wrap up your story just as neatly.
Granted, most authors do a better job of wrapping up their mysteries than Scooby Do . You can’t go wrong studying the masters. Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, and so many others create mysteries that bleed suspense and anticipation.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Harris, Raymond Chandler, and even amazing young adult authors like Franklin W. Dixon (The Hardy Boys) and Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew) knew what it takes to create a mystery readers devour in a single sitting.
If you want readers to come back to your series, books, or stories again and again, figuring out how the masters structured their narratives, built their characters, and used setting and scene as a third, albeit immovable, character will help you create something that resonates with readers.
If you want to see how you stack up against Agatha Christie or other bestselling mystery authors, sign up for ProWritingAid. Premium users can select from more than 90 authors to compare your writing against. Just select the author you want in your settings and run the Summary Report.
Write like the legendary Agatha Christie and start the action immediately. There’s no reason to wait and tease your readers. Kill that poor person right off the bat.
Be specific in details, setting, and your main character’s observations. Not only set the scene, but set the scenario for your main character’s and other’s motivations. Why are these people invested in this mystery’s outcome and what do they have to gain—or lose?
Looking for more advice on writing your novel? Download this free book now :
This guide helps you work out your narrative arc, plan out your key plot points, flesh out your characters, and begin to build your world.
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Kathy Edens is a blogger, a ghost writer, and content master who loves writing about anything and everything. Check out her books The Novel-Writing Training Plan: 17 Steps to Get Your Ideas in Shape for the Marathon of Writing and Creating Legends: How to Craft Characters Readers Adore... or Despise.
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6 Rules for Writing Great Mystery Novels
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.
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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How to Write Historical Crime Fiction
When Enemies Become Allies: Kate Kessler on Crafting the Most Compelling Thriller Characters
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How to Write a Convincing Mystery
Need help writing your mystery novel?
Mysteries are fun to read and equally fun to write. That said, there are a few rules you need to follow to create a slow burning page-turner that keeps the reader guessing until the last chapter. Let’s discuss what you need to know to create a nail-biting whodunit.
Here’s our list of best practices you should follow when penning a convincing mystery. Subscribe to receive this extra resource.
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Read Other Mysteries
First things first, before you write one word, I recommend studying some of the great mystery novels of all time.
Can you really write a mystery without reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes ? I think not.
When you’re studying these mystery novels, pay attention to pacing and how the author reveals the person of interest. It may be worth it to read the story twice, to see how the author subtly but masterfully tied in the clues to the perpetrator’s identity from the beginning.
Here’s a list of must read mysteries to start out on:
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie, Courtesy of Amazon
- The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
- The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
- Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane
- And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
- In the Woods, by Tana French
Understand the Crime
Now that you’ve read some of the most popular mystery novels for research (not pleasure) and have a good understanding of pacing and what the reader expects, it’s time to craft your story.
Start with the crime.
Not all mysteries have a crime, that’s true, but about 99% of them do. From caper to noir to amateur sleuth, most mysteries begin with a crime (which could be bloodless) and ends with the answers to who, what, why, where, when, and how.
That’s where you’ll start. You need to figure out early on, with the help of an outline, who the criminal is, what crime they committed, and the motivation for the crime. You’ll also need to understand the more technical answers to where, when, and how.
To do this, you’ll need to do a lot of research in how to commit the actual crime. If it’s about poisoning, then research the right portion. If it’s about strangulation, research positions, and all of those other nitty, gritty, and really uncomfortable aspects.
While you may not put everything into your description, you’ve got to completely understand the mechanics to sell a convincing story.
Create Convincing Characters
In my opinion, the best mysteries are character-driven. Everyone obsesses over the plot, and that’s definitely important, too. Thrillers, in particular, are more story-focused. However, mysteries are more about character development. Characters are really at the heart of any story. You need characters to create emotional touchpoints for the reader.
For example, the protagonist is perhaps your most important character. The protagonist is often the detective of your novel. He or she is someone who is actively uncovering the mystery. The reader needs to feel connected to this character because he or she acts as the reader’s eyes and ears. The reader must solve the mystery with this character, so it makes total sense to create a character that’s fleshed out, relatable, and convincing. This character is also moving the story forward, not the other way around.
Who are your main characters? Is your protagonist someone who witnessed the crime and can’t shake it? Is he or she someone who is pulled in reluctantly? And who is the criminal?
Whoever they are, be sure to introduce these characters early on so that the reader can get familiar with them. Don’t wait until three or four chapters in to casually reveal who will later be revealed as the criminal. The reader needs to “meet” the character early and possibly dismiss them from suspicion.
By the way, there definitely needs to be more than one person of suspicion introduced in your novel. Cat and mouse is definitely not mystery. So, be sure to introduce several possibilities in the first pages of your novel to set up your reader for a riveting puzzle.
And the last thing I’ll say about characterization-- avoid perfection. It’s okay for the detective to stumble and miss clues. In fact, it’s only human. Even if the detective misses the clues you’ve laid out, the reader may not. And also don’t make your detective a bumbling idiot-- that can be frustrating for your reader. The detective and reader should be on the same page, no pun intended.
Create a Convincing Motive
Part of characterization is coming up with a motivation. What motivates each character to action?
Clarifying the criminal’s motive is obviously necessary, but you also need to identify what motivates the detective or sleuth as well.
Why does the detective want to solve the mystery? Perhaps it’s part of the job, or perhaps the detective is an amateur who feels compelled to solve the crime for personal reasons. What are those reasons? Perhaps her father was a detective who died trying to solve the crime and she wants to vindicate him.
The more logical the motive, the more realistic the character. Readers buy into real characters.
Use Red Herrings
All (good) mysteries have red herrings. In literature, a red herring is a misleading or distracting piece of information that causes the reader to arrive at the wrong conclusion.
Misdirection is the hallmark of a convincing mystery. There needs to twists, turns, and plenty of dead ends so that the reader doesn’t arrive at the conclusion too quickly and spend of the rest of the novel waiting for the protagonist, or detective, to catch up.
An example of a red herring is a character who’s caught at the scene of the crime. He’s actually innocent, but the reader and the protagonist must spend time to eliminate him as a viable suspect.
Red herrings work because readers love the chase. And if you craft the story well, readers also love to think they know and find out that they were wrong.
Here’s the one run about red herrings: don’t let them linger on for too long. Resolve red herrings quickly so that the reader doesn’t feel like they’ve wasted too much time on the wrong suspect.
Know How You Want the Story to End
Before you start writing your mystery, know how the story ends. The end matters in mystery more than in any other genre. Your readers demand, pitchforks in hand, a satisfying ending to a story that they’ve invested in. They’ve added up the clues, they’ve figured out who the culprit is, and if, by the last page, you haven’t confirmed their suspicions or pleasantly (and masterfully) surprised them with the right answer that’s been hiding in plain sight all along, you will be eviscerated.
I understand that not every writer knows how a story will end. Sometimes, you get to the end and are just as surprised as everyone else by whodunit. That’s what I like to call a first draft. When crafting your second draft, you’ll now know who did it and why. And knowing the way you’d like your story to end will help you craft a more compelling one from the very beginning.
Your ending needs to answer the lingering questions that you presented in the beginning of your novel, such as who, why, and how. Knowing these answers, you can sprinkle clues throughout the story, starting at the beginning. This allows the reader to trace back and see that everything was obvious, even if they’re completely surprised by the answers. Your story should be logical.
To do this, you need to plan the crime just as well or better than the criminal. At outline will definitely help you craft the (almost) perfect murder.
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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 560,771 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
- When it comes to mystery, one of the key elements is tension and making the story compelling from the very beginning.  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.
- 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.  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.  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.  X Research source
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.  X Research source
- What matters most is that your main character has a burning question or burning need to solve the mystery.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.  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.  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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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
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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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- ↑ 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
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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