Writing a mystery novel doesn’t have to be a difficult task. If you follow a few simple rules and leave some crumbs along the way, you will have crafted one fantastic story. Follow the tips in the articles listed below, and you will be on your way to writing your next excellent Mystery Novel that will keep readers guessing and wondering what will happen next. These integral yet straightforward tips will have you burning through your first draft in no time flat. With that said, here is a vlog on writing a mystery novel and what not to do, it will also get your gears turning and set you up for plotting your next book—that awesome Mystery😉
Taking the Mystery Out of How to Write a Mystery
If you saw the season-ending episode of Monk, do you remember the clue that helped catch the killer?
In the recent thriller Fractured, what was the mistake Anthony Hopkins made that proved he killed his wife?
You got me.
My point, and I do have one, is that often writers think the most important aspect of a good mystery is the ingenuity of the crime, the unraveling of the clues. Which is why many writers are scared to death of even trying to write a mystery or thriller.
Fear no more.
Yes, viewers of mysteries and thrillers like tightly-plotted narratives, clever red herrings, and a certain element of surprise. And you should always strive to weave as many of these aspects into your whodunit or crime story as possible.
But these factors are not what makes a mystery – any mystery – memorable. Think of TV’s The Rockford Files, or The Closer. Think of films like Chinatown and Silence of the Lambs. As best-selling crime author Michael Connelly wrote, “The best mysteries are about the mystery of character.”
But what does that mean?
Let’s start with the basics: what is a mystery? In simplest terms, it’s a story about the disruption of the social order. A crime against society is committed: a man is murdered, a bank is robbed, whatever. We, the viewer, want to know two things: who did it, and why.
At least that’s what we think we want.
What do we really want? We want order restored. We want the violator of the social compact – the killer, the thief, the blackmailer – caught, so that things in our world are set right once more. And who do we want to do this? Our surrogate, the smarter, wittier, and more doggedly determined version of ourselves: the detective hero. Whether a street wise cop like Popeye Doyle in the French Connection, a sloppy homicide detective like TV’s Columbo, or a tea-drinking, sweater-knitting old lady like Miss Marple, we want this one thing from our mystery protagonist above all others: we want order restored.
But not just social order; the best mysteries, whether on Without A Trace or in Murder On the Orient Express, are also about the exploration and resolution of psychological tension. In other words, how do the characters interact? What do they want?
For example, in most mysteries, whether a suspect is guilty of the crime or not, he or she invariably has a secret. A clandestine relationship, a trauma from the past that haunts them still, perhaps even a connection with the killer (or the victim) that helps complete an entire mosaic of possible motives, entanglements and intrigue.
Henry James famously said: “Plot is characters under stress.” Well, nothing ramps up the stress level of a group of characters like the murder of one among them. A further “turn of the screw” results when the murder comes under investigation by an outside agent – the hero or heroine, the cop or private eye – determined to ferret out the truth.
How does that apply to the mystery you’re trying to write? A reasonable question.
Remember what it felt like when some kid broke a window at school and the principal gathered you and all your classmates together? Remember the mounting tension as the principal went down the line, interrogating each of you, sometimes even feigning humor or sympathy, but always with the relentless, eagle-eyed determination of a predator searching for his prey?
Well, do the characters in your mystery or crime story feel that way? How do they show it, to the camera, to each other, and to the detective? Or, perhaps more importantly, how do they attempt to conceal it?
In most memorable mysteries, or in the best straight-ahead thrillers, this context of mutual suspicion and misdirection of motives is pivotal. It’s what keeps the suspense mounting for the viewer. Moreover, it’s the crucial element that keeps the laying-in of necessary clues from seeming like a mere litany of exposition. By the time we’re halfway through the film Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, the lies told and attitudes expressed by the suspects has us convinced that pretty much anyone could be the culprit. Which is exactly what you, the mystery writer, wants most of all.
Another important aspect of these types of films, as vital as that of the deceptive nature of the suspects, is the world the story inhabits. All renowned mysteries from Laura to Twin Peaks to Witness for the Prosecution take place in a specific arena of life. The design industry, the rainy Pacific Northwest, the be-wigged world of British courtrooms. Whatever. If you consider a film like All the President’s Men a mystery, and I do, since it meets all the criteria, then the fascinating world of Washington politics is the backdrop.
Recall, too, how the key to success for Columbo was the interaction of our rumpled hero with the nuances of the various worlds into which he ventured, from that of classical music to computer science, from Hollywood studios to military schools. His comfortable, familiar character was our vehicle of entry into the specifics of each of these very particular ways of life.
But what does all the above have to do with you, and the mystery you’re writing? Let’s see if we can break it down.
First, let’s look at your protagonist. And here’s where many new mystery writers get discouraged, and for a very understandable reason. When it comes to the hero – whether hard-boiled private eye or spinster librarian, cop-turned-lawyer or criminal-turned-cop – they’ve all been done. How do you make your sleuth unique?
For me, there’s only one answer: ask yourself, what makes you unique? What scares you, interests you, makes you angry? What do you yearn for, or wish to avoid? What are your hobbies, passions? What’s the aspect of your own character about which you’re most conflicted, unhappy, even embarrassed? Believe it or not, this is where the seeds of an interesting, unusual protagonist are first sewn.
For example, my friend Earlene Fowler likes to make quilts. As does her amateur sleuth, Benni Harper, now on her 12th or 13th novel in a hugely successful series. I cite this mostly to prove that you don’t have to be a forensics pathologist in your day job to create a popular or believable hero. In my own case, the narrator of most of the stories in my new book is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles. Not exactly a stretch.
This concept operates as well for TV and film as for prose. Many writers of popular crime shows and recent thriller movies are patients in my private practice, and I’ve witnessed first-hand how their own issues, prejudices and concerns are woven into their on-screen characters.
So why don’t you start by making a list of your own traits and interests, as suggested above? The closer the hero or heroine of your mystery story is to you, the more vivid and engaging he or she will be to the viewer. After all, as Emerson said, “To know that what is true for you in your private heart is true for everyone – that is genius.”
Next, let’s look at the world of your mystery story. What is the world you inhabit? Suburban soccer mom or single father? Former football coach, magazine editor, or Rhodes scholar? Travel agent, computer specialist, or kindergarten teacher?
After all, you know the details of your particular world so clearly. You know the ins and outs. It’s those details that create the backdrop for the crime, that make possible the intrigue, the collision of misleading, back-stabbing, or too-good-to-be-true characters. Think of the gambling background in the movie Ocean’s 11. Or that of the legal profession in The Firm.
Why is the background so important? Aside from being crucial to our sense of the reality of the story, and presenting us with a view of a world with which we may be unfamiliar (or that we think we know, but in fact really don’t), a particular arena provides valuable help to the writer when it comes to building narrative and planting clues.
How? To put it simply, the best clues in a classic mystery involve misdirection. A clue usually seems to point in one direction, when actually, looked at from a different angle, it reveals something else. A typical example is the clue that appears to confirm a certain character’s guilt, when in fact it’s been planted to frame that person.
For the writer, trying to develop the narrative and plant significant clues along the way, it’s much easier (and, I think, more organic) if the clues emerge from the world of the story. For example, if the bad guy uses some antique pistol to commit the crime, I’m much more likely to believe it in a story set behind the scenes at Colonial Williamsburg.
In fact, one of the smartest things a crime writer can do is develop the clues and red herrings out of the world in which the story is set. Most used car salesmen don’t know where to get their hands on lethal yet undetectable poisons. They do know how to cut the brake lines of a car. (Or blackmail a mechanic to do it for them.)
I’m stressing the use of a vivid background and the investment in character development for two reasons. First, because without these two aspects, no viewer will really care how clever or intricate the plot is. (For example, as much as I admire the plotting in the film The Last of Sheila, I don’t love the movie because I don’t care about anyone in it.) And second, because of the happy fact that most good mysteries only have two or three pertinent clues in them anyway. This is really important. Most new writers of mysteries seem to think the plot has to be filled with clues. It doesn’t. One or two gems – the misleading planted evidence, the comment a suspect makes that belies his alibi – are all you need to put the villain away. Or all your hero or heroine needs.
Remember, too, that many clues are just as likely to indicate something that’s missing as they are to reveal something that’s present: the unfound murder weapon, the missing wedding ring on the victim’s finger. Remember this classic exchange from Conan Doyle’s story Silver Blaze:
Holmes to the Inspector: “I refer, of course, to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
The Inspector: “But, Holmes, the dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That is the curious incident.”
Okay, let’s wrap this up. The three things to keep in mind when writing mysteries are: 1) establishing the unique character of the protagonist, 2) making narrative use of the world in which the story takes place, and 3) planting clues (remember, only a few) that derive from the particular aspects of that world.
One final hint, to spark your creativity when thinking about writing a mystery: is there a little-known fact, an oddity of history or natural science, that you were taught or stumbled upon and has always intrigued you? For example, I was blown away years ago when I learned that after famed psychologist Carl Jung broke with his mentor Sigmund Freud, Jung founded a clinical journal devoted to “non-Jewish” psychoanalysis. I’m still figuring out a way to weave that painful chapter in the history of psychoanalysis into a mystery story.
What’s in your background that you can use? What’s filed away in that mental Rolodex in your head that might serve as the germ of an idea for a mystery? Maybe your grandfather was the first guy in his town to own a car. Or the guy who bought the last Edsel. Maybe your mother tells the story of getting hit on by some dorky guy at a bar who went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Everybody has some story, some incident, unique to them and them alone. All a writer has to do is “twist” that story a little bit – the “what-if” that inspires all storytelling – and a mystery emerges. Because, in the end, that’s where all the best stories come from. Life itself. The greatest mystery of all.
Writing a mystery novel: 7 items your story needs
Writing a mystery novel is challenging. It demands a keen sense for plot, characterization and creating suspense. A story that actively engages readers in solving the mystery (or in trying to piece together the narrative threads) needs at least 7 elements:
- A strong hook
- Active reader involvement in piecing together information
- Red herrings
- Suspenseful dialogue
- Effective, descriptive mood and language
- Well-structured chapters
- A satisfying conclusion
1: Writing a mystery novel? Craft a strong hook
All novels need effective hooks: the reader should be interested to uncover more from the first page or (even better), the first line. The hook is typically a line or image that creates curiosity and questions that keep readers wanting to know more.
Suspense author Cheryl Kaye Tardif recommends being guided by ‘The Four Firsts’ of writing story hooks: The first sentence, first paragraph, first page and first chapter. At each level, pay attention to detail. Ask about your story’s first sentence:
- Does it grab the reader’s interest by teasing some further discovery?
- Does it pose a question the reader will strongly want answered?
- Does it contain dramatic potential (a looming conflict, loss, discovery of something that will turn your main character’s world upside down)?
The mystery writer Elmore Leonard, according to author and journalist William Dietrich, advocated never describing weather in a first line. Dietrich goes on to share examples of great first lines that flout Leonard’s advice. For example, Dean Koontz wrote:
‘Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch.’ (Dragon Tears)
Koontz’s opener uses the mundane details of the weather to create contrast with Harry Lyon’s murderous act. This makes it more shocking. So treat ‘rules’ cautiously. The important thing is that your opening line sets the mysterious tone for your story and grasps the reader’s interest.
Looking beyond the first sentence, the first paragraph should introduce a little more sense of mood and atmosphere and intriguing setting and/or character. For the first chapter, favour brevity. If a reader feels they have to wade to the end of your opener, this could deter them from continuing.
2: Make the reader your number one detective
A ‘puzzle mystery’ is the sub-genre where the reader gets to solve the unknown. In any good mystery, however, the reader should be left to piece together information. Trust in your reader’s intelligence: Many beginning writers assume that they need to hold the reader’s hand throughout and over-explain the story as it happens. To make the reader play more of an active part in solving the mystery you can:
- Leave clues throughout (so long as they aren’t too obvious).
- Include characters who are truthful along with those who lie, leaving it to the reader to decide whose information seems more honest.
- Have multiple possible explanations. In a murder mystery, that means having multiple suspicious characters. In a mystery adventure, it might mean having both natural and supernatural possible reasons for a character’s disappearance.
3: Something’s fishy… Use red herrings
In fiction writing, the term ‘red herring’ refers to ‘A clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading or distracting:’ (Oxford Dictionaries Online). The term is borrowed from the custom of training dogs to hunt using the scent of dried herring, which turns red from being smoked.
Red herrings can be scattered throughout your novel to keep the reader from guessing the culprit of a crime or explanation of a disappearance too soon. They escalate tension and suspense and make a novel more riveting.
In Agatha Christie’s best-selling novel And Then There were None, ten people end up on an island and die one by one. Christie makes one of the remaining characters disappear, leading the other members of the party (and the reader) to suspect the vanished character of being the murderer, but there are further twists.
A red herring can be:
- A character who seems to be more suspicious or complicit than he actually is.
- An object that seems to have more significance than it ultimately will.
- An event that seems to be important to the narrative but turns out to be secondary.
- A clue placed by a villain (unknown to the reader and the main character) to send investigators down the wrong path of inquiry.
Suspense in a mystery novel is key. What else can increase the reader’s sense of curiosity and anticipation?
4: Write suspenseful dialogue
Dialogue that sounds convincing to the ear is hard to get right. Suspenseful dialogue moves in ellipses and omissions; says one thing but means another. In a conversation between two characters, you can create suspense by:
- Having one speaker lie, giving information that contradicts what the reader already knows to be true.
- Have a character say something bizarre or unexpected (in David Lynch’s cult classic mystery TV series Twin Peaks, a character says to the investigating detective Agent Dale Cooper, ‘The owls are not what they seem.’
- Have a character withhold information or be non-cooperative when questioned.
Because we are perplexed by unexpected behaviour, use it to throw the reader and your characters off. A character who laughs mid-conversation, apropos of nothing, is a curious one. Employ dialogue with strange turns, interruptions, menacing tones or other elements that give the reader a feeling of unpredictability.
Part of what makes a mystery novel highly engrossing is it’s mood and atmosphere:
5: Create a mysterious mood with setting and descriptive language
In a mystery novel, as in a thriller, mood is a substantial part of what throws the reader head first into your fictional world. The factors that contribute to mood in fiction are:
- Setting: An old cathedral might have a hallowed, restful feeling whereas darkening woods can be menacing or eerie.
- Descriptive language: Be thoughtful about the adjectives and verbs you choose. ‘She hastened along the narrow path’ creates a sense of urgency and spatial confinement or claustrophobia, both of which contribute to a tense and suspenseful atmosphere.
- Characterisation: What your characters say and do, how they look and what they hide all contribute to creating a mysterious, uncertain mood.
The ingredients of a good mystery include structure as well as content. Not only what happens but how it is paced or where each scene takes up or leaves off:
6: Structure your mystery novel’s chapters attentively
Because the allure and fear of the unknown are the pillars of good mystery writing, it’s important to structure each chapter around unfolding discoveries expertly. While there should be rising action throughout the novel on a macro scale, within each chapter there should be some rising action too, as well as shifts in knowns and unknowns.
In chapter openings you can:
- Open in the middle of an unknown setting
- Open your chapter in the middle of a tense situation
- Begin with the discovery that something previously thought true was false
These are just a few examples of the way you can make a chapter riveting from the outset. End chapters on new discoveries that either bring the mystery-solving character(s) closer to finding the answer or create new questions. This push and pull between question and answer lies at the heart of the great mystery novel.
7: A satisfying climax and resolution
A mystery novel is typically more teleological (‘end-focused’) than a novel in another genre (such as high fantasy). In mystery novels, everything should build up to a satisfying answer to primary questions such as ‘Who? Why? What?’
Nancy Curteman makes the crucial point that the ending of a mystery novel should come with an ‘a-ha!’ moment. The reader should be able to go back and say ‘I saw this coming’ or ‘I didn’t see this coming, but it makes complete sense given x, y, and z’. The identity of the killer, the cause for a disappearance or some other mystery explanation should not feel like a red herring itself.
When writing a mystery novel, ideally your ending will:
- Answer the pressing questions you’ve kept readers asking
- Reveal truths about characters falsely suspected
- Relate clearly to the beginning
- Leave the reader feeling inclined to read your next novel
Writing a mystery novel demands that you pay attention to the ingredients of great mystery writing: Convincing plot and mood, mysterious characters, active involvement of the reader and more. If you’re ready to get going on your mystery novel, join the Mystery/Thriller writers’ group on Now Novel.