The best mystery writing prompts
Great mystery writing is full of suspense and intrigue that gets your readers to ask questions. The key to the gripping whodunnit mystery books you love is the unique mysterious story ideas behind them. If you’re currently waiting for a lightbulb to go off in your head before you embrace your inner Agatha Christie, you’ll enjoy these mystery writing prompts!
There are several types of mystery stories you might want to consider writing: 1) Cozies, which usually take place in — as the name would suggest — cozy settings, such as small towns. They are meant to be a “light read” meaning they don’t involve graphic violence, although the crime in question can still be a murder or death. 2) Hard-boiled. Typically feature a professional detective. As the story unfolds, not only is the mystery untangled, but so is the protagonist’s character development as they face their own internal struggles. While chasing up alibis and collecting evidence to try to bring the killer to justice, the investigation forces our protagonist to confront parts of their own personalities they may have buried. 3) Procedurals. Distinguished by their very in-depth explanation of how a mystery was solved. Fine details will be explored, and the drama often culminates in a courtroom, with a judge and jury deciding whether the suspect is innocent or guilty.
To get you started, here are our top ten mystery writing prompts:
- A crime’s been committed, and the only clues left behind are a half-eaten apple and a bobby pin.
- Write a mystery where the detective realizes at the last moment that they have the wrong suspect.
- You are legally allowed to commit murder once, but you must fill out the proper paperwork and your proposed victim will be notified of your intentions.
- You discover a trap door in your home that you never knew about.
- You thought he was dead, but there he is, right in front of you on the street, smiling at you.
- You're shaking hands with a stranger at a networking event when you ask for their name. I have no name, they reply.
- You’ve forgotten the last year of your life, and have to retrace your steps to figure out how you got here.
- Write a story about a valuable object that goes missing.
- You open a book and note with a letterhead falls out. At the top it says: If you are reading this, you have been chosen.
- Write a story that starts with the reveal of a long-kept secret.
If you’re an author looking to write a mystery novel or short story, check out some of our resources on the topic, full of helpful tips for mystery writers:
- What is Exposition? Examples of Backstory in Action — When writing mystery fiction, anything could be an important clue — or a red herring. How are you going to drip-feed your reader information? Rather than holding their hand through the story, you’re going to want to provide clues slowly and subtly. That’s where exposition comes in. And don’t forget to check out our guide to Show, Don't Tell while you’re there!
- Understanding Point of View (free course) — Our ten-day guide to choosing and mastering your POV. In a genre like mystery, where facts are hazy and everything is up for debate, choosing the right POV is crucial in deploying information and keeping the narrative compelling. Perhaps you’ll opt for an unreliable narrator, oscillate between different POV characters, or go for an omniscient third-person narrator. The possibilities are endless.
- How to Develop Characters (free course) — The key to a great mystery is not just a great hero. You’re going to need an entire cast of interesting characters, to keep readers guessing and give them a reason to be invested in the events they’re witnessing. This requires a lot of work, which is why you’ll want to dedicate plenty of time to character development.
Want more help learning how to write a short mystery? Check out How to Write a Short Story That Gets Published — a free, ten-day course guiding you through the process of short story writing by Laura Mae Isaacman, a full-time editor who runs a book editing company in Brooklyn.
Ready to start writing? Check out Reedsy’s weekly short story contest, for the chance of winning $250, plus potential publication in our literary magazine, Prompted! You can also check out our list of writing contests or our directory of literary magazines for more opportunities to submit your story.