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Posted on Dec 02, 2020

How to Write a Mystery: The 7 Secret Steps Revealed

There’s nothing more satisfying than a good mystery novel. Gripping, surprising, sometimes cripplingly complicated, and yet they allow you the pleasure of that delicious “a-ha!” — you knew it all along. A clever trail of clues is thrilling to read and even more fun to pen, so why not learn how to write a mystery of your own?

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 mystery’s tried-and-true tropes

Head to the mystery section of your local bookstore (or your local Amazon page) and pull a few titles for your interrogation. Pay close attention as you read: the best mystery books are full of insights on how to heighten suspense, use tropes effectively, and keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Pro tip: Once you know the ending, read the whole book again — this time with sticky tabs! Use green tabs to mark where the author drops clues and red tabs every time they throw the reader off the scent.

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

Cozy mysteries

Cozy mysteries often take place in small towns, frequently featuring charming bakeries and handsome mayors. And 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 — making cozies perfect for a gentle fireside read. Example: the Miss Marple series by Agatha Christie.

Police procedurals

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

How to write a mystery | example of the police procedural subgenre
Dublin Murders: Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox explore a crime scene (image: Starz)

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 mystery may be solved by the end, but the crime 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!

Suspense

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.

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Which genre (or subgenre) am I writing?

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To trope or not to trope?

When writing mystery, you’ll want to strike a balance between slavishly following tropes and surprising readers with your ingenuity. When deciding whether to subvert or adhere to a trope, make sure you’re not compromising any of the key elements of a mystery:

  • a strong cast of characters;
  • a plot carefully structured around clues; and
  • a distinct setting used to create suspense and/or danger.

For example, if you’re writing a cozy and falling for the handsome young mayor compromises the characterisation of your sleuth, then you might subvert the trope with a #MeToo era rebuke of his behavior.

Haven’t got a clue where to start? Our mystery plot generator has a million plot combinations to inspire you!

2. Draw a chalk outline of your structure

The central pillar of a 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, as it were, you’ll produce the gripping rise in action that all great mystery novels possess. Here’s how to do just that.

Hit ’em with a hook

Any story should start with a great first line, but mysteries are particularly fertile ground for first-rate hooks. Many authors open with the crime, sticking to the rule book with ease. 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

On the other hand, there’s plenty of room to play. Dean Koontz flouts the age-old advice not to describe the weather, and crafts a shocking opener by contrasting mundane details with sudden violence:

“Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch.”

— Dean Koontz, Dragon Tears

Basically, there’s no one “right way” to open your mystery novel. But to make sure it’ll capture readers' attention, you can ask yourself:

  • Does it jolt the reader into paying attention?
  • Does it lead the reader to ask further questions?
  • Does it introduce some stakes (e.g. conflict, danger, or a revelation for the protagonist)?

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. 

For this, consult the Fichtean Curve, a narrative structure that emphasizes tension and mini-crises — the idea being to keep readers eager to reach the climax. Again, this is essential in a mystery novel! You must organize your plot so that each new clue ratchets up the tension, until you arrive at the climax.

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.

How to write a mystery | using the Fichtean Curve structure
A reworking of the Fichtean Curve especially for mysteries!

Pro tip: Keep the reader in mind when planning your clues! A good mystery doesn’t let its characters do all the work; it trusts readers to play an active role in solving the puzzle. To make things more interesting, consider using subtle misdirection — which we’ll talk about next.

Red herrings

Leading 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! 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 (a clever subversion of 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 a suspect’s twin sister as the final twist without setting it up earlier! It’s fine to have red herrings throughout the story, but the conclusion should be well-founded if you want to satisfy readers.

3. Carve out your characters

As you develop your cast of characters, it may be helpful to start at the scene of the crime. Picture the scene and ask yourself: Who’s the culprit? Then assemble your cast around that.

For example, say your first scene takes place at a public swimming pool, where a body is discovered. If the lifeguard is the culprit, who might be connected to this pool and this lifeguard? Maybe there’s:

  • an unhappily married cougar who’s spent the summer at the pool; 
  • a high-school mean girl playing three guys against each other; or
  • a pool owner who pays a measly $5 an hour.

Determine these human stories and build them outwards in layers, keeping the crime at the center all the while. 

The culprit

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.

The 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. Just as in a game of Clue, you might know that Colonel Mustard was in the dining room with a gun when Miss Scarlet was murdered — but why would he want her dead?

If you feel your narrative veering too close to the truth, you can use red herrings to misdirect readers (perhaps Colonel Mustard was having an affair with Miss Scarlet). But make sure that when the actual culprit is revealed, the other suspects can be realistically acquitted.

how to write a mystery | the suspects
Everyone’s a suspect in the cult-classic Clue (image: Paramount)

The 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 invests in 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 from the case? Would an innocent person be jailed? Is the killer likely to strike again? Or is your sleuth’s motive less selfless, maybe a promotion or a cash reward?

To raise the stakes as your story approaches its climax, consider also putting your sleuth or someone they love in peril. The more readers care about this character, the more thrills they’ll experience as this unfolds!

The victim

Don’t be afraid to give your victim real standing. Just as it would in the real world, their death matters not only because of the ensuing brain-teaser, but because they were a person who existed beyond the circumstances of their death.

Indeed, even if murder is treated rather lightly in your mystery, contemplating the fallout of your victim’s death will a) make your story more realistic and b) add another layer to the mystery. For example, say the victim was a sleazy CEO, and his employees’ jubilation makes them look suspicious to your sleuth — who happens to be the victim’s special lady friend.

how to write a mystery | the victim
In Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah narrates the mystery of her suicide from beyond the grave (image: Netflix)

Pro tip: To mold three-dimensional characters, put each one in the hot seat and get under their skin with a character questionnaire. Find out what they’re hiding, where their loyalties lie, and what makes them tick — then incorporate those answers into your story, where relevant!

4. Refine your story’s setting

Setting is the backbone of mystery; it helps foster 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 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.

Find out what matters to the locals

Location aside, your story’s setting should be used to enhance plot, and this requires research to execute well. Local news sites should give you an idea of what matters to its residents, the problems they face, and what’s interesting about their community. By considering these things, you’ll come to understand what might actually unfold in a setting like this one, adding depth and authenticity to your mystery.

5. Write in whatever order suits your plot

New writers tend to think that a book should be written in chronological order. But in truth, you should write in whatever order works for you! You can hop ahead, circle back, do the hokey-pokey and turn it all around — go wherever your instincts take you. 

Having said that, it can be a good idea to write your ending first. As we know, a mystery novel should constantly build towards a conclusion that both answers pressing questions and provides that gratifying ‘a-ha!’ moment. The perfect ending is unexpected yet inevitable, and perhaps the best way to manifest this is to start with the ending rather than the beginning.

To that end (no pun intended), you might:

  • begin by drafting your conclusion; 
  • then the climactic moment; and finally, 
  • sketch out key leads that will guide the sleuth and reader to the solution.

By writing “backwards”, not only can you ensure that everything in the conclusion answers an established question, but also that no question is raised and left unanswered!

6. Test out your mystery with beta readers

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.

It may help to provide your beta readers with a list of questions to keep in mind. At minimum, you should ask for feedback on:

  • Structure and pacing. Did any scenes drag or rush by confusingly? Were there any info-dumps or parts that weren’t explained enough? 
  • Characters and dialogue. Are any of the characters too flat or cliché? Did the dialogue seem natural?
  • Setting and worldbuilding. Can you envision the world and the action clearly? Is there anything missing from the worldbuilding?

Pro tip: Ask 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.

7. Edit with a professional’s help

The success of any mystery book ultimately hinges on whether your mystery works for readers. On that note, 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, they 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 with the help of a developmental editor, you should be happy with plot, pacing, and all the key elements of your mystery. 

This is when 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.” At the end of the day, a professional will help you become a better writer, and ensure your language is both spotless and compelling before your book hits the shelves, which is what you need to succeed in this genre.

Give your mystery the help it deserves

The best mystery editors are on Reedsy. Sign up for free and meet them.

Learn how Reedsy can help you craft a beautiful book.

So, there you have it! If you follow these seven 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.