A good mystery novel keeps readers at the edge of their seats, turning the pages into the wee hours of the morning, desperate to know whodunnit.
Reading a mystery novel can be exciting, but writing one can be just as thrilling! This article will help you pen a gripping mystery that will keep readers guessing till the very end.
What Are the Key Elements of a Mystery?
A good way of understanding a mystery is this: treat yourself, the writer, as the villain in the story, while your reader is in the shoes of the detective or investigator. What do we mean by that?
The villain is the person who commits the crime. In a murder mystery, he will be the one who plots and executes the murder. You as the writer are privy to all the details surrounding the event, but like the villain, you will try to conceal your steps from the reader.
The reader will typically relate to your protagonist, in most cases, the investigator or detective in the story. You will have the reader, alongside your detective, find clues and try to piece things together to solve the puzzle.
The main elements that you should make sure your mystery novel has are the following:
- A compelling hook: Make sure your story starts with a hook that immediately draws readers in.
- Reader involvement: Make sure you involve your reader in trying to solve the mystery. You can do this by showing the clues, not telling your audience about them.
- Plenty of red herrings: Red herrings are false clues that distract a reader. Make sure you include these to keep your reader guessing.
- Ever-increasing stakes and cliffhangers: Just like any story, you need to raise the stakes to keep your reader interested. Cliffhangers are endings that leave your reader wondering; mysteries tend to end many of their chapters with such cliffhangers to keep them reading.
- A logically satisfying ending: Make sure you tie up your clues in a logical fashion, so as to satisfy your readers with the conclusion and unveiling of the criminal.
How to Write a Mystery
Now that you understand the important elements every good mystery needs, the following tips should help you get started writing your own mystery novel:
1. Read the best mystery novels.
If you want to write mysteries, you need to immerse yourself in different mystery novels. Read the classics by authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers. Read modern mystery books, too, and take note of your experience.
One way of breaking down these novels is to read to the very end, then go back to the first page, already knowing the outcome. Pay attention to how the author dropped clues and red herrings along the way.
2. Know all the details of the crime or misdeed.
As a writer, you need to know all the details of the misdeed right from the start, because that’s the main thing that will drive your plot along. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, it’s always good to outline everything you can about the crime.
Research about the crime you are writing about, whether it’s a break-in or a poisoning. This way, you will know how different factors can come into play.
3. Give your criminal a convincing motive.
More than knowing what happened, readers want to know why it happened. Give your criminal a motive that your readers can relate to. You may want to consider writing their backstory in order to know them more intimately yourself, then slowly reveal the relevant parts to endear your readers to them.
While we’re on that subject, refrain from creating a villain that’s so wholly evil that no one can can empathize with him. Instead, give him a combination of good and bad traits, which will also make the ending a more satisfying surprise.
4. Drop your reader in medias res.
In medias res is a Latin term used in literature that means “in the middle of things.” Readers who pick up mystery and thrillers tend to have a large appetite for suspense, so give them what they want by dropping them right in the middle of the action.
5. List your suspects.
Because mysteries function like puzzles, you want to make sure your readers have a hard time completing the picture. Usually, the most important part of the puzzle is the identity of the culprit.
One way to conceal their identity as long as possible is to create a list of other suspects to throw at your reader.
The best mystery novels usually introduce the reader to the culprit early in the book, giving them ample time to deviate between suspecting him and thinking him completely innocent, making for a great curveball in the end.
6. Consider writing your outline backwards.
Because a good mystery is all about planting clues and making your readers try to solve the puzzle, you may want to consider working backwards from the ending. The ending is when the mystery is answered, so try to outline your book by working from the end, so you can decide which clues need to be revealed when.
7. Plant false clues.
These false clues, also called red herrings, are part of what make mystery novels so exciting to read. The reader has to differentiate between real clues and those that only detract from the narrative.
Misdirecting your readers adds to the fun and suspense, as they experience the sudden plot twists and dead ends along with your protagonist. These help ensure that they’re guessing all the way until the end.
8. Remain logical and play fair.
A good mystery novel will surprise readers at every turn, but make sure that the surprises you give are logical. The real clues should logically lead to the answer to the mystery. Your goal is to bring your readers to the end, thinking, “I should have known!”
9. Give your characters a three-dimensional world.
Although the main point in your novel will be solving the mystery, remember that your characters are still individuals with their own lives. Make them more realistic by giving them three-dimensional lives, with families, jobs, lovers, or even a lack of them.
Characters are incredibly important in the unraveling of a mystery. If you think back to some of the most iconic mystery novels and series, it’s characters like Sherlock Holmes and Dupin that make uncovering new clues so thrilling.
They use their intellects, experiences, and other personality traits to get into the minds of the criminals. And when the protagonists are interesting and sympathetic, readers will be more invested in the story and more engaged in the journey.
Where to Get Ideas for a Mystery Novel
If you’re looking for ideas for a mystery story, use these strategies to find inspiration:
Read the newspaper.
If you want to get ideas for crimes, the newspaper or the news reports on TV can be a good place to find inspiration.
In Margaret Atwood’s Masterclass, the bestselling author quips about people complaining that her stories are too unrealistic, that “they can’t happen in real life.” She cockily tells them, “They did happen in real life,” because she had based them on real events.
Do your research.
Once you find a crime you want to write about, research more details about that type of crime so you can write about it with ease. It may also give you more ideas of how to plot your novel.
Bestselling thriller writer David Baldacci, who worked as a lawyer when he first started writing his books, advises students in his Masterclass to talk with actual police officers, or the characters you want to use as protagonists.
Imagine real people’s motivations.
People’s lives are rife with conflict. Try to imagine how a person’s hatred can escalate to something as serious as murder.
Mystery author Sue Grafton shares how she first started off by fantasizing about how to kill her ex-husband. Through her imagination of the details, she ended up writing her first mystery novel.
Writing a mystery novel can be as much fun, if not more, as reading one. Put your writing skills to the test, coupled with a puzzle-piecing challenge, in order to churn out a convincing tale that leaves your readers guessing every step of the way.
After you finish your first draft, set it aside for a while and then come back to it with fresh eyes to spot loopholes or unconvincing plot turns. Then, edit with a vengeance to refine your work to the best of your ability. Finally, look forward to thrilling your readers again and again as you continuously improve your craft!
Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:
- 14 Best Mystery Authors to Read Now
- 25 Best Mystery Books That Will Keep You Guessing
- List of Mystery Book Editors
- List of Mystery & Thriller Publishers
Yen Cabag is the Blog Writer of TCK Publishing. She is also a homeschooling mom, family coach, and speaker for the Charlotte Mason method, an educational philosophy that places great emphasis on classic literature and the masterpieces in art and music. She has also written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. Her passion is to see the next generation of children become lovers of reading and learning in the midst of short attention spans.