Is the art of novel writing still — and we sincerely apologize for the bad pun in advance — a mystery to you? Nobody’s going to be able to teach you how to craft a bestseller, because that requires your own magic touch, but we’re here to help you get started penning a mystery story that will keep readers on the edge of their seat the entire way through.
Mystery Basics: What Makes a Story a Mystery?
You have, of course, enjoyed plenty of mysteries in your time — in the pages of great novels, as well as on the big screen and through your TV. Like everyone else who has been taken on a wild ride through tense plot twists and turns, and thought you saw the end of the story coming from a mile off only to be pleasantly surprised, you intuitively understand what a mystery is.
If you are going to write one of your own, though — whether that’s a novel, a short story, or a movie or TV script — taking another look at the elements that make a mystery a mystery can pay off.
A mystery is often simply described as a story with an unsolved question at its center, and one in which discovering the answer is the main goal. The unsolved question also has to be interesting, however. (“Where did I leave my glasses when I got out of bed this morning?” isn’t going to hold many people’s attending for the 70,000-odd words typically found in a novel, after all!)
Keeping that in mind, a mystery can best be described as a story with an alluring secret or burning question at its heart, and almost every successful mystery broadly follows a single tried-and-tested formula:
- After a short lead-up (optional, because you can also dump your readers right in the middle), the big mystery is revealed with a hook that keeps readers interested.
- The hunt is now on for an answer, and characters will start looking for clues, which will slowly be revealed.
- That’s never as easy as it seems to be at first glance, and efforts to discover what’s really going on will be thwarted every step of the way.
- Eventually, the mystery must be solved to give the readers or audience a satisfying resolution.
What is so appealing about a mystery? Like all other literary genres, mysteries offer readers the temporary opportunity to escape from their own troubles or daily grind, and to immerse themselves in a new world. Mysteries are also, on the other hand, a bit of a puzzle — and audiences will try their best to solve the mystery right alongside the main characters in the story.
Will they get it right? Or will their first instincts prove to be completely misguided? This personal treasure hunt represents an essential part of reader satisfaction, and mystery readers are looking for intellectual stimulation as well as escape. The process of crafting the story, and gradually revealing layers of secrets hidden under layers of secrets, can be equally exciting for the author.
Mystery Sub-Genres Writers Should Be Familiar With
Many mysteries are crime stories, but that is definitely not always true. Do you have a great general plot idea, and have you already come up with a mood for your story, too, and are you not quite sure whether your vision qualifies as a mystery? This look at the most popular sub-genres in mystery, as well as some more obscure ones, should answer your question.
1. Cozy Mysteries
These mysteries are usually, though not always, crime stories. The thing that sets this sub-genre apart from all the rest is that these stories unfold in a romantic, small-town, or sleepy setting where there’s not usually much drama. The detectives or sleuths — or other protagonists hunting for answers — aren’t pros, but amateurs, and to get to the bottom of the puzzle, they’ll have to be quick-witted and always ready to learn something new.
What’s more, though cozy mysteries might involve plenty of crime, and often indeed murder, the crimes aren’t described in gory details, making cozy mystery novels suitable even for readers who don’t enjoy blood and guts.
Some great examples of cozy mysteries include:
- The 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series by Alexander McCall Smith
- The Singaporean Mystery Series by Ovidia Yu
- The Miss Marple Series by Agatha Christie
2. Detective Mysteries
This much-loved sub-genre of mystery novels — which is also popular in the medium of TV, in which case it usually goes by the name “cop show” — tells the story (definitely a crime, in case you were wondering) from the point of view of a hardened detective, private eye, or spy. These mysteries deeply immerse the reader in the life of the protagonist.
Great examples of detective mysteries would include Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot — which need no further introduction.
Procedural mysteries can be seen as a sub-genre within a sub-genre. These novels are written for folks who enjoy following the evidence themselves, and are jam-packed with forensic clues and police procedures.
3. Thriller Mysteries
The one element that sets mysteries within the thriller sub-genre apart from others is the fact that the main characters aren’t just trying to solve a mystery. Ongoing and acute tension and danger lies at the very core of these stories, and unless the protagonist manages to find the right answers, their very life may hang in the balanced. These stories are perfect for the adrenaline junkies out there, because thrillers are edge-of-seat material readers won’t be able to put down!
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is one of the most famous examples.
4. Noir Mysteries
This sub-genre is reserved for readers who crave wonderfully complex, flawed, and three-dimensional characters, and who enjoy exploring gray areas as they decide whether the often deeply questionably paths the reluctant heroes take are morally justifiable. The noir detective genre also tends to be dark — readers can usually expect graphic descriptions of gruesome crimes. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and subsequent books in the series by Stieg Larsson is one excellent example of a book series that falls into this category.
5. Supernatural Mysteries
In supernatural mystery stories, something “out of this world” lies at the heart of the mystery — there may be ghosts, vampires, witches, mages, monsters, demons, or indeed all of those entities combined, or even rolled into one. These novels tend to be extremely suspense-filled, and one great example would be The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss.
6. True Crime Mysteries
True crime stories are, as the name suggests, based on a crime (or, indeed, other type of mystery) that actually happened. It may be a recent or historical crime, but because of their nature, these mysteries are not strictly fictional, and need to be carefully-researched.
How to Write a Great Mystery: A Step-by-Step Guide
Mysteries can be short stories or entire novel series, but regardless of the format you are going for with your mystery story, the steps you’ll need to take to write your work will be similar. Although every writer has to find their own approach, complete with little rituals and routines that make the writing process easier, many aspiring mystery writers will find their feet if they follow this approach. (Hint: Read all the way through before you commit any words to paper!)
1. Settle on a Sub-Genre for Your Mystery Story
Deciding what sub-genre you would like your mystery to fall into makes it easier to create a setting, crime, and characters that work well within the overall mood you are trying to create. Even if you already have a great character in mind, or you’ve already come up with the crime or big mystery at the core of your plot, it really helps to settle on a definitive sub-genre before you get into the meat of your writing.
2. Next, Decide on the Crime (or Other Mystery)
Yes, really — while character development so often forms the backbone of any author’s writing plan, writing a mystery is a little different. You want the crime or other mystery to fit in with the setting and characters, and to make sure that your ideas will work, it’s good to commit to the most important part of your story first.
Your main mystery may be a murder, a disappearance, a theft, or something different entirely — and in addition to deciding what the crime is, authors will also have to figure out how the perpetrator got away with it (at least initially). This often dictates who they are, what kind of job they do, and what powers or skills they possess, so picking a crime first will have a huge impact on your character development.
3. Pick Key Characters to Include in a Gripping Mystery Story
Most mysteries are ultimately about human relationships. Even more than many other literary genres, mysteries are built on complex relations between people — and the author’s ability to craft believable and interesting characters with motives readers can understand, even if they don’t agree, will make or break the mystery.
Every mystery benefits from:
- A strong detective, who will usually also serve as the narrator. This character can, but doesn’t have to, be an actual detective. They can also be a well-meaning citizen, school girl, journalist, or just about anyone else, but they’re the main sleuth in the story. Like any other compelling character, they should have admirable traits but also flaws and vulnerabilities.
- The suspects are the folks who may have committed the crime, or may otherwise be responsible for causing the mystery. It wouldn’t be a mystery if your readers immediately know who “did it”, so it’s important to create multiple shady characters that could reasonably be suspected.
- The actual perp, or set of perps, should have a clear motive readers can relate to in some way, and in addition to being a criminal, they should also have admirable qualities.
- Every mystery story also needs a victim or multiple victims — and in the case of murder mysteries, they’ll end up dead. The victim can just as easily be the husband who was left shaking his head when his wife suddenly disappeared without a trace, of course, because not all mysteries are crime stories.
- It’s often helpful to create a “sounding board” or “shoulder to cry on” for your protagonist, as well. This could be a partner, a best friend, a mom, or a superior officer.
4. Craft a Strong Plot for Your Mystery
Mystery novels are puzzles — and more than other types of novels, it’s absolutely crucial that all elements of your plot fit together neatly so that, if anyone were to analyze the story after reading it, every piece would make logical sense. Your story should also be filled to the brim with suspense, and mystery stories are usually fast-paced ones that are hard to put down.
Essential plot elements for your mystery include:
- A compelling hook. If the beginning of your story isn’t so fascinating that readers feel like they simply have to keep reading to find out what happens next, your hook isn’t strong enough, yet. Keep looking for a killer opening (yes, often literally) until you find one that you yourself find riveting.
- Keep the plot moving forward with clues, and have your characters stumble on a dead end, jumping to a painfully faulty conclusion, at least once. Think of the clues as a staircase that just keeps building, until your readers arrive at the peak. Each step taken is a new high point, after which you’ll want to give your detective (and your readers) a little break to allow the information to percolate.
- From there, you’ll eventually have to reach a climax — which means you’ll have to solve the mystery.
- If you’ve sent your readers on a wild goose chase, you’ll have to tie up all those loose ends after the mystery has been solved, to help them understand why they suspected the wrong people, and what ultimately made them innocent.
Mystery novels, or short stories, should leave the reader feeling satisfied by the time they reach the last page. They shouldn’t have unresolved questions. Just like a puzzle, every piece should slide into its place, to allow readers to feel they’ve finally worked it out. Because yes, the best mysteries are those in which readers feel like they were the detective!
5. Choose the Right Book Writing Software for Your Mystery
Mystery stories have a lot of complicated moving parts, and as the author, you want to be absolutely certain that everything you commit to paper has a logical explanation, and fits into the wider plot. This is especially true in procedural mysteries, but remains true for every other sub-genre.
Keeping track of everything that happens can be tough, even for you! Just like the cops you’ve seen on TV a million times, you’ll want to set up your very own “evidence board” to link all the threads together. You can do this in a physical format, in which case a large whiteboard will work just fine, but mindmapping software can also be a great tool.
When you’re gearing up for the next phase of your writing process, you’ll probably want to create an outline. Great ideas may come to you at any time, and if you’re suddenly stuck with a great note on which to end your mystery, you will want to make absolutely sure you can find it again later.
Book writing software makes this much easier, and you have an ocean of superb choices to pick from. They include Scrivener, Evernote, Ulysses, and even trusty old Google Documents. You want your software to be searchable, and where possible, you’d probably love for it to come with a great outlining and organization tool.
6. You’re Not Done Until You’re Done: Editing Your Mystery
There’s no denying that many people write short stories or novels without any intention of publishing them — but if you are even just considering the idea of publishing or self-publishing your story, editing it to the best of your ability is a crucial part of the creative process. Your editing process should include the following steps:
- Reading your mystery to ensure that you have a “water-tight case” on your hands — you don’t want plot holes, and you don’t want to leave readers with any mystery.
- Assessing the flow of your story and making sure that every aspect of the setting, plot, and character design moves your mystery forward.
- Line editing to check if you’re happy with your sentence construction and word choices.
- Proofreading for style, grammar mistakes, and typos.
Once you have done everything you can, you can engage beta readers to get feedback on your mystery. You can then look for a professional editor to polish your story even further, before looking for literary agents of moving ahead to self-publish your mystery.
How to Write a Mystery: Some Practical Tips
Many writers are tempted to procrastinate. To get your story finished:
- Set up a routine that works for you. Some authors commit to writing a set number of words every day or every week, while others carve out a particular time period. Setting yourself small goals will help you get to the finish line.
- Make time for research — this is just as important as the time you spend writing. If you’re writing a detective story, you’ll want to research police procedures to make sure you can accurately reflect their work, for instance.
- Don’t let others interrupt your creative work. If you take it seriously, they will, too.
- Outline the important milestones in your mystery ahead of time, so you can keep the pace up.
- If you’ve got serious perfectionist tendencies, try telling yourself you’re not allowed to delete or change anything until after you have finished a certain number of pages, or an entire chapter. “Control+Z” can be your biggest enemy, but you’re in charge. If your work is truly bad, you can edit it later, but often, you’ll find that you did a much better job than you thought you did in the moment.