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:

  1. A strong hook
  2. Active reader involvement in piecing together information
  3. Red herrings
  4. Suspenseful dialogue
  5. Effective, descriptive mood and language
  6. Well-structured chapters
  7. 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.

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  • cherylktardif

    Excellent article on writing a novel. And thank you for the link to one of my articles. Best wishes!

    • Thanks, Cheryl! My pleasure, thanks for penning a helpful resource for writers.

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