Writing a mystery novel: 7 items your story needs

Writing a mystery novel: 7 items your story needs

Writing a mystery novel - writing blog cover image

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

Writing a mystery novel - definition of the mystery term 'red herring'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

How to write a mystery novel endingA 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.

19 Replies to “Writing a mystery novel: 7 items your story needs”

  1. Pretty explainable article! Taught me a lot. Now I can use this to write my creative writing! Thank you so much, @NowNovel

  2. I’m writing an essay for a summer assignment in order to get in an Honors English class, and I’m trying to cite the author, but I cant seem to find the author on this page by chance does anybody know who the author is?

    1. Hi Mckalee, my apologies I didn’t see your comment sooner. I am the author but when attributing a blog or a non-traditionally published electronic source, it is generally acceptable to use the title of the publication (in this case Now Novel) with the address and the date of information retrieval.

  3. Not a big fan of “Here are the basic rules to follow to have a successful novel” Obviously a mystery novel must have Mystery, it should have Suspense but that holds true for any good fiction novel. I am not big on the rules and regulations of writing novels. While obviously there has to be some basic fundamentals aside from following the basics such as reasonably correct punctuation and grammar, and please remember grammar has evolved due to common usage by authors, not due to invented rules by some professor or critic who never wrote a best seller in their lives for the most part. One example is “foreshadowing” I mean what top author uses it? As a reader it leaves me cold, it’s like you have a part of the story in advance and who wants that? The most interesting novel of any best selling series of any author I can think of is, I think, the first one of the series; why? because it is full of mystery and excitement. After that even the best usually go downhill. After a lifetime of being a bookworm, seeing critically canned books such as Harry Potter, that violated many of the accepted “rules” of authoring, selling millions and as a recently published author who has listened to the true experts of writing bestselling novels (the authors), I honestly believe that it is just a matter of being reasonably accurate in spelling, punctuation and grammar and being interested in your story yourself and make it interesting enough and you can have a best seller. Another datum that seems important is If You Have a Fire Within, You Can Create a Fire Without. Mark J

    1. Hi Mark,

      Thank you for sharing your contrary viewpoint, you make a good argument. Regarding ‘foreshadowing’, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily giving part of the story in advance but rather sowing the seeds of implication (for example, introducing an object that later proves to be significant to the plot, a monument, a person, and so on). Effective foreshadowing can be quite subtle, ‘blink and you’ll miss it’, and in a certain kind of mystery (murder mystery) can be an excellent device for adding suspense.

      This perhaps over-simplifying notion of foreshadowing aside, you raise good contra-points. I’d add that having a bestseller certainly isn’t only to do with the writing itself but also how well you market and promote a book, as some dreadful books do make bestseller status, as you’ve intimated. Regarding Rowling, what she did very well is build a detailed, engrossing world that was vivid in its scope and sense of wonder, and this spoke to readers of all ages, I would say. Her series, of course, isn’t ‘literary’ in style or audience.

      Thank you for reading and engaging with our articles!

      1. Hi Jordan,

        I realize I’m responding to a post made 9 months ago, so I hope you’re still there. I’m hoping to get some advice per remarks that you made to Mark, specifically regarding marketing and promoting a book.

        I finished what I thought was a pretty good draft of one book, which is a drama/fantasy, almost two years ago. That was my first experience at seriously attempting to write a book, so I engaged a group of about 12 people to review it. Some I knew, some I didn’t know. I varied my evaluators by sex, age, interest in reading, etc. Although 11 out of the 12 said they liked the book, my best three critics (two of which were avid readers) liked the story/writing, but they wanted “more”.

        I wasn’t looking for empty compliments (although I’m guessing that the original draft was “good enough” on a superficial level, per the comments I interpreted); I wanted a book that could be interesting and successful. So, I spent the next year researching the elements of how to write a good book and gave my book some critical thought of my own based on what I had learned through my research. Then, I went to work on adding “more”. My book increased from 46K words to 86K words. I added a prologue to handle some of the backstory of the older characters that contribute to the plotline, kind of like a brief mini-story to clear the muddle of some of the backstory within the main text. I more fully developed my main characters and even expanded the interaction with some select supporting characters to round-out the story. Of course, I also added better hints of twists to come (and then added those twists and a fuller storyline), made my evil characters more evil, and made my sympathetic characters more sympathetic.

        My best critics have now reviewed my final draft. The conclusion was that I gave them the “more” they were looking for, and the book is ready to be published. I’m working on the book cover and I’ll be submitting the book for copyright shortly. I’ve dismissed submitting the book to publishing houses, mostly because I’ve heard that it is extremely difficult to even get them to read a book from a new author, and I understand that self-publishing is an alternative.

        So, that brings me around to your remarks about how well the book is marketed and promoted. I’ve done some research into Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I don’t see a lot of information about marketing and promotion. For Amazon, I see approaches like initial 30-day half-price (or even free) offers. I’ve also read that promoting a book on Amazon or any online publisher is enhanced by the keywords you select for your book. I considered things like book-signings, perhaps at the local library, or even at the local Barnes & Noble. I researched some self publishing under Barnes & Noble simply for the fact that they support local author events; however, it seems that they will only support those author events on the condition that your book has already sold at a certain level…again, something difficult for a new author to break through without prior marketing and promotion. Do you have any suggestions regarding marketing and promotion? Or, do you have any materials (websites, etc) that you could refer to assist with marketing and promotion for new authors?

        By the way, aside from the marketing and promotion question, I do have one other question with regard to the topic of this site (mystery writing). My next effort will be a mystery, but I’m wondering how it fits with the formula. I have two main characters, a husband and wife. The husband is police officer who desperately WANTS to be a detective. However, he is NOT the hero in the story. The crime occurs, but it appears to be related to the relationship between them. He gets the opportunity to be on the detective team to solve the mystery, but the more and more the story develops, the more he realized that the crime appears to be dependent on his own actions. Is it critical that the detective/mystery solver be the hero?

        Any advice on the marketing/promotion or my question about the mystery hero is appreciated!

        Thanks,
        Karen

        1. Hi Karen,

          Thank you for your detailed question. To answer in the two parts you posed it:

          1) Regarding marketing and promotion for self-published authors, it is admittedly tricky to promote and market without an existing platform to leverage, as you say particularly when seeking admission to platforms with more prestige (such as having bookstore-hosted book signings). Barnes & Noble is of course a big seller; approaching an indie or other smaller bookshop may be easier.

          The strategies you mentioned (initial discounting, for example) are widely used. I would recommend building a social media presence as a writer (if you haven’t already), sharing extracts, tweeting/gramming/Facebooking about writing, the books you love, the genre your work falls within, to build an audience, and engage with others’ posts (meaningfully, of course) on the same. This will help grow awareness.

          Having a blog where you write about your genre, about the writing process, and/or review books in your genre is also useful as you can build an email list and market your Amazon author page to your list. A promo blog tour could also help drum up interest, as you could reach out to book bloggers in indie publishing to offer guest posts and/or other content (e.g. review copies) to further get the word out.

          As a newcomer to marketing your work, it may seem daunting, so it could be helpful to take a course. We have an article specifically on marketing your work here that may be useful: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-build-a-book-audience/

          2) Usually the mystery solver is the ‘hero’, even if an unlikely one. It would maybe read a little strangely for the protagonist of the story not to be the one to make the most crucial discovery. However this would be a better question for an editor perhaps once the story is written, as it’s difficult to comment on the efficacy of a plot development or character arc in summary form.

          Please feel free to ask anything further, and good luck!

          1. Hi Jordan,

            Thank you VERY much! Your feedback was very helpful and the link you provided was awesome!
            I hadn’t found your site when I was doing my initial research on “how to write”, but I’ve checked out some links from the original mystery writing article and your site has a terrific way or organizing the content to make it extremely easy to follow!

            Thanks,
            Karen

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