How to Write a Mystery

This page offers tips and advice on how to write a mystery. This is just one of many pages on this site about how to write different types of fiction. At the bottom, you'll find links to more creative writing lessons.

How to write a mystery that will knock them dead

Good mysteries are also good novels. They have memorable characters, an exciting plot, lively dialogue and writing that "shows" instead of "tells". You can build muscle in all of these areas by taking CWN online fiction courses.

How mysteries are special:

  • The plot is centered around a crime, normally murder. The novel's central conflict is between someone trying to solve the crime versus the criminal's efforts to cover his or her tracks. At the same time, a mystery is often set up as a kind of puzzle or game for readers, who analyze clues and try to solve the mystery themselves.

  • The main character is normally the person trying to solve the crime. This may be an actual detective, or private citizen who gets involved for personal reasons. The best mystery writers have sleuths (professional or amateur) who come alive on the page and often reappear in multiple books.

  • The authors use descriptive writing to create suspense and, often, an atmosphere of danger. In addition to bringing readers into the story, "showing-instead-of-telling" techniques allow the readers the fun of finding clues on their own and developing their own suspicions.

How to write a mystery - top tips

  • Read lots of mysteries. This is essential to learning how to write a mystery novel. Some mystery writers I personally like are Sue Grafton, P.D. James, Raymond Chandler, and Agatha Christie. Books that win the Edgar Award for mystery-writing are usually very good. You can find a list of current Edgar Award winners on the Mystery Writers Association website.

  • Create a great professional or amateur sleuth. You can use the CWN worksheet for writing character profiles to start bringing the character to life.

  • Map out exactly how the crime was committed. Imagine every detail.

  • Give the murderer a clear and convincing motive.

  • Know the ending of the book in advance. Then you can build toward it.

  • Make a list of clues that point to the murderer, which you will scatter throughout the book. Decide which is the crucial clue that will solve the mystery.

  • Consider including red herrings in your list of clues. These are false clues that point in the wrong direction. If you don't overuse them, they can make the game of solving the murder more exciting.

  • Make a list of suspects. You can use some red herrings to point the detective and/or the reader to the wrong person so that the ending will be a surprise.

  • Play fair with the readers. Whatever clues are available to the sleuth should also be shown to the reader. Readers who are "competing" against the detective and trying to solve the mystery on their own will feel cheated if the detective has key information that is being kept from them.

  • Try to surprise the reader at the end, but always play fair. The clues presented in the story should logically lead to the solution, even if you distract the reader with red herrings along the way. Readers will love it if your ending makes them think, "I should have known it!"

  • Do your research. If your murderer poisons the victim, make sure you choose a real poison and know how it really works. If there's policework involved, make sure you know the real procedures. Make friends with your local police department. Put in the hours at the library. If you get any of the technical details wrong, you can be sure that readers will notice, and they will lose confidence in your writing as a result.

  • Make it an exciting read. Start the action right away. Many mystery writers also end their chapters at moments of suspense (called "cliffhangers") to keep readers turning pages. Also consider putting either your detective, his or her loved ones, or another important character in danger in order to raise the stakes. In many mysteries, the detective is in danger at the story's climax -- that is, at the moment when he or she discovers the killer's identity (near the end of the book). And remember -- suspense begins with great characters. The more readers care about your characters, the more they'll care what happens to them.

  • Create a three-dimensional world. A mystery novel may be a kind of puzzle, but it's more than a brain-teaser. Your characters should have lives that extend beyond the particular situation. They have families or lovers or a lack of family and lovers. They live in a particular setting -- maybe New York or Los Angeles or a charming small town or a snooty suburb -- which you should make real for the reader.


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How to write a mystery - getting ideas

  • Start with real-life crime. Read the news, research crimes that actually happened, and then imagine a story around them.

  • Start with real people. Think of someone you know and imagine what might cause him or her to commit murder. Maybe you've even fantasized about killing someone yourself. You can use this as the idea for a novel. The mystery writer Sue Grafton says that her first mystery began with fantasies about murdering her ex-husband. She imagined how she might go about doing it and a great mystery was born.

  • Start with a fictional character. Use the character questionnaire to create a character, and then imagine a situation in which this person would be driven to murder.

How to write a mystery - organizing the plot

Once you have your idea, your characters, your list of clues and suspects, you can start outlining your novel. The story is normally about the (real or amateur) detective's effort to solve the crime. You should find a reason to make it important to the detective to solve the crime, either for personal or professional reason. This is key to making your reader care about what happens in the book. Scatter your clues along the way. Organize your plot so that it starts out exciting and then builds in tension and excitement to a peak, which takes place right before the end of the book. This peak moment should be when the decisive clue turns up, or when the detective understands its significance. What happens at this peak moment leads to the novel's ending.

How to write a mystery - next steps

Choose one of the links below for more on creative writing techniques and how to write a mystery.

Click here for ideas on how to write a mystery novel outline.

Click here for more ideas on finding inspiration for your novel.

Click here to see all CWN pages on how to write a novel.

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