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How to Write a Fictional Mystery Novel

Updated on October 27, 2012
Image Courtesy of Dan/
Image Courtesy of Dan/

Writing any kind of novel involves the same basic paths. A novel could be done in a free, intuitive way, or through a more structured process. The first method involves writing freely, continually following the path dictated by one's muse. The path one takes depends on individual preferences and the author's psychological make-up. Some people simply work better writing without some kind of imposed guideline. These novelists will have to do the technical planning and plotting after or during, instead of before (the structured way) the process of writing--at least of the first draft. Both styles have their advantages and their disadvantages.

Mystery writing is very much plot-oriented. It involves a puzzle and the process of solving it. The whole story is a process of uncovering the mystery at the heart of the book. Some writers have compared it to a game that the reader works to win/solve through the process of reading the novel. Because of this, plot is at the heart of such a story, with clues and hints, and red herrings placed strategically at different parts of the novel in order to enhance the experience of the reader.

Features of a Mystery Story

  • The Mystery, Puzzle or Crime

As already mentioned, the most basic feature of a mystery novel is a mystery: a puzzle at the heart of the story that drives it forward. Many mysteries involve or begin with a murder, but they don't have to. The most important thing is that the mystery is intriguing enough for the audience you're writing for. Don't write a book about a question that no one will be curious to discover answers about.

  • The Plot

Intricate plotting is a very important feature of mystery books. Correct timing of the events of the story and placement of clues throughout the novel is crucial to the sustenance of the mystery, the building of suspense and the pacing of the action for the optimal enjoyment of the reader. Without plotting, clues may be misplaced: too much information revealed too early on in the story kills interest in it by having the reader solve the mystery too early on and destroying the climax at the end. On the other hand, too little information may bore, frustrate or anger the reader as they feel like they are not getting anywhere with the story.

  • The Characters

a) There is usually a limited number of suspects or leads, among whom lies the possible criminal or the solution to the mystery. A mystery cannot have too many possibilities, as this can be frustrating and scatter the puzzle-solving drive in the mind of the reader. Part of the appeal of a mystery story is the instinct to pursue knowledge in humans, aka curiosity. It can only be sustained if the reader thinks he can solve it. It makes him want to keep at the story until he does. At the very least, this number of suspects or leads should be narrowed as the mystery progresses and more and more information is uncovered.

PS: It may turn out that the real criminal or solution lies outside the possibilities initially considered.

b) The mystery-solver, often a detective, is the protagonist. This is the character with whom the reader identifies and through whose eyes much of the story is told. He or she wants to solve the mystery.

  • The Solution

This is the whole purpose of the story. It's the climax towards which the story single-purposely tends. It's revealed at the end or towards the end of the story

 Step 1: Find a good idea for your story

If you don't already have a good idea, there are many ways and places to find inspiration for numerous ideas for a story.

  1. The News, Newspapers and Magazine Articles: Do not copy real life events exactly, such as crime cases. Only pick the central mystery about it to build an entirely different story on. Change some things about them: the physical and historical setting, the characters and their motivations.
  2. Real life: Look at a person in your life whom you find interesting. Could you imagine a character like that in some crazy, unimaginable crime or event? What would be their motivation? How would they accomplish it and hide it from sight?
  3. History: Find historical puzzles or controversies and make up a story about solving them.
  4. Book and Movie Summaries: Use good summaries such as can be found at imdb. Pick a summary and change some elements about it: Setting, time, characters. Combine a few summaries and try to make a single coherent story about them.
  5. Story Prompts: The Internet has numerous websites that have thousands of these.
  6. Magnetic poetry kit: Get a kit with different sections carrying different categories of random words. Pick several words from each-- randomly-- then try to write meaningful sentences with them. When you have a few sentences, try to write a story based on those sentences.
  7. Free-writing: Just start writing... don't think. Write whatever comes to your mind and don't reflect on it. Apparently, many authors swear by this exercise's ability to get your creative juices flowing.
  8. Examine the mystery and thriller books, movies and stories that you like: Find out what it is in the story that grips you and tugs at your heart. Do this and think about it for a few days, writing and exploring what ideas pop into your mind. The process makes clear what it is you like in a story--a part of your own make-up per many story-tellers' wisdom-- and can set your creativity flowing.


  • Look for questions that are genuinely interesting to you to find answers to. You cannot sustain interest in a story that you have no genuine and deep curiosity in: you will not finish writing it.
  • Pick an idea about a puzzle that will also pique the curiosity of others. Don't write about a question that no one is interested in finding answers to, or information that no one will be interested to learn. Make it compelling enough for the particular audience that you're writing for.
  • Sit with the idea for a few days, playing with it and trying out all sorts of settings and different twists. Combine stories and characters. Play with all sorts of ideas. Do this until you have a good basic story idea in your hand that is intriguing and deeply interesting to you.

"Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself." Pixar's Emma Coats in The 22 Rules of Story-telling, according to Pixar.

Image Courtesy of Simon Howden/
Image Courtesy of Simon Howden/

Step 2: Lay Out the Crime, Mystery or Puzzle in Detail

This is important. Many storytellers talk about the importance of knowing the end right from the beginning of writing, so as to avoid getting off track--in all genres of writing, not just mystery. This is much more crucial in mystery, though. Remember: You have to keep giving clues throughout the novel until the mystery is solved. You must know all details in order to know what information constitutes clues and where to place it in the story. Now, you can't do that, certainly not easily, if you don't know the solution of the mystery right from the start.

So decide and write down all these details:

  • What are the specifics of the crime? If it's not a crime novel, then what are the specifics of the lost or missing object or information that forms the central mystery?
  • How was the murder, theft, or other event forming the central puzzle, accomplished? What tools, persons, places were involved? .
  • Who is involved? What is their motivation? How is all this information kept hidden?
  • What specific facts, objects, or conversations would point to the hidden information? How would a mystery-solver go about finding them?


Research: Do as much research into the key matters and elements of your story as possible.

  • If your story is about a crime, read about those types of crimes and how they're accomplished and hidden: Speak to the police and investigators as much as possible.
  • If it's about a historical mystery, do as much Historical research as possible on that place, event and those persons and cultures.

This information gives you much material for writing that is credible and believable to the reader.

Be sure to include all the information that the protagonist uses in solving the mystery- While the solution should be surprising to the reader in the end, don't make the solution transcend the clues you provide. That is, even if you make it very difficult to see for the reader (as you should), the clues and facts upon which the mystery is finally solved should be explicitly present in the book (even if downplayed and skillfully hidden in ''plain sight'' if you will) before the mystery is solved. This or your reader will feel cheated when the protagonist finally solves the mystery with information that was not available to the readers also (in other words, play a fair game).

Step 3: Lay out the Character of the Protagonist/Mystery-Solver in Detail

The Protagonist

You must know your protagonist well in order to write about him and his actions credibly. Write out all the information you can about him and his history. Make him someone that readers will come to love or at least root for. Give him some quirks and characteristic ways of speaking and acting.

You must give him a motivation for solving the mystery and persisting in it. A credible story explains why people do the things they do.

  • The motivation of the protagonist could be tied to the protagonist's character: Perhaps, like Sherlock Holmes, he's just got an incredibly deep thirst for puzzle-solving to satisfy his immense intellectual curiosity. Perhaps something happened to him in the course of his life to give him a great thirst for justice, like Bruce Wayne/Batman.
  • It could be the protagonist's job: Perhaps he or she is a police officer, private investigator, reporter, archaeologist or Historian, for a few examples.
  • The motivation could be something specifically tying the protagonist to the object of the mystery. Perhaps the lost item or person is of great importance to the protagonist. Perhaps the protagonist is a suspect or in some other kind of trouble that makes the solution of the mystery a matter of primal importance to him or her. Perhaps a person who is close to the protagonist is the one in trouble.
  • The motivation could also be some impending trouble, or a far-reaching fate that is tied to the mystery. If it's not solved, some terrible consequence will follow.

Step 4: Come up with Red-Herrings or False Leads

-Think about other possible solutions to the mystery or crime, apart from the real solution that you've decided on in the preceding steps. See how many other ways the event or crime could have happened other than the one that you've decided on as the actual solution. This is material for red-herrings, or false clues that you'll use to mislead the reader.

-In crime novels, think about other characters who would have possible motives for the crime. Think about how they could possibly have committed the crime. This gives you ideas for red-herrings or false clues that you will place in the novel to mislead the reader from the real criminal. See how you would tie some of these in with the facts of the crime you laid out in step 1, in order to provide believable red-herrings.

PS: Be sure to build up the characterization of some of the main suspects or leads in order to make them a real possibility in the mind of the reader.

Step 5: Lay down the Climax/Ending of the Mystery

As said above, you need to know the end from the beginning. This is more than knowing the solution, such as who killed X and why--It's figuring out the moment when the protagonist finally solves the mystery, or when he reveals it if he had already solved it. It's the point toward which the whole story leads, as in a straight line. Make sure it comes at a point toward the end of the story and before a clever reader has solved the mystery.

Step 6: Plot your Novel

This means making or writing a plan for your story. It's writing a sufficiently detailed outline of your story that will guide you in the process of writing the story. There are several techniques that authors have developed. You can use the techniques offered on How to Write a Book Now, which are based on the dramatica theory and which I personally find to be the very best for beginners such as myself. You can also use Randy Ingermanson's snowflake method.

These methods help you write out a basic plot-line and then develop it and flesh it out until you have a full-fledged story in your hands that is ready to be told/written.


  • Don't over-do the redherrings, place only enough throughout the novel, just enough to lead the reader into a few directions.
  • Be fair- Give enough clues to your reader to make them have a sense of where the story might lead, even if it's away from the real solution.

Step 7: Write your Novel!

All the steps we've discussed so far have been about making or building a story. This step is about the actual art of telling that story through the craft of writing. A good story told badly will not attract many readers. Some books and movies have very wonderful stories which are told in a very bad or boring manner, and they bomb. The film-maker uses film (picture and sound) to tell the story and the writer uses written words.

Good writing is said to make the writer/narrator invisible. The reader simply forgets about the telling of the story, the style of writing (such as how sophisticated or horrible it is), and flies through the pages in order to follow the characters and their adventures.

The best way to get your writing in order is to learn the craft of writing through practice, workshops, critique groups, books and tips from other writers. The craft involves many elements of style that engage the reader or evoke certain states of mind in him or her. The one most universally asserted tip is: Show, don't tell, which is to say:

  • Use detailed descriptions
  • Use dialogue as a way of conveying information instead of straight-out telling it to the reader.
  • Prefer the active voice (over the passive voice) in your sentences.
  • Use action verbs (verbs that show something doing something) instead of static verbs (verbs that describe states of being, such as ''seem'' ''was'')

etc etc.

For much more on the actual craft of writing, please visit the above-linked website:, as well as for more tips and guidelines.


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    • DominiqueCM profile image


      3 years ago from Montreal, Canada

      These are definitely good things to keep in mind when writing a murder mystery. Thanks for sharing!

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Any time. Let's know what and when, and I'll see what I can do for you. Check out my return comment on 'Upper Wharfedale'.

    • Eva Civo profile imageAUTHOR

      Eva Civo 

      6 years ago

      Hi Alancaster149! So great you've written three books! Wow! I'm actually right now writing my very first novel- it's so much fun! I decided to write this hub to share some of what I've been learning for quite sometime now as I do my book. Hope you'll read it someday. Thanks for the comment and the follow!

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello Eva, am I really the first in this book? Have you written any novels?

      Well-served, sound, structured no-nonsense advice I wish I'd known about long ago. Still, mustn't grumble. I'm a couple of chapters into my fourth book about the Conquest era, with the third 'on the stocks', panting to be let loose -

      I'd been looking for an 'angle' when I started mine, occasionally scouring the papers etc for something to 'hang my bones on', and then saw it in a tabloid. An interview the the singer James Blunt, telling the writer about an ancestor - a member of Danish royalty who fought alongside his kinsman King Harold at Hastings - who I could fuse into the story as my central character. It's the stuff of legend, as they say.

      Again, good Hub!


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