How to Plot a Mystery Story – A Step by Step Guide

Posted on Sep 15, 2023

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Almost all fiction writing requires the storyline or plot to be carefully mapped out prior to writing. This way the writer has a framework to refer back to whilst they flesh out the finer details.

But with some genres this is of even greater importance as there are certain structures that are best observed in order to create great writing within the space.

This is particularly true for mystery stories and in this article we will be providing a step by step guide for writers on how to do this effectively.

With insightful tips and actionable takeaways, by the end of this guide any aspiring writers wishing to make their mark within the mystery genre, will be well equipped to plot out a great mystery story of their own.

This guide on how to plot a mystery story contains:

  1. Choose a central mystery
  2. Create a detective or protagonist
  3. Define the setting
  4. Identify key characters
  5. Outline the clues and evidence
  6. Plan red herrings
  7. Establish the motive
  8. Organize plot points
  9. Build suspense
  10. Set up the resolution
  11. Plan the conclusion
  12. Review and adjust

Choose a central mystery

Selecting the central mystery is the foundation of plotting a mystery story. It should captivate readers and fuel their curiosity throughout the narrative. 

Consider what crime or puzzle will serve as the core of your plot. It could be a murder, theft, disappearance or any event that demands resolution. 

The mystery should be sufficiently complex to engage the detective or protagonist, forcing them to unravel clues and confront obstacles. 

It is essential to strike a balance between intrigue and solvability, ensuring that readers are both challenged and satisfied when the mystery is ultimately unveiled.

Create a detective or protagonist

The detective or protagonist is the linchpin of your mystery plot and therefore writing a compelling character is essential. 

Consider their background, skills and personality traits. What makes them uniquely suited to solving the central mystery? Whether it is a seasoned detective with a troubled past, an amateur sleuth driven by personal stakes or an unconventional investigator with an unusual perspective, their character should strike a chord with readers. 

Develop their flaws and strengths, as these will impact their investigative journey.

A well rounded detective not only drives the story but also forms a connection with the audience, making them eager to follow their quest for answers.

Define the setting

The setting of your mystery story is a critical element that sets the stage for intrigue and atmosphere. It should be carefully chosen to enhance the narrative. 

Take time to consider the time period, location and the overall ambiance. A historical backdrop may provide a unique charm, while a contemporary urban setting can create a fast paced, modern feel. 

The chosen environment should be conducive to the central mystery, with corners and secrets waiting to be uncovered. 

By immersing readers in a vivid and evocative setting, you can heighten tension and make them feel like they are also navigating the mystery alongside your detective or protagonist.

Identify key characters

In your mystery plot, characters have to be given consideration on a granular level. Each character, whether a suspect, witness or accomplice, must be thoughtfully crafted. 

Give them distinct personalities, motivations and secrets. The suspects should be shrouded in ambiguity, making it challenging for both the detective and readers to discern their guilt or innocence. 

Witness characters can hold critical information or act as misdirection. By developing rich, multifaceted characters, you not only deepen the intrigue but also lay the groundwork for the interactions and conflicts that propel your mystery forward. 

These characters become the driving force behind solving the mystery, making their development pivotal to your plot’s success.

Outline the clues and evidence

Clues and evidence are the lifeblood of a mystery plot, guiding both the detective and readers towards the solution. 

Carefully plan a series of clues that lead logically from one to the next, forming a rail of discovery. 

These clues should blend into the narrative, allowing astute readers to engage in the investigative process. 

It is crucial to balance the complexity of clues, making them challenging yet solvable, ensuring the mystery’s resolution feels earned. Evidence should be credible and consistent, leaving no room for plot holes.

Plan red herrings

Red herrings are the necessary misdirections in your mystery plot. They are the false leads, deceptive clues or suspicious characters that divert attention away from the true solution. 

These elements serve to heighten suspense, keeping both the detective and readers on their toes. Craft red herrings that are convincing enough to make your detective question their assumptions. 

They should appear relevant to the central mystery but ultimately prove inconsequential. The art lies in making these distractions feel integral to the story, ensuring that the final revelation carries a genuine surprise. 

Skillful deployment of red herrings keeps the mystery engaging and unpredictable.

Establish the motive

The motive is the driving force behind any crime in a mystery story, and it’s a key element in plotting. 

It answers the essential question of why someone would commit the central act of wrongdoing or deception. Crafting compelling motives for your characters is crucial to creating a believable and engaging mystery. 

Motives can range from love and greed to revenge or desperation. They should be rooted in the character’s background and motivations, influencing their actions throughout the story. 

By carefully establishing motives, you not only make your characters more relatable but also provide a solid foundation for the central mystery, giving readers a reason to invest in its resolution.

Organize plot points

Plot points are the essential events and revelations that drive the narrative forward in your mystery story. Organizing them effectively is like assembling the pieces of a puzzle. 

Start by crafting a timeline or a detailed plot structure that outlines when and where these events occur. This structure should ensure a logical and engaging progression, with each plot point building on the previous one. 

Think about how clues and character interactions lead to these pivotal moments. By meticulously organizing plot points, you maintain the story’s momentum, control pacing and create a narrative that keeps readers eager to read until the story’s conclusion.

Build suspense

Building suspense is an art in and of itself when it comes to plotting a mystery story. To achieve this, strategically layer moments of tension and unease throughout your work.

Introduce unexpected obstacles, dilemmas and conflicts that challenge your detective’s progress. As the plot unfolds, escalate the stakes and hint at greater dangers lurking beneath the surface. 

Foreshadowing and well timed reveals can heighten curiosity and anxiety. Gradually unveil clues while maintaining a degree of uncertainty, encouraging readers to speculate and formulate theories. 

Effective suspense keeps your audience engaged, invested and eagerly seeking the resolution to the mystery until the very end.

Set up the resolution

Setting up the resolution is in many ways the ultimate aim of your mystery plot. After guiding readers through a series of clues and suspense, it’s time to unveil the truth. 

Plan how the mystery will be solved and by whom. The resolution should be the culmination of deductive reasoning, careful analysis and, in some cases, a dramatic confrontation. 

Ensure that the solution aligns logically with the evidence and clues presented throughout the story. Avoid sudden, improbable revelations by allowing your detective to connect the dots progressively. 

A well constructed resolution not only satisfies the reader’s curiosity but also provides a sense of closure and fulfillment.

Plan the conclusion

The conclusion of your mystery story is the final piece of the puzzle, where all loose ends are tied up. 

It is essential to provide closure for both the central mystery and the character arcs. Ensure that every subplot and character’s fate is addressed, leaving no lingering questions. 

The conclusion should not only reveal the solution to the central mystery but also show how it impacts the lives of your characters. 

Whether justice has been served, personal growth attained or any unresolved issues, the conclusion should find a balance between making sense and not being easy to guess.

Review and adjust

Reviewing and adjusting your mystery plot is a critical step in ensuring its effectiveness. Once you have laid out the entire plot, take a step back and assess its coherence, pacing and logical flow. 

Look for any plot holes, inconsistencies, or elements that may need clarification or removal. Ensure that the clues and red herrings are appropriately placed, leading the reader on an engaging journey. 

Seek feedback from beta readers or peers to gain fresh perspectives. Be open to making revisions and refinements to enhance the overall structure and impact of your mystery.

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