For the longest time, I thought mysteries were impossible to write.
That’s partly by design—a compelling mystery will pull the rug out from under your feet and make you wonder how you missed the conclusion, which now feels obvious. It surprises and excites you, and it makes you want to go back and look at all the clues and details you might have missed along the way.
This can make a mystery feel like a hugely difficult feat, and this is why many writers will steer away from writing mysteries altogether. But mysteries aren’t inherently more difficult to write than any other genre! There’s just a few tricks you’ll need to help you along your way.
In this article, we’ll talk about what mystery stories are, what makes for a good mystery, how to create mystery (even if you’re writing in a different genre), and how to structure and write a mystery novel.
This guide on how to write a mystery covers:
- What is a mystery story?
- What makes a good mystery?
- How do authors create mystery?
- How to write a mystery story
What is a mystery story?
First things first: what is a mystery?
A mystery novel’s core plot revolves around solving a specific crime or string of crimes.
Mystery novels also tend to have their own set of tropes which come as a result of their plot. The loner detective, the anonymous killer narrator, and the femme fatale are all examples of tropes unique to the mystery novel.
What makes a good mystery?
Before we can get into how to write a mystery, we first have to consider what makes a mystery good. If you’re familiar with writing novels or plot structures, some of these tips may look familiar to you—these tricks will make any novel more engaging and interesting, but they’re absolutely essential to a mystery.
High stakes crime
If you’re writing a mystery novel for adults, it’s going to be hard to get your readers to care if the crime is inconsequential. No one’s going to stay glued to the page if the protagonist is trying to prevent a string of break-ins at the YMCA lockers—it doesn’t feel important enough. This is why so many mysteries revolve around serial killers. Having the perpetrator kill people immediately raises the stakes and engages the reader. This person is dangerous, and we want the protagonist to catch the perpetrator in time before another innocent person dies.
You also want your protagonist to be connected to the stakes in some way—maybe their job is on the line if they can’t catch the killer, or maybe they know someone the killer means to target. Giving your protagonist a personal connection to the stakes will make them more invested, and by extension, the reader will be more invested, too.
A ‘red herring’ is basically a false lead. It’s something that the protagonist and the reader believe is the answer, but which actually isn’t. Maybe the detective thinks the wrong person committed the crime, or maybe they stake out the wrong house looking for the perpetrator.
Having believable red herrings will make the reader believe that this mystery is a tough one to solve, and it’ll make it much more satisfying when the detective finally gets it right in the end.
A good protagonist or detective
Readers follow the protagonist or detective through the entire mystery, so it’s important that this character is compelling. Often, the protagonist is a detective, police officer, private eye, or sleuth, because this makes for an easy start to the story—they solve crimes for a living, and this is one of them.
However, it can also be interesting to use characters with no background in solving crimes. In fact, having an underprepared character can make for a compelling read. Your average reader also probably doesn’t know much about solving mysteries, so they’ll be able to relate to the protagonist’s underpreparedness, and they’ll root for the character’s transformation from everyday woman to hardened detective.
A believable conclusion
A good mystery novel needs a believable conclusion. The reader should be able to re-read the story and find all the details they missed which led to the final reveal. If the final reveal is random or set up poorly, the reader isn’t going to feel dazzled or surprised. They’re just going to feel cheated. No one could have figured it out if it came from nowhere, which makes the entire reading experience up to the reveal feel like a waste of time.
How do authors create mystery?
Now that we know which elements to include in a compelling mystery, let’s talk about how to make those things happen on the page.
Know more than the characters
Mysteries, at their center, are about revealing information to the reader in such a way that they’re figuring things out alongside the protagonist. This means you need to know every little detail of the crime, its perpetrator, and all the surrounding suspects, crime scenes, and characters.
Create a strong atmosphere
Intrigue and mystery comes from the plot, but it can also come from your story’s setting and atmosphere! Setting your story in a tiny, eerie seaside town can give it an immediately spooky and mysterious ambiance. Setting horrible murders in sunny suburbs can also make for a compelling contrast.
Have multiple suspects with strong motives
In order for the plot to be compelling, we need misdirections, and for the misdirections to be compelling, they need to be strong. If it’s obvious to the reader that the detective is pursuing the wrong suspect, they’ll get frustrated and bored.
To prevent this, have multiple suspects. Again, you should know everything about these people, and these people should be characterized strongly so they stand out to the reader. Think about murder mystery games like Clue—these characters are distinctive. We don’t have to struggle to remember them.
These suspects should also have strong motives and connections to the crime, or at least it should appear that way to the reader.
Don’t tell the reader everything
The reader should be uncovering the mystery alongside the detective. There’s no mystery if the reader already knows everything right off the bat—authors create mystery by revealing just enough information to keep the reader following along and speculating about what might have happened. Too little, and it’s too confusing to follow. Too much, and the game is ruined.
How to write a mystery story
At last, it’s time to talk about how to structure and create your very own mystery novel!
How do you structure a mystery story?
While mysteries will vary a bit by subgenre, most of them contain the following elements:
Step One: The Hook
These are stories about solving crime, and that means the plot should start off with, well, a crime. Think about detective movies: they often begin with an exciting, dramatic scene where a crime is committed. This gets the reader hooked right off the bat and immediately makes them want to find out who is responsible for what they’ve just seen.
Step Two: The Investigation
After we’ve seen the crime, we’ll need to get into the investigation. This is where we meet the detective and our core cast of characters. This is also where we learn about our suspects, the location where the crime took place, and set up all the little pieces that will pay off later.
Step Three: The Red Herrings
Before the detective can solve the case, there have to be some setbacks. Remember, these red herrings need to be believable in order to work, so really dig into the characters and locations to make the detective and the reader both convinced they’re right.
Red herrings also require a bit of practice with pacing. If the book is three hundred pages long and the detective thinks he’s found the killer on page fifty, the reader isn’t going to believe it. This doesn’t mean the detective can’t be wrong—it just means the book shouldn’t spend too much time dwelling on red herrings that are too obvious. It’s better to pick a few compelling misdirections than to constantly misdirect the reader.
Step Four: The Capture and Grand Escape
Finally, the case is solved! This is usually the climax of the novel, and it should be structured as such. There should be some sort of red herring or darkest hour to make the leadup to catching the perpetrator as thrilling as possible. Think of the movies and books you’ve seen—the detective loses their job and the confidence of their spouse chasing a bad lead, or after seeming to respond to the treatment the doctors settled on, the patient suddenly gets worse.
Then, we catch the real bad guy, the detective usually makes some sort of escape from the clutches of said bad guy, and the mystery is solved.
How to write a murder mystery
In a murder mystery, you’ll follow all the regular story beats associated with mystery stories. However, the crime your detective is solving will be murder. This is usually a serial killer, since having previous kills to relate to creates a pattern for the detective to follow.
To make an interesting murder mystery, you need an interesting murderer. What’s this murderer’s weird motive? Do they have some signature way of killing people? What’s the significance of that?
How to write a mystery short story
A mystery short story should be just as compelling as a novel, but, as you may have guessed, shorter.
To make a mystery story shorter without losing out on depth, try focusing on a smaller setting, like a house, small boat, or apartment. Keep the cast of characters as small as possible, and while you should still include red herrings, there should be fewer of them (but they should still be convincing!).
How do you write a fantasy mystery novel?
To write a fantasy novel, take what you know about writing mysteries and apply it to a fantasy setting. Here, you’ll really want to work in elements of the setting and worldbuilding to make the mystery feel unique. The murderer might be using some sort of magic unique to this world, for example, or maybe the crime is happening within a royal family.
To make this work, you’ll need to do the work of explaining enough about the world to the reader that they can pick up on necessary clues. If the murderer is using magic, for example, we need to know how that magic works. Otherwise, the reader has no way of speculating or guessing what might be happening.
How to write a cozy mystery
A cozy mystery contains all the regular pieces of a mystery story, but it’s usually less focused on horrendous violence and more focused on the nuts and bolts of solving the mystery. The setting is usually a small town or a peaceful village, and our detective is probably an amateur who hasn’t ever solved a crime before.
To keep your mystery cozy, look away from graphic depictions of violence. There may still be a serial killer, but we won’t see up-close murder sequences or horrifying dead bodies.
Disclosure: Some of the links above may contain affiliate partnerships, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Self-Publishing School may earn a commission if you click through to make a purchase.