a corkboard with clues, how to write a mystery

Mysteries are a popular fiction genre. They captivate readers through intriguing storylines, tons of suspense, and unexpected plot twists. But how do you actually write a mystery?

To write a good mystery, you’ll need to incorporate some specific storytelling elements. First, every mystery needs a compelling protagonist with a strong motivation to solve the crime or puzzle. Second, you’ll need an interesting plot full of suspense that keeps readers guessing and on the edge of their seats. Finally, you’ll need a satisfying resolution that ties up all the loose ends.

Three popular mystery plot techniques include planting clues throughout the story that point to the culprit but are easily missed by readers, misdirecting readers to keep them guessing about the true identity of the villain, as well as creating a tense atmosphere throughout the story to build suspense and keep readers engaged. The best way to write a great mystery is to use all three techniques.

Keep reading to learn more about the five key elements of a great mystery.

1. Create Strong Characters

Mystery novels revolve around a protagonist who must attempt to solve a crime or piece together parts of a puzzle. This character needs to be relatable and likable but should also has some flaws that make them more relatable to readers.

The antagonist is the person responsible for the crime and is just as important to your story as your protagonist. Your villain needs to be well-developed and believable.

The supporting characters, such as allies to the protagonist or witnesses to the crime, are crucial to move the plot of your mystery forward.

2. Add Depth to Your Plot

Like every book, a mystery needs a clear beginning, middle, and end. Each section must contribute to your overall plot. The beginning of your mystery needs to set the scene and introduce the crime, your protagonist, and your protagonist’s right-hand partner. (After all Sherlock Holmes had Dr. Watson, right?) The middle of your mystery needs to build tension and add clues. Your ending needs to show your protagonist solving the mystery and the end also needs to tie up any loose ends—or set readers up to expect a sequel.

Here are five important plot ideas to consider including in your mystery:

  1. The crime or situation that needs to be solved
  2. Clues pointing to the solution
  3. Red herrings meant to mislead the protagonist (and readers)
  4. Obstacles or roadblocks that make it more challenging for the protagonist to solve the mystery
  5. A plot twist or surprise ending that will make sense based on the clues you provided the protagonist (and readers)

3. Cover All Traces of Plot Holes

Mystery writers often struggle with avoiding plot holes and story inconsistencies. To get around these common missteps, carefully plan your mystery and make sure all the pieces of your story logically fit together.

To prevent plot holes, I recommend keeping track of the clues you plant throughout your story and where you add each clue (keep a simple list each chapter or manuscript page number you add clues to). This helps ensure that all the clues you give lead to the same conclusion. Also, if you decide to introduce a red herring (a clue or person that distracts the protagonist and readers from the truth), make sure it’s plausible and doesn’t contradict other information in your story.

4. Intensify the Suspense

Suspense is one of the most crucial elements in writing a mystery. Here are four tips for creating tension in a story:

  1. Use short sentences to create a sense of urgency. This is particularly effective when a character is in a dangerous situation or is racing against time to solve the mystery. Short, punchy sentences allow you to convey a sense of urgency that keeps readers on the edge of their seats.
  2. Add physical danger or a ticking clock to add to the sense of urgency. Using one of these elements creates a sense of urgency. Whether your protagonist is racing against time to find someone who has gone missing, or you have a character who needs to escape a dangerous situation, these are powerful ways to build suspense.
  3. Reveal information slowly. When you dish out information in small doses to your protagonist and your readers, you control the pacing of the mystery. You can also fluctuate the speed at which you share information based on where in the mystery you are. For instance, clues may start off slow in the beginning because the protagonist needs to find clues and witnesses to start making sense of the crime. Whereas, in the middle of your story, you may quicken the pace at which your protagonist discovers clues, and then slow it down again right before the climax of your story.
  4. End chapters on cliffhangers. By ending a chapter on a suspenseful note or sharing new information (or a new clue), you encourage readers to turn to the next chapter to find out what happens next.

5. Solve the Mystery

Your readers spend the entire time reading your book waiting for the big reveal at the end of your mystery, so don’t rely on a predictable ending to satisfy them. The book’s ending needs to be strong. Each clue needs to make sense and connect to the resolution, and every character should be considered as a potential suspect until the very end.

I personally enjoy when mystery authors don’t release new evidence until after the antagonist has been revealed. This works as a bit of a plot twist and leaves the reader in the dark about the “how” for a bit longer.

It’s also important that your protagonist is actively involved in solving the mystery, instead of easily stumbling on the answer. Make the protagonist work hard for the information. By doing so, you create a more compelling and satisfying mystery that keeps readers engaged until the very last word.