Writing a mystery is complicated, no doubt! But, since mysteries are my favorite type of fiction, I thought it would be a fun challenge to narrow down my thoughts about how to write them effectively. The following 10 tips will help you understand how to write a mystery novel and create suspense on the page.
Since two heads are better than one, when considering such a complex topic, I called my award-winning mystery writer pal Elizabeth Sims. She generously agreed to allow me to pick her brilliant mystery-writing brain.
Together, Elizabeth and I settled on the following 10 tips for writing a mystery. We hope they help you find your way through the tricksy woods of your story!
10 tips for writing a mystery
How to write a mystery: sub-genres and outlines
1) PICK A SUB-GENRE: There are many mystery sub-genres. These include cozy mystery, hard-boiled detective fiction, and police procedurals, to name just a few. Job 1? choose your sub-genre and familiarize yourself with the conventions of that style.
2) READ WIDELY: Once you’ve chosen your sub-genre, read 100 (really: 100!) books of that type. While this might seem like overkill (and maybe slightly insane), reading very (VERY) widely in your genre is the single best way to absorb the rhythms of the category.
3) MAP OUT YOUR STORY: Depending on your sub-genre, your story is likely to be quite intricate and complex. Allow yourself time to identify the various twists and turns of your plot. Mystery writers, even more than other writers, benefit from creating solid outlines before starting to write.
Character arcs, subplot, stakes, and settings
4) GIVE YOUR DETECTIVE PROBLEMS: Allow your main character to struggle in their personal life while trying to solve the crime. Their struggles should force them to make a much-needed inner change. This change is as satisfying to the reader as seeing the mystery solved.
5) RAISE THE STAKES! You might think the very fact of an unsolved murder provides enough motivation for the investigating detective. But acctually, stakes-wise, you’ll want your detective to have some skin in the game. Whether they’re threatened with a demotion if they don’t resolve the mystery or they are actually suspects in the case themselves, raise the stakes by giving your main character an urgent reason to apprehend the murderer.
6) CREATE SUBPLOTS: Mysteries are meant to be, well, mysterious. If you’re driving your story down an unswerving path, your reader won’t enjoy the ride as much as if you add twists and turns—some of which can be provided by a subplot.
Perhaps you can develop one of your main character’s difficulties (above) enough that it distracts that them from solving the crime at hand. If that distraction puts the investigation in jeopardy, you’ve added an extra dollop of suspense into the subplot mix.
7) KNOW YOUR SETTING: Set your mystery in a location (or era) that you know well. Perhaps you’ve got a deep interest in Colonial Africa. Or lived in Boston in the 1980s. Wherever you set your story, be sure you know enough about it to create a faithful and familiar world for readers.
Also, involve your detective directly in that world. Perhaps they’re an investigative reporter in a small town in Alabama or a political protester in Berlin. A main character who’s actively engaged in your mystery’s location adds depth and interest to your work.
Red herrings, reversals, and reveals in your mystery
8) ESTABLISH RED HERRINGS: Red herrings are clues or information that mislead both the detective and the reader. Use them to create suspense by misdirecting the course of the investigation.
9) NAME CHARACTERS CAREFULLY: Don’t give your characters names that signal to the reader where they fall on the good-guy/bad-guy spectrum. Creating “dark” names for dark characters limits your ability to surprise your readers with a character’s unpredictable behavior.
SPOILER ALERT: Think Snape in the Harry Potter series: Learning his dark, nasty name, readers expect him to be a real baddy. But, in fact, he’s a much more sympathetic character than we could ever have imagined. Great work, J. K. Rowling, misleading readers with a well-considered character name!
10) ADD SURPRISES TO YOUR FINAL SCENES: Twisty endings are appropriate—and necessary—in such a twisty genre. When thinking about how to write your mystery, be sure to leave some surprising reveals or reversals for the last act. You might resolve a red herring or conclude a subplot in an unforeseen way. Whatever you do (“Luke, I’m your father”!), add something unexpected to the (pre-)climactic moments of your mystery.
Writing a mystery in a moral universe
In a way, a mystery novel describes a moral universe. Someone has done something wrong—and we want to see them pay. While you may choose not to bring your antagonist to justice, do your best to create a conclusive ending of some sort.
We’re living in uneasy times. If you can restore order to even a fictional corner of the world, without compromising your artistic vision, I, for one, will be grateful.
Resources to help you write a mystery
Of course, these tips are just the—ahem—tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning to write a successful mystery novel. A search on YouTube, Amazon, or Google will yield another gazillion helpful hints. The resources that follow are particular favorites of mine. Your mileage may vary.
START HERE: When you’re considering writing a mystery—or any other book, for that matter—Elizabeth Sims’s YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU is a great place to start. Subtitled “A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams,” Sims’s book has garnered tons of well-deserved love—especially from newer book writers.
Plot is central to writing a good mystery. My own book, PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK, is a small-but-mighty-tome I wrote with two fabulous co-authors. Its simple—not simplistic—approach to plot can be a game-changer. (Learn more about the Plot Clock!)
OTHER GOOD BOOKS: Larry Beinhart’s HOW TO WRITE A MYSTERY, Patricia Highsmith’s PLOTTING AND WRITING SUSPENSE FICTION, and P.D. James’s TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION are just three of many other helpful titles for writers who want to know how to write a mystery.
ORGANIZATIONS: Mystery Writers of America is a wonderful organization. It hosts regional and national mystery writing conferences and provides many other valuable resources for members. Sisters in Crime provides support for women crime writers. And the site The Cozy Mystery Library has virtual shelves full of helpful links for those writing cozies.