Even for the most experienced author or novelist, venturing into a new or highly specific genre can be challenging, albeit not impossible. The mystery genre is one of the most popular categories of books. But how to write a mystery novel? Writing a mystery novel is incredibly exciting because these books have the ability to really take the reader’s emotions for a ride. The same occurs for the author during the writing process, as you work to try to trick your reader through thinking up situations and mysteries that haven’t been told before.
Great mystery novels typically have one significant thing in common, and that is the author’s intention. These books are rarely created by individuals who do not have a passion for the topic or a significant amount of energy to dedicate to the process. Mystery writing can certainly be taught, and there are many tips and tricks of the trade that we will share below. However, before you take pen to paper, take a moment to evaluate your natural interest and talent for the genre and see where it might make sense for you to give attention to some writing tips and learned elements of the process to take your writing to the next level.
Let’s dive into exactly how to write a mystery.
Before you set out to create a mystery novel, you should be well-read. And not just within this sector, in general. Being a well-read author allows you to experience the style of other professionals in the industry and develop your own. Additionally, you will have the chance to understand how other creatives work to gain and retain an audience.
Even if you find yourself in the middle of a book that is not particularly gripping your interest, finish it. Beginning slow may have been part of the author’s plan, and when the novel ends, you will see that. If that is not the case, you can file that book under the research category and simply move on. The most important thing here is to become an expert from both sides of the book, the creative side, and the consumer side.
Define your niche
The genre of mystery has many facets. This can be an exciting part of being an author, is that you get a lot of freedom to allow your imagination and talent to run free. Below are some of the different sub-niches that live inside the general subject of mystery stories. You can use these to consider which subset you would like to write in.
This sub-niche brings together the worlds of mystery with the inner workings of a complicated mind. Here, a narrative challenges the audience mentally and is stimulating via twists and turns as opposed to a solution-based mystery story.
This subset is arguably more gentle than some of the others. In many cases, the main character is an amateur sleuth, and the overall setting and storyline are more intimate and smaller in scale. There is also no gore or offensive language used.
Historical mystery novels are generally created and based around a specific time and place in history. You can expect many of the characters, references, and settings to be depicted in a period-specific manner.
A niche that is moderately self-explanatory is romantic suspense. This mystery genre is going to have a well-defined relational aspect and one of obvious romance. This may be unrequited love or dangerous affairs of the heart, but either way, your writing will include convincing characters that are connected romantically in some fashion.
You may have heard this also described as an espionage novel, but a spy thriller is traditionally going to deal with one agency working to beat a timeline or deadline. During this mission, there is likely a series of events that will either stand in the way of the main character’s original plan or uncover details that expose an enemy or villain.
This is a very methodical niche, so this might be for you if you are a process-forward author or someone who enjoys a heavy aspect of research when developing characters and storylines. This type of mystery writing can require many technical details, so be sure that you work to create engagement and interest and not just a fact-heavy novel with no personality.
Here you will work to develop a traditional thrilling tale but work in elements of the paranormal, or otherworldly, to fit within this sub-category of mystery writing. You will have the chance to work in elements of ghosts, vampires, or other spooky beings.
Be details obsessed
Details may be the part of writing that drives you crazy, but they are so important in mystery writing. Specifically, when you are working to grab hold of your audience, you want to give their minds as many details as possible. This is so that they can not only stay invested but also are not be able to guess the ending of your book before it is presented to them.
Like many other devoted thematic readers, mystery readers stick to one genre, and they are very well-read within it. Having said that, whether they do so intentionally or not, they will be comparing your work to other authors in your competitive circle. It is your job to create and develop fascinating characters and to use a great mystery architecture to stand apart from your professional peers.
Main components of a storyline
Of course, you will write the first draft, but you will likely write many drafts. Specifically, if you work with an editor and/or publisher, you are going to have several versions of the same story that are reviewed before the final product goes to print. Here are a few of the core elements to consider when you sit down to write a mystery.
- Keep some identities a secret
- Mix up motives and suspects
- Give false clues (red herrings)
- Create an element of suspense
When you keep these in mind, you are going to have a better chance at captivating the imaginations of your readers than if you work off the cuff and do not pay attention to what is typical and expected. You will always have room for creative freedom and the ability to manipulate the details as you wish, but there is nothing wrong with working within the traditional framework of those who have come before you.
Have a catchy opener
In some cases, if a reader does not connect to a book pretty instantaneously, they abandon the story altogether. Even if they push through to finish it, there is a considerable difference between battling through a book just to get to the end and a true page-turner. An introductory portion of your book that is captivating can help you suck in the reader and cultivate a desire within them to stick with you.
Having said that, work hard not to give it all away up front. Otherwise, the reader will be disappointed with the ending. While the way your story begins is super important, you need to be able to carry that same energy throughout the entire novel. The last thing you want to do is suck the reader in, then immediately fall flat and stay in that plateau.
Character introductions and character development
Your main character is one of the top pieces of your project that you should give your attention to. You will no doubt be bringing in others as the story develops, but this one, the main person, will be the center of the plot. This person needs to be able to:
- Engage the reader
- Be likable
- Be someone who the reader wants to follow along with
- Keep the reader guessing
The main character begins and sets the tone for your entire novel. Character development is so critical. While it is true that there will likely only be one main, do not sleep on the supporting characters. The reader needs to understand, and care about, how these players are all connected and how their individual storylines make sense as a whole.
Suspects and villains
A good mystery implies that there will be suspects and villains, but it is your job as the author to decide how you want them to be revealed. In a murder mystery, for example, it is common practice for the author to take the reader down a few different paths of assumption, with the exception of a legal thriller, where it is potentially based on a true story, and the reader might know all the suspects in advance of your book.
Mystery books are so popular because they force the reader to think and work to solve the mystery. Rather than just enjoying the words on the pages. The element of needing to use your brain, and enjoying it, is what will keep the reader locked into your book and what will, or won’t, qualify it as a great mystery.
Trick your reader with red herrings
Predictability can tank a story before it even takes off. You want to create a logical but misleading path from the start of your book to the end. Allow the reader’s mind to wander and encourage it to do so through the use of red herrings and clues that will throw them off the killer’s scent. Make sure to spend enough time on content creation to make it almost impossible for them to jump to the actual conclusion mentally. As mentioned, you can do this in an impactful way through your characters and utilizing red herrings.
These are the pieces that move a story forward, and it can be a good suggestion to write in a way that makes your readers love one of your characters, then hate them, be confused by them, then root for them. The emotional rollercoaster that many of us loathe in life is precisely what your target should be in writing a good mystery.
Even though the subject matter does vary across literary genres, the process is somewhat uniform. A great mystery novel is one where the author has spent time thinking about the overall story, paid attention to the key players, and created a stunning conclusion.
When you write within this sector, you have options regarding how you choose to end your story. You can either set the tone for a sequel, or you can end with a purpose. A novel’s ending is the last impression the reader has, and you want to be sure that it honors the rest of your work and makes sense for what you anticipate is next to come, even if what is next is nothing – the most important thing is to leave your mark.