9 Mystery Writing Tips
Mystery writing is a thrill to read and can be just as fun to write. Here are a few tips for creating an unforgettable mystery story:
- Read other mysteries often. Great mystery novels are full of writing advice if you pay close attention. Read classic mystery books and short stories as well as best-selling crime fiction from new writers. Once you reach the end of the book and the mystery is revealed, return to the first page. Start over, noticing how and when the author shared clues and used misdirection to both untangle the mystery and heighten the suspense.
- Know every detail of the crime. Whether you’re writing a murder mystery or the story of a bloodless crime, the misdeed at the heart of your mystery story drives the narrative. Before you get far along on your first draft, outline everything about the crime. Map out the who, what, where, when, why, and how. Great mystery writers also research the crime itself—whether it’s poisoning or pickpocketing, know the mechanisms at play.
- Open with intrigue. Mystery readers want to be dropped right into a thrilling tale of bad guys and red herrings, cliffhangers and diligent sleuths. Many crime novels open on the crime itself, then move forward or use flashback to keep readers enraptured as the main character begins their hunt for a masterful thief, deranged serial killer, or whoever the villain may be.
- Construct convincing characters. Many of the best mystery books, detective novels, thrillers, and whodunits focus on strong character development. Remember that you are dealing with human beings, not stereotypes. Your main character, whether they are amateur sleuth or professional detective, functions as the eyes and ears of the reader and therefore should be both relatable and fallible. Your bad guy should also be complex and have clear motives.
- Make a list of suspects. Writing mysteries is like crafting puzzles, and the most vital piece of the puzzle is typically the criminal’s identity. A great mystery will introduce several potential suspects over the course of the narrative. In fact, many of the best mystery tales allow the reader to meet the actual culprit early on, giving them time to doubt their guilt. List your suspects and explore their possible motives before committing them to paper.
- Lean into your locations. Whether your setting is a small town or New York City, use the natural atmosphere and attributes of the place to enhance action and intrigue. The contrast of dastardly deeds happening in unlikely spaces can enhance the sense that danger lurks around every corner. Moving between interesting locations where important plot points take place can make a mystery novel all the more gripping.
- Let the reader play along. Good mystery writing shows instead of tells. You want to use descriptive writing to create scenes that allow your reader to explore and discover clues—even those that your main character might miss. Rather than explain what’s happening and why, keep the reader in the center of the action, invested in the stakes of the story like it’s real life. Give your readers a chance to put together the puzzle themselves.
- Misdirect your reader. The mystery genre is filled with false clues, known as red herrings, that lead readers down the wrong path as they’re trying to suss out the truth. That misdirection is part of the fun, upping the suspense and building engagement as your audience runs into sudden twists and dead ends in tandem with your sleuth. The last thing you want is for them to figure it all out when there’s still more story to tell.
- Rewrite, then rewrite some more. Most creative writing benefits from a second draft and that’s especially true in mystery writing—all the more so if this is your first novel. Remember how you reread those classics and bestsellers after you knew how they ended? Employ that same strategy with your new mystery. Examine your pacing and redistribute your clues to build to the stunning conclusion that you’ve already written.
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