Writing

What Is the Mystery Genre? Learn About Mystery and Crime Fiction, Plus 6 Tips for Writing a Mystery Novel

Written by MasterClass

Aug 15, 2019 • 5 min read

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Dan Brown Teaches Writing Thrillers

Writing a mystery novel is like creating a puzzle. The biggest challenge is knowing when to reveal certain pieces of information to your readers so they remain interested and keep reading right up until the big reveal at the end.

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What Is a Mystery Novel?

The mystery genre is a genre of fiction that follows a crime (like a murder or a disappearance) from the moment it is committed to the moment it is solved. Mystery novels are often called “whodunnits” because they turn the reader into a detective trying to figure out the who, what, when, and how of a particular crime. Most mysteries feature a detective or private eye solving a case as the central character.

What Is the History of Mystery Novels?

Stories with elements of crime have been around for centuries. In Ancient Greece, Sophocles wrote about themes of infanticide, murder, exile, suicide, and death. Euripides wrote about themes of revenge and suffering, exposing the more human sides of the mythical gods.

Most critics and scholars credit Edgar Allan Poe with inventing the modern mystery. He published a short story called The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841 that featured Auguste C. Dupin, literature’s first fictional detective. It was a groundbreaking moment that saw the creation of an entirely new literary genre. Dupin was the first well-known character in literature to work a case, gather clues, and solve a mystery.

4 Sub-Genres of Mystery and Crime Fiction

Mystery and crime fiction often fall into four separate sub-genres, each with its own characteristics.

  1. Detective novels. These are crime novels that center around a detective (professional, amateur, or retired) investigating a crime or solving a murder case. Detective novels generally start with a mysterious incident or death and unfold as the detective follows leads, investigates suspects, and ultimately solves the case. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world to the famous Sherlock Holmes in 1887, when he first began writing the series of stories featuring the popular detective. Other well-known detective novelists include Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Sue Grafton.
  2. Cozy mysteries. These are detective novels that contain no sex, violence, or profanity. In order to solve a case, the detective in a cozy mystery often uses their intellect as opposed to police procedures. The genre has some overlap with detective novels; for example, Agatha Christie is considered both a detective novelist and a cozy mystery novelist. Other well-known cozy mystery writers include Dorothy L. Sayers and Elizabeth Daly.
  3. Police procedural. These are mystery novels featuring a protagonist who is a member of the police force. Well-known police procedural novelists include Ed McBain, P. D. James, and Bartholomew Gill.
  4. Caper stories. These are mystery stories told from the point of view of the criminals rather than the detective trying to catch them. They take readers inside the crimes and heists, giving them full access to their motives, tricks, and swindles. Unlike most mysteries, caper stories often include elements of humor. Well-known caper story novelists include W. R. Burnett, John Boland, Peter O’Donnell, and Michael Crichton.

What Is the Structure of a Mystery Novel?

Some mystery novels break from the traditional format to heighten suspense or play with readers’ expectations. But generally, most mysteries follow roughly the same structure:

  1. The crime. The audience is introduced to the crime around which the story is based.
  2. Investigation. The detective works on solving the mystery. They question each suspect, search for clues, and follow new leads in hopes of finding the guilty party.
  3. Twist. The detective finds a new clue, an unexpected lead, or a crack in a suspect’s alibi that shocks them—and the reader—and changes the course of the investigation.
  4. Breakthrough. The detective uncovers the last remaining piece of the puzzle and solves the mystery.
  5. Conclusion. The culprit is caught and all outstanding questions are resolved.

6 Tips to Keep in Mind When Writing a Mystery Novel

Whether it’s your first attempt at writing a mystery novel or short story, or you’re simply trying to improve your mystery-writing skills, there are a few things you should keep in mind as you write:

  1. Start with an exciting hook. Mystery novels draw in the reader from the first paragraph—or better yet, the first sentence. Pique a reader’s interest immediately and make them want more.
  2. Set a mysterious mood. Even the most shocking plot twist will fall flat without the right mood. Setting a mysterious mood that immediately puts your readers into the world of your novel. A dark setting, such as an abandoned building or an isolated cabin in the woods, descriptive language of the chilling details of the case, and suspenseful dialogue will set your readers in the middle of the action and encourage them to keep reading.
  3. Reveal information slowly. As you write, consider how your reader will react to how you pace your storytelling. Create the element of suspense by controlling how much information you reveal, and how and when you reveal it. Every mystery novel has a main storyline, but it’s often built on smaller moments that sustain the audience’s interest along the way. Learn more about creating suspense in writing here.
  4. Leave clues behind. Let the reader feel like they’re part of the story. Drop clues throughout the novel that let them be an active participant in solving the mystery. They shouldn’t be too obvious, but discovering them and thinking through the possible explanations should feel exciting and satisfying for the reader.
  5. Provide a few red herrings. The best mysteries are the ones readers can’t solve right away. Divert the reader’s attention with details about people, places, and objects that may not be true and misguide them with contradicting evidence. When they finally learn the truth, they’ll feel satisfied with the journey it took to get there. Learn more about red herrings in our complete guide here.
  6. Tie up loose ends. Mystery novels don’t typically end with cliffhangers. You should solve the crime, explain the mysterious disappearance, or reveal the murderer. Your ending doesn’t have to be happy necessarily, but it should answer all of the outstanding questions the reader has about what happened and what the outcome means for all of the characters involved.

Whether you’re writing as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to craft a good mystery takes time and patience. Master of suspense and bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown has spent decades honing his craft. In his MasterClass on the art of the thriller, Dan unveils his step-by-step process for turning ideas into gripping narratives and reveals his methods for researching like a pro, crafting characters, and sustaining suspense all the way to a dramatic surprise ending.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including R.L. Stine, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

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