How to Write a Mystery Novel that Grips Your Reader
It was Mr. Green in the dining room with the candlestick! But was it really? The best mystery novels will cast shadows of doubt, have you on the edge of your seat, and keep you guessing until the very end. They can be difficult to write, but if you do it well, you’ll have the reader’s head spinning as they retrace their steps to figure out, “How could I have possibly missed that”?
So are you ready to surprise your readers with stories they’ll talk about long after they turn that last page? In this post, we’ll go over the elements of a great mystery novel, and share our tips on how to write one well.
Tips For Writing Great Mysteries
Know your mystery subgenre
Mystery is a broad category that encompasses many subgenres, including cozy mysteries, paranormal mysteries, crime thrillers, and more. These types of mystery have elements and tropes that are specific to the expectations of readers of those genres. For example, The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman and Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala are considered cozy mysteries, while James Patterson’s The House of Wolves and Stieg Larson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are thrillers.
One thing to keep in mind is not all mysteries have to involve murder or violence. You will likely not have any blood and gore in a cozy mystery. Any violence that happens in this subgenre usually occurs off-page. It’s also possible to write a mystery surrounding a big secret your hero (or another character) is hiding rather than something like a murder case.
Study and analyze popular books in your subgenre, and read them multiple times. After the first time, read it again and look for where the writer shared clues and used red herrings to lead you astray, while still unraveling the mystery and heightening the suspense. Knowing the reader’s expectations for the subgenre you’re writing will help you learn how to subvert their expectations in a way that’s exciting and fresh without having them feel cheated or disappointed.
Questions, questions, and more questions
In a mystery novel, you’ll undoubtedly have the big key question you need to answer by the end of your novel. This is your main story plot. It’s the murder mystery, missing person case, a serial killer at large, or events of the past coming back to haunt the characters. You may have other smaller questions raised throughout the story as well. This is your B storyline or subplots.
If you’re writing a stand-alone novel, you want to answer all the important questions by the end of your novel. It’s okay if you want to leave a couple of smaller questions unanswered to make it more realistic. After all, in life, we never get all of our questions answered when we want or the way we want. But the big questions should always be answered by the end. If you’re writing a series, you may raise more questions toward the end of the book that won’t be answered till the next book or later in the series, but you still want to answer some questions in the first book, especially your big key question.
Another important thing you want to be careful about is not giving away the answers too early. Don’t reveal the murderer halfway through the novel— unless there’s another big twist coming! Piecing the clues together and trying to solve the crime is part of the fun for readers. Consider answering some of the smaller questions throughout the novel. Spread out the twists and turns, and don’t reveal everything at once or in one scene, but hold on to them as you build towards the climax. If you’re writing a series, consider writing one more twist at the very end, such as a final chapter or epilogue that sets up the mystery to come in the next book.
Everyone is a suspect!
When writing a mystery novel, one way to throw readers off is by having multiple suspects. In order to do this well and effectively, each suspect needs to have a good motive, a secret or something to hide, and the means or opportunity to commit the crime.
One of the bestselling mystery novelists of all time, Agatha Christie, is a master of making the reader think any of her characters could have been the murderer. For some classic mystery examples, check out her novels And Then There Were None, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, or Murder on the Orient Express.
Karen McManus’ One of Us is Lying involves four teens who all have a secret that our murder victim knew about and was going to reveal, giving all four of them possible connections to the crime. The murder–which was made to look like an accident–occurred when all of them were in detention together with the victim, which means they all had the opportunity as well. The book is told from each of the four teens’ POVs, and as the title suggests, this makes them all unreliable narrators. This is a great setup that will keep readers guessing and turning the pages until the final shocking twist.
You can also introduce the reader to the real culprit early in the story, but give your detective reasons to doubt their guilt or involvement. This is a technique McManus uses in her book as well. Whether or not they’re guilty, try to focus on your characters’ reactions. People don’t always react the way we expect them to, especially in stressful, high-pressure situations. Knowing this will help you create characters that feel real, while allowing you to misdirect the reader.
In a mystery novel, you usually have two people (sometimes more if it’s multiple POVs) investigating the crime or mystery: the hero and the reader. Often, the hero is a detective of some kind, and following them through the events of the story invites the reader to be a sleuth as well. Most readers love piecing together clues, and the most avid mystery readers will be on high alert for twists or false leads. One of the best ways to keep your reader hooked is to use red herrings. These are common in mysteries and thrillers— essentially, red herrings are misleading or false clues that distract readers from what’s actually going on and lead them down the wrong path.
To use this device effectively and keep the reader satisfied, give them real clues as well. You can’t just give them nothing but red herrings throughout the entire book, with no real clues building to the climax or twist. It will feel like the twist came out of nowhere just to surprise the reader and yell, “Gotcha!”
Your twists and reveals need to feel earned. When readers think about or reread your book, they should be able to find the clues that were there all along leading up to the end of the novel, even if they were too distracted to notice them the first time.
Keep in mind that it’s ok if readers guess some twists. This is to be expected, especially for avid mystery fans. But, if you want to keep them from guessing the big twists, a good way to do that is to subvert your mystery trope or provide enough red herrings to distract them from the truth long enough for the big reveal.
Revision is key
Don't be discouraged if the first draft of your mystery needs some work. Even if you’re the most detailed plotter on the planet, revisions will be extremely important to crafting a mystery novel, especially at the story level revisions. Mystery novels have a lot of threads to keep track of: plot, subplots, clues, red herrings, characters/suspects, motives for each suspect, etc. A story bible can help you keep track of all these different threads.
In order to not get overwhelmed by everything and still deliver an exciting mystery that keeps readers guessing to the end, you’ll likely need a few rounds of story-level revisions. A lot of the threads you need to keep track of in a mystery are ones that will have a domino effect. One slight change to one of your clues can lead to massive changes to your whole story. It may be a good idea to go through your story-level revisions focusing on one element or thread at a time.
If you use the tips above, you’ll be on your way to creating a cohesive and effective mystery that will take your readers on a ride, feeling satisfied with all the twists and reveals without feeling cheated.