writing mystery novel

Taking the Mystery Out of Writing Mystery Novels

Ann O'Brien

Ann O'Brien

June 13, 2022

Books that bring out strong emotions in readers tend to create that page-turning, don’t-put-it-down feeling. And mysteries along with thrillers are the novel genres most likely to evoke this kind of emotional connection between a reader and the story. And so many aspiring writers choose to dive into writing mystery novels, because not only do readers love the twists, turns, and surprises that they bring but authors also enjoy the challenges writing this genre brings.

So what goes into writing a successful, compelling mystery novel? Let’s take a look at what goes into planning and writing mystery novels as well as the differences between a good and great mystery story.

Mystery Novels Create Reader Engagement

One of the easiest to understand reasons why mysteries are so popular to read and to write is that we just love to figure them out. Many book genres unravel stories and present information, but only mysteries compel readers to get involved in the story.

Thinking about potential answers to clues or working through surprising plot twists to uncover the culprit both encourage readers to get involved in the investigation of the mystery and try to figure out the resolution of the story. This engagement is not unique to mysteries but helping, saving, uncovering, or answering the plot is especially gripping within the pages of a mystery novel.

Everyone Can Love a Mystery

Because of their flexibility, mysteries are as exciting to new readers like children and young people as they are to seasoned adults. Writing a mystery novel for Middle Years or Young Adults is similar to writing a mystery novel aimed at adults, but many authors who love the structure of penning mysteries find themselves hooked as well.

Crime and mystery novels are the second most popular genres and for a good reason. They appeal to readers of every age because at their core the mystery genre is about understanding the human psyche and relationships, which leads to some memorable characters in these types of books. After all, understanding people and their actions are how mysteries are resolved (along with some fun science, detective work, or surprising sidekicks that help readers to see the answers).

Mystery Solved: Why We Love Them

One of the biggest reasons readers flock to mysteries is that we all love to arrive at a resolution. Mysteries hinge on solving a problem and the satisfying part of this genre is readers are assured that the plot twists and turns will almost always be resolved even if in a very unexpected way. While some of the fun in reading a mystery is trying to solve it, readers also love to be surprised at the way the mystery resolves. Writers that can capitalize on a resolution that readers don’t see coming often hook readers into their storylines and characters for future mystery novels as well.

Steps to Creating a Gripping Mystery

Authors who plan before they write mystery novel components will be able to craft a compelling story that readers won’t be able to put down. A mystery should be one that readers are engaged in solving and that involves interesting characters who make it exciting for a reader to reach the resolution of the mystery.

That is all a tall order for writers, though, because developing a captivating mystery novel is unlike many other genres, since the element of the unknown is woven throughout this type of story. Mystery writers will need to include these writing steps to ensure their story is as engaging as it is mysterious to their readers.

1 Begin at the End. Writers should begin their planning by determining the outcome of the mystery. While some authors let the story speak to them and unravel as they write, mystery writers should have a good idea of how things will turn out before they get too deep into the story writing. Since one of the key elements in this genre is surprising the reader, a well-crafted resolution of the mystery will keep the reader engaged and guessing right up until the end.

2 Create a Hook. Whether it’s an unusual setting, a surprising time frame, or an unexpected character, mysteries that readers can’t put down have something unique that hooks them in. Authors will write mystery novel hooks that grab the reader’s attention to create a page-turning story that readers will love.

3 Create Unexpected Characters. Characterization is at the heart of a mystery story, since how people act and react moves the plot of the story along.

  • Protagonist: The main character in the story, the protagonist may be someone the reader wants to see come out on top. But writers should consider this main character’s flaws as well as their strengths in a mystery, since their weaknesses often provide openings for the plot or subplot to develop.
  • Antagonist: It’s true that readers love to hate the bad guy, but mystery writers have to walk a fine line. The antagonist may not only be the foil to the protagonist, but they may also be likable or possess redeeming qualities as well, especially if their identity is not revealed until near the resolution of the mystery. Creating dynamic characters is critical in a mystery to keep readers from figuring out the mystery too soon.
  • Sidekick: One of the characteristic elements of a mystery is the use of sidekicks to help the main character. Sometimes the sidekick is quirky, surprising, or even in cahoots with the antagonist as well. Developing characters that help the protagonist’s storyline move forward is one of the reasons why authors write mystery novel sidekicks.

4 Decide What Not to Include. Part of the engaging part of a mystery is what the reader does not know. Intentionally leaving key elements, plot lines, and details out of the story increase the feelings of anticipation in a reader. Determine what you will – and won’t – include in the storyline to elevate the level of mystery.

5 Choose How to Include Tension. All novels need conflict and a mystery is no different. Tension levels between characters, between a character and themselves, or tension arising from situations all help create that feeling of apprehension, friction, or stress that is so characteristically part of a mystery story.

6 Develop the Plot and Subplots. One of the entertaining parts of mysteries is the presence of multiple storylines that converge at the resolution of the book. Once your main character is sketched out, integrate characters who develop the protagonist’s defining traits, challenge them or help them learn lessons. These subplots can strengthen the personality of a character and help the reader understand their motivations for acting the way they do. Subplots can also make it more challenging for the reader to anticipate the ending as well by diverting their attention away from critical details with surprising or unexpected storylines.

7 Leave Hints for the Reader. Reader engagement is vital in a mystery, so authors should include hints and clues along the way for readers to stay involved in solving the mystery. The more involved the reader is in the story, the more they will anticipate the ending. When readers become invested in the characters and storylines, not only will a reader race to the ending to see how the mystery unfolds, but they will also anticipate any future story featuring the same characters.

8 Include Plot Twists. Mysteries rarely head directly toward their conclusions without an unpredictable occurrence happening to the main characters or their sidekicks. Developing one or more plot twists will keep the readers guessing and add depth to the characters and their motivations by revealing how they respond to these challenging or unforeseen situations.

9 Incorporate Cliffhanger Potential. Not every mystery is planned as the first story in a series, but leaving the possibility open for future plot development is an excellent way to write mystery novel endings. Authors may plan ahead for a larger plot arc for their characters and see future storylines while readers will be able to anticipate the future of a beloved character in future books.

Getting Started with Your Mystery Novel

Writers in this genre have a unique opportunity to craft quirky, deep and well-rounded characters that readers will love to root for (or against) in a mystery story. But writing the content is only part of getting the story into the hands of readers. Authors who self-publish their stories have a few other ways to capture their reader’s attention as well.

First, working with a printer like Publishing Xpress will guarantee that their mystery novel will look great because it will be made with top-quality paper and bindings. And since readers often determine if they will pick a book up to check it out based on the way it looks, working with a professional designer to craft intriguing cover art is important for self-publishing authors. Authors can also make sure that readers will be able to easily find their book through online sellers and retailers by including an ISBN number on the cover of their book as well.

The popularity of the mystery genre is only increasing for every age and type of reader. Authors of this exciting genre love to craft multi-layered, complex characters with thrilling plot lines to keep their readers glued to the page until the final sentences in their books. Creating a mystery that readers will love to love requires authors to include a few critical elements, but the author’s own inventiveness is what makes this genre so exciting for readers to enjoy.

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