How to Write a Great Mystery Novel

Updated on June 3rd, 2021
How to Write a Great Mystery Novel

A mystery novel is a thing of beauty. It's like a puzzle that needs solving, and you're waiting to find the answer. Many people have tried their hand at writing a suspense novel, not many have succeeded. It's because there are many different elements and nuances to take into account.

But what goes into making a good book? How do you write one? How can you make it so enticing that your readers won't be able to put it down?  

If you're struggling to write a novel yourself, good news, we have your back. This article will cover the detailed steps of writing a detective story from start to finish. We will also talk about what makes a novel so appealing for readers and other such aspects.

What is a Mystery Novel? 

A mystery novel is a genre of literature that involves solving a crime or series of crimes. The reader must work alongside the protagonist in order to solve the puzzle and unveil the culprit behind it.

The earliest detective story was written way back in 1866 by Gaboriau. It was widely seen as one of France's first modern authors of this type. Some of the most well-known detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes, rely on deductive reasoning from collected clues to solve a case.

Many stories feature a central character who works through problems using logical analysis or intuition. They may be written in the first or third person. Further, detective novels can occur in any setting, from a quaint village to a bustling metropolis.

These stories are gripping, dark and examine human psychology. Moreover, detective stories also explore the dark side of modern society. All these features make mystery stories one of the fascinating genres of writing.

What Makes a Good Mystery Novel? 

The audience will focus a great deal on the first pages of a book. So, it needs to be exciting and interesting. Moreover, a good mystery novel should have a likable protagonist. The hero must be smart, intelligent, and solve the puzzle for readers to enjoy it.

The characters must have interesting personalities. They must also have an authentic voice. In addition, there may be supporting characters who help the protagonist deduce the crime. On the other hand, they may also provide some comic relief for the readers.

The novel's plot has to be gripping so that it keeps the audience on their toes page by page! You can tell the tale in the third person or use the first person where you are the detective. However, don't be too descriptive while writing in the third person.

Finally, a great story needs well-written dialogue, enough to immerse you in the book.

An unsolved mystery also makes for great reading in a novel. The audience does not need to know who committed the crime from the beginning. But, at some point during the narrative, they become aware of it.

In the end, it must have a satisfying ending that will keep the readers coming back for more.

Five Essential Elements of a Mystery Novel

There are many types of mystery novels, but the two most popular ones are thriller and murder mystery. In these stories, someone is killed or murdered in some way, and it's up to the protagonist to figure out who did it. However, the essential elements remain the same in all novels -

  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Mystery
  • Conflict

Let's take a closer look at the elements of mystery writing -

Plot

The most important element of mystery writing is the plot. It is a sequence of events in the novel, usually written in the present tense.

It must have a proper beginning, a middle section, and an ending. Any mystery novel pot must be very clear and not too complex to read. Or else, the audience might lose interest in it midway.

The narrative arc must have enough interesting events to take the story forward while keeping the reader guessing! The plot will include the main problem that has to be solved.

This main narrative will introduce all the people associated with the mystery. It needs to be well written with a good flow. Many writers also scatter the hints throughout the story to make the audience try to solve the mystery themselves.

Characters

In every story, there are main characters and supporting casts. All the players involved have to be interesting enough for the audience to want them to succeed or fail! They can be the protagonist or an antagonist.

Every character should add something important to the narrative. The story will not work if there is no character development, and they are just one-dimensional. It is this character development that creates the narrative arc of a mystery or a detective novel.

However, there may be some people who are irrelevant to the main plot point. For instance, a butler or a servant working at the detective's home might not add much to the narrative.

Setting

It is important to set the mood for a story. For instance, in mysteries, it should provide an atmosphere of suspense or panic and make the audience want to read on! The narrative's setting sets the tone for what is to come and what an audience can expect.

You can consider the setting as a way to hook anybody into the story quickly. This will also describe the location of where all the action is taking place. However, not all mysteries have a similar setting. Some writers offer a setting based on real-life, while others create an unusual setting for the mystery to unfold.

If the setting is very realistic, the people will connect more with it. On the other hand, settings such as a fantasy land or a dystopian future also spark interest. However, go easy on the setting and try to keep it realistic.

Mystery

This is the main plot point of the entire detective novel. The mystery defines the crime or problem, the criminal, and his/her motive. Usually, writers give subtle clues within the book so the audience can also think along with the detective.

Various plot twists and incidents also affect the main mystery. A mystery novel is usually solved by a detective, but the protagonist's role also affects how the mystery unfolds.

Some writers give irrelevant clues to throw the audience off the radar and surprise them later with something new!

Conflict

A conflict is a struggle between two opposing forces. Conflict can be used to create tension, drama, or suspense in a tale. There are many types of conflicts that authors use in their stories, including character vs. self-conflict, person vs. light/darkness, and protagonist vs. antagonist (villain).

What is a Novel Synopsis?

A novel synopsis is an outline of the plot and major plot points in a novel. Usually, these are sent along with a query letter to literary agents in the publishing industry. It should be no more than two pages long or a single page short synopsis.

Writing a synopsis helps writers visualize what their story may look like as a book. Writers apply their writing process to mention an inciting incident, plot twist, rising action, or a central conflict in the synopsis.

Whether a writer drafts a one page synopsis or makes the synopsis longer, it acts as their sales copy. Literary agents pay attention to the word count, spelling mistakes, use of present tense, inciting incident, and the outline.

Writing a Novel Synopsis 

The best approach to write a novel synopsis is to be clear, and without a doubt, intriguing. The perfect synopsis has a beginning that intrigues your audience and your potential agents.

This novel synopsis includes information about the protagonist and his goals or ambitions.

You can also write about the antagonist while writing a synopsis. Answer questions like who is the main opponent or obstacle? How does he affect the protagonist's life and goals?

A good synopsis must include an idea of the final chapter. It should also have a message that your audience can take away or an idea about what they've just read. If you're unsure, you can apply your writing process to craft an example synopsis.

If you follow these steps to write a novel synopsis, your query letter and story are bound to be noticed by any literary agent.

Steps to Writing a Mystery Novel

First off, good mystery stories are full of clues from start to finish but not enough so that everything gets solved too quickly. So, this gives the audience time to think through possible guesses themselves instead of being told exactly.

A thriller or a mystery novel's storyline should have twists and turns just like any other genre narrative would have. Moreover, there could be two possible endings, for example.

Before you become a mystery writer, you have to read a lot of them. It will give you an idea of the structure, word count, and tonality used in such writing. You'll notice how the author lays down the plot points, uses clues, and develops the characters. 

Moreover, you'll also be able to develop your own plot more easily.

We'll now take you through the various steps to write your own mystery novel!

Step 1: Write Down Plot Lines And Create An Introduction

The first step would be to write down possible plot lines. You could also do this after you've finished your draft if you're not sure about the plot. Try to think of a few different or unexpected ideas that are interesting and would keep your audience hooked.

Always make sure to create a captivating introduction. This is where you introduce the setting and protagonist of your mystery novel. You can also introduce the antagonist or describe the crime in the beginning.

Step 2: Create Characters

While writing novels, it's important for you to create characters with their own personality quirks as well as backstories. They must be believable so that the audience relates to them. In addition, the character names might be interesting.

As you might have guessed, the detective is the main character. So, make sure he or she is able to connect with the audience. Moreover, the sleuth might act as the eyes and ears for your audience, so focus more on him/her.

Make sure to include flat characters that could come in and out of the story. This will help your novel not feel linear or boring for the audience.

Always be careful with including too many side characters, though, because it can take away from what should be focused on--the protagonist's journey into solving a mystery.

Step 3: Create The Antagonist Or A Suspects List

The antagonist is the villain. It can be a person, animal, or force that prevents the protagonist from achieving their goal. The antagonist is often the criminal whom the detective has to find. Moreover, this character can be similar to the protagonist or a polar opposite.

A suspect's list is basically who has committed this crime and what they are thinking. This includes motives and opportunities for each suspect. A good list of suspects should include at least five people, but the author may decide to have more. Further, the antagonist can also be a part of this list.

Step 4: Describe The Crime In Detail

This is a very important step in any detective novel. When you're talking about murder, theft, or any crime, make sure to delve deeper into it. The more in-depth you talk about the crime, the more realistic it will be. It will make the audience a lot more interested in figuring out the solution along with the sleuth.

So, you have to do your homework before creating your first draft. You must know everything about the crime before your detective sets out to solve it! Chart out how the crime was committed, who did it, and the motive.

Also, try not to make it too complicated for the reader to understand.

Step 5: Let The Reader Play Detective

Give your reader the opportunity to figure out who committed the crime. This will keep them more interested in reading and just might make it a personal quest for them! When writing about characters, give clues as to which character is responsible for committing the crime.

Whenever you write a mystery novel or story, remember that it is not only about the detective or the crime but also the target audience. So, give away certain clues that the sleuth might overlook, but your reader will catch. This keeps them more intrigued about what's going to happen next.

Moreover, this approach also keeps the audience at the center of all the action.

Step 6: Explore Locales

You can try moving the plot to various locations to make things more interesting. Each of these locations might enhance the plot or generate new plot points. This adds a lot of variety and depth to the story.

You can also change the locations to unsettle the reader a little bit. This change might also give the detective a completely new perspective on the crime.

Step 7: Write a Memorable Ending

The climax of your story has to be perfect. By this time, your readers should have a fairly good idea of what the crime is, who committed it and why. This will allow you to come up with an ending that satisfies them or ends on a cliffhanger.

You can also end it in such a way where the sleuth does not solve the mystery, but there are enough clues for others to do so. Or you can leave some unanswered questions for your readers to ponder.

How to Get Ideas for a Mystery Story?

There are plenty of ways to get ideas for a mystery story. A writer can brainstorm, research other authors' work, or read actual crime reports in newspapers and magazines.

Mystery novels tend to have common themes that set them apart from the rest. Common themes include deception, betrayal, murder, or theft. These themes are interrelated, and you can include more than one in your story.

You can get ideas by understanding human psychology and behavior. Read more about the world's best true crime stories and about notorious criminals. Try to understand how they think, their approach towards the crime, and also the motive behind it.

Talk to people you know and ask them what element they like in a mystery novel. Take notes and work on them. Moreover, try placing yourself in the shoes of both the reader, detective, and the criminal.

If you still need more inspiration, start watching the best crime thriller movies ever created. Movies offer a rich source of ideas that you might not find anywhere else. You will also learn a lot about storytelling, developing a character arc, and how to use plot twists effectively.

The Bottom Line

Weaving a plot for a mystery novel is like creating a puzzle, where only you know the ultimate solution. If you want to write a story that will speak for itself, you have to look at it from their reader's perspective.

The plot must not be too complex, or the reader might lose interest in it. On the other hand, if it's too easy to comprehend, there won't be much of a challenge. The balance between these two is what will keep the readers coming back for more.

To sum it up, before writing a synopsis or a novel, you have to ask yourself - will the story stay with you forever? If yes, then continue writing!

We hope the points discussed here will help you on your way to writing your masterpiece. Happy writing!