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5 Elements of a Mystery Your Story Needs

elements of a mystery

If you’re a mystery writer, it’s important to keep track of your story, and not only in the context of what you share with your readers but also what your characters know. Let’s take a look at the top 5 story elements of a mystery novel.

Self-editing a mystery is one of the joys of the writing process. You get to use your imagination to lead the reader through your story.

You don’t need to keep track while you write your first draft, but once you’ve written a draft, go back through your manuscript and rewrite it with the following 5 key elements of fiction in mind.

5 Characteristics of Mystery Genre


A clue tells the readers something that will help them solve the mystery. You don’t want to give clues too early and have the reader guess who the villain is. You also want to give enough clues, so when you reveal the villain, the reader is surprised, but also feels the choice is logical. You can also call this a revelation. Any you let the reader know that’s important to the story.


Think of a clue as a piece of a puzzle. You need all the pieces to solve the puzzle. Foreshadowing is hinting at some future event. It’s not solving the puzzle. Foreshadowing will keep the tension rising throughout your story. It’s the anticipation of something bad happening that will draw your reader in.

Usually, I’ll put foreshadowing as the purpose of a scene if it includes foreshadowing. Then I can quickly check where I’ve done this.

Point of View Characters

You need to decide early if your antagonist will have the point of view (POV) for any scenes. If your antagonist has a POV scene, you cannot let the reader know everything the character is thinking.

In a thriller, the reader often knows right away who the villain is, but in a mystery, the villain is kept secret until the very end.

What the Protagonist Knows

Keep track of everything the protagonist learns. You need control what she/he knows versus what the reader knows. Your protagonist can only act on information she/he has.

What the Reader Knows

This is very important if you write from multiple points of view. Keep track what the protagonist knows and if the reader knows something from another POV character that the protagonist doesn’t know.

Elements of Mystery Examples

The best way to understand how different genres are structured is to look at examples. So here are five popular mystery books and a quick summary of the key elements of each.

  • Murder on the Orient Express: A passenger’s mysterious behavior raises suspicions, but a false alibi (a red herring) conceals their innocence, diverting attention from the true killer’s elaborate scheme.
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Sherlock Holmes, one of the most well-known fictional detectives, exposes webs of deceit in order to find justice.
  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: False leads point to a jealous rival, yet Precious Ramotswe’s, a accomplished detective, keen observation uncovers the true culprit among a network of intricate family dynamics.
  • The Girl on the Train: Rachel’s obsession with a seemingly perfect couple leads her to uncover a web of lies and betrayal, with the true villain lurking in plain sight.
  • The Secret History: A group of elite college students commits a murder in a misguided attempt to preserve their privileged lives, which sets off a chain of events that leads to a shocking unraveling of their carefully constructed facade.

That’s it for the Top 5 Mystery Story Elements. Happy editing!

If you’d like to learn more, Tension and Conflict also keep the reader turning pages in a mystery novel.

I’m over on First Editing’s podcast with a talk about Story Editing Like A Pro.