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How to Write a Mystery Novel: 5 Tips

Fictionary Certified StoryCoach Editor

5 Actions that can Focus your Mystery Novel Edit

Who doesn’t love the challenge of a mystery story?

As a reader, you are a silent partner with the detective: experiencing the thrill of identifying the culprit with, or before, the detective. Maybe even better, you have it figured out, then, you are wrong! But as you think back over the story it was all there. Satisfaction and a quick search for another of this author’s work to read as soon as possible.

As a writer, you create a puzzle and take your reader on a ride. All your planning and preparation gives your reader a gripping page-turner that surprises and challenges. A great mystery engages both the reader’s mind and emotions.

Now, you’ve finished your draft and are ready to begin editing your mystery. You know every detail of your crime and characters. You have had your trusted beta-readers give you feedback on their connection to characters, possible plot-holes and the working theories they discovered while they read. The next step? The first stage of editing – the developmental or story edit. Here you look for ways to use plot, character and setting edits to make your story even stronger.

A Long Tradition

First, let’s quickly review some background for this genre. Then, we’ll explore how to step back and see your mystery during editing by using story elements.

Simply, mysteries begin with the commitment of a crime and follow the investigation until it is solved. That is what is so satisfying for the reader, the puzzle ends and they have enjoyed the ride.

Stories of crime and investigation have been around since Ancient Greece. Sophocles’ play, Oedipus Rex begins with the people coming to King Oedipus pleading for help as the country seems under siege from plagues and loss of crops. The audience quickly learns that this is the result of a crime. Someone has murdered the former king and the punishment will continue to plague Thebes until the murderer is punished. As we know, Oedipus takes the role of detective, and the irony is that he is the murderer. The play is a cruel and cutting examination of fate, prophecy and human hubris.

Fast forward to 1841 when the detective story began with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in Rue Morgue”. These historical examples have been followed by many great writers and characters. Whether you are writing a Cozy, Police Procedural, Caper, Detective, or other subgenre of mystery, you have a wonderful array of excellent stories to read for research and inspiration.

Structure your Mystery Novel for Success and Reader Satisfaction

Through reading mysteries, the basic structure becomes clear: Crime, Investigation, Red Herrings and Twist, an All Is Lost moment, and then the Breakthrough and Conclusion.

These key incidents link with the five key scenes that make a great story. In Fictionary, these are the Story Arc Scenes.

The readers are hooked with the Inciting Incident, the commitment of the crime. This scene brings the reader into the story and sets the stakes for the protagonist. Even if the detective isn’t in this scene, the reader is aware of the danger and risk if the crime isn’t solved.

The investigation connects to Plot Point 1. The investigator, whether amateur sleuth or hard-boiled detective, in drawn into the investigation.

At the Middle scene, the investigator encounters a twist or follows a red herring that takes the investigation off the rails and leads to the protagonist becoming even more proactive in the investigation.

These twist and turns lead to Plot Point 2, the darkest hour. It looks like the crime will never be solved or the investigator loses something in the process of solving the crime. This may be the death of a partner, struggles in their personal relationships or loss of a job or position.

All of this loss still leads to the breakthrough and Climax. The crime is solved, the true culprit is apprehended.

While there are variations in all these scenes, the basic structure and tropes are there so the reader leaves thrilled and satisfied.

Edit for a Gripping Mystery Novel: 5 Focused Actions

  1. Grab attention with hooks

Mystery readers want to be grabbed from the start. Read your first scene to ensure that the hook is strong. With Fictionary, you can ensure you keep them connected by examining the Scene Entry Hook element looking for variety and strength of the start of every scene. As you look there, be sure each scene is anchored in POV, location and time. Kristina Stanley’s article on Make the Scenes in Your Novel Flow and Capture Readers includes clear details of how to use these elements to keep your reader turning pages.

  1. Creating Strong, Compelling Characters

Whatever the subgenre, the reader’s connection to your protagonist will keep them turning pages. You can develop this emotional investment through making them relatable. In How to Edit a Cozy Mystery, Ryan Rivers notes that you can make your “protagonist more relatable by developing their backstory/emotional wound.” Use the backstory element to review how you have included this backstory for your protagonist. While your detective may not always seem likable, your reader will follow them with a sense of understanding and sympathy once they understand the struggles they face internally as well as externally. Sherlock Holmes wasn’t always traditionally likable, but we follow him for his strengths and weaknesses.

A quick check of your Cast of Characters for distinct names that are easily remembered ensures your reader can keep track of the suspects. Then, you can look at the scenes per character element to check that all your suspects have a similar number of scenes.

All your main characters and suspects deserve a clear backstory and motive, especially your culprit. Making a relatable villain is powerful. Giving backstory and development to these characters offers the reader a sense of understanding them and offers fuller satisfaction from the climax. When we understand the trigger and motivation for the crime, the surprising but logical discovery of the culprit enhances the experience for your reader.

  1. Use Atmosphere to Build your Mystery

Weather and location can create a mysterious and threatening atmosphere. Use the setting elements to add tension naturally to your scenes. Your choice of location can make your story, characters and crime unique. A mystery set in an isolated cabin in the mountains will be different than one set in a hotel in a big city.

Use the setting elements in Fictionary to track locations and weather for each of your scenes. The object element gives you a quick reference to look back at any smoking guns or key objects identified in the search for the culprit.

  1. Track the Clues

A great mystery novel is a puzzle with clues dropped at key moments to hook the reader. Use revelations and reader knowledge gained elements to follow your clues and red herrings. The best mysteries are those you can’t solve right away. Great red herrings help your reader feel that this is a difficult crime to solve.

Remember, you know the crime and characters intimately. If you are doing your own story or developmental edit, using these elements can help you see how the reader experiences the mystery.

POV knowledge gained element can clarify what is known by the characters and the reader as the story progresses. These elements can help you step back from all that you already know and make sure you are slowly, effectively revealing the clues.

Readers are aware of the key characters in your story. Obviously, your investigator will be in the most scenes. By looking at how many scenes include the culprit and the best other suspects, you can make sure that each of these characters are viable alternatives.

  1. Finish with a Bang

Mystery readers anticipate the climax. Tie up loose ends and finish the puzzle. The ending doesn’t have to be happy, but your reader is expecting a logical conclusion to experience the satisfaction of reading a great mystery.

While doing this edit, you can also look at the Story Arc Insight to check on the pace of your story. Every scene doesn’t need to be action, but every scene should be leading to your climax.

Use Character Elements/Insight to see how many scenes include the detective, culprit, and best second option.

Writing a mystery story is a challenge. Finishing your first draft is an accomplishment. Using story elements in your developmental edit can make this first edit focused and help you step back and easily see how edits can make your mystery amaze and engage your readers. Creating fans for your next book.

Other Cool Resources:

How to Edit a Cozy Mystery

Make the Scenes in Your Novel Flow and Capture Readers

Post Written by Lisa Taylor

Fictionary Certified StoryCoach EditorStories are powerful. Through my experience as an educator and librarian, I’ve explored how stories work and supported writers in finding their voices and honing their craft.

As a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach Editor, I offer a thorough, objective structural story edit that honours your voice, recognises and celebrates your skill, and offers clear, actionable ideas on ways to make your story shine even more. You can reach me through the Fictionary Online Community.


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