5 Essential Elements of Writing Mystery

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If you’re writing mystery — or any plot-focused genre, for that matter — you need to keep careful track of information in your novel. Your story won’t thrive on characters alone. You need expertly-paced plot twists and reveals. And it all needs to make sense.

While this may sound intimidating, the process is actually quite simple if you do your homework. That means keeping good notes and paying attention to how and when you feed various bits of information to your readers.

Give readers a steady drip of information.

From page one, you know what readers should feel anxious about because you know your story inside and out. It’s easy to forget readers are coming in cold. They have no context to identify important information or recognize tension.

Kick off your first pages with enough tension to hook readers’ interest — even if you don’t want to reveal anything too significant just yet. You need to establish not only plot tension but stakes: what do your main characters want? What might keep them from getting it? Plant questions in readers’ minds early and they’ll want to keep reading for answers.

Stay mindful of who knows what.

Knowledge is critical to authentic point of view in any novel, but it can really make or break a mystery. Keep careful track of which information the following people have at any given time:

  • Point-of-view character(s)
  • Protagonist
  • Antagonist
  • Reader

Skillful handling of reader and character knowledge will bolster your story’s believability and suspense. Sometimes your reader will know something your hero doesn’t (yet). This helps increase tension. Other times, your point-of-view character might reveal a hidden piece of backstory through her behavior. Or maybe readers know your antagonist is one step ahead of your hero — and they’re dying to find out what happens as a result.

Mysteries present a puzzle for both the reader and the story’s hero. Pace your reveals carefully and avoid slip-ups that could cause confusion. You may even want to write everything down somewhere to keep from losing track.

Don’t forget to add contrast.

While tension is critical to your story, it shouldn’t overpower every page. A nonstop flood of intensity and drama will fatigue readers and leave them wondering where to focus their attention. Your plot needs breathing room to allow readers time to process and reflect on key events.

Consider including at least one character with no direct connection to the mystery itself. This can be a coworker, friend, spouse — anyone who interacts with your hero outside the central plot. These secondary characters and subplots allow you to show a different side of your main character. They can also provide a dose of levity if your main storyline feels too dark and heavy.

Remember that your characters should feel like real people, and real people have many facets. We occasionally laugh at funerals. Sometimes a looming disaster at work takes our mind elsewhere during a family gathering. Showing this contrast will transform your book from a story on a page into a rich, three-dimensional world.

Trust your readers.

While you want readers to understand your intentions in your book, avoid getting too heavy-handed. If you explain every important detail and steamroll over any trace of subtlety, readers have no reason to continue reading.

Give them something to think about. In a whodunnit, you should include multiple suspicious characters. Events should have more than one possible explanation. Some characters should be more trustworthy than others. In other words, trust your reader — and your writing! — and don’t make your intentions too obvious from the start. Your critique group or beta readers will let you know if anything is unclear.

Read widely in your genre.

Mystery is a well-established genre with an array of subcategories that all come with their own plot formulas and tropes. If you want your work to resonate with readers, you need to know what they expect. As you’re writing and revising your own work, read as many successful mysteries as you can. Find the common threads and try to tease out what makes a good mystery novel tick.

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About Author

Jaclyn Paul is a fiction writer and blogger based in Baltimore. You might know her from The ADHD Homestead, where she writes about building a good life and a peaceful home with adult ADHD. She's also a staff blogger for Inkitt and author of the book Order from Chaos – The Everyday Grind of Staying Organized with Adult ADHD. Her writing has appeared online in Offbeat Families, The Write Life, ADDResources, Better Novel Project, and ADHD Roller Coaster and in print in Houston Family Magazine.

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